Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 192

On October 1 an article appeared in the Russian newspaper Moskovskiy Komsomolets, which appeared to delineate a controversy within Russia’s General Staff about forthcoming cuts planned to reduce its overall size. Yet, for those with an understanding of the huge importance of the General Staff within Soviet and Russian military traditions, there are far greater implications than simply the numerical controversy. Behind the number crunching is the recognition that the General Staff in effect represents the “brain” of the Russian army. The most serious objections to these proposed cuts suggest that the General Staff was caught unawares by the outbreak of the conflict in Georgia in August, which undermines the Western analysis to date of the origin and ignition of that critical conflict.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) has started a massive reorganization of the General Staff, scheduled for completion by March 1, 2009. At the direction of Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, the General Staff’s main directorates and services will be cut in order to optimize them, and the total number of reductions is likely to be around 40 percent. This will be carried out throughout the main directorates, including such important ones as the Main Directorate for Operations (GOU), the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), and the Main Organization and Mobilization Directorate (GOMU).

Deputy Chief of General Staff and Chief of the GOMU Colonel-General Vasiliy Smirnov called these rumors about the reduction of the General Staff “foolishness.” But other Generals are resigned to variable cuts that may constitute the reported figure of 40 percent across the General Staff. Those voicing opposition to such reforms argue against the inflated nature of the structure and dismiss the assertion that it currently duplicates the functions of the main commands of the branches of the armed forces and the directorates of their commanders. Similarly, there is widespread disagreement over exactly how these reductions should be implemented.

Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, believes that the plan approved by President Dmitry Medvedev on July 21 could potentially destroy the army, eliminating up to 200,000 officers. In particular, Ivashov challenged the idea that the optimization of the General Staff would improve the combat capabilities of the Russian Army. “Take August 8, for example, when the Georgian Army attacked our peacekeeping battalion in South Ossetia. For two to three days command and control on the part of the General Staff was essentially absent. Why? First, the chief of General Staff was new, and his right hand, the chief of GOU of the General Staff, had been dismissed and no replacement had been found. On August 8 the General Staff was in the process of moving to a new location. The officers and generals were loading their property, maps, and documents onto KamAZ trucks and essentially did not control the situation,” Ivashov claimed (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, October 1).

On the other hand, Colonel Vitaliy Shlykov, chairman of the Commission for Security Policy and Analysis of Military Legislation of the Public Council under the Defense Ministry, is of the opposite opinion. He describes the benefits of moving responsibilities and tasks performed by the General Staff to the MoD, including subordinating the GRU to the MoD instead of the General Staff, thereby improving the effectiveness of the General Staff. Shlykov argued:

“It should be an analytical-planning body and not be involved in purely organizational work. In addition, the observation of secrecy is not a General Staff matter. Everything that distracts it from planning, analysis, and brain work should be taken from it. In no case, of course, should it be eliminated, however, since these are all useful functions. Historically, they have simply been in the wrong place in light of the fact that for a long time, starting back in Soviet times, the General Staff was ‘our all’” (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, October 1).

Shlykov and Ivashov may have their differing views on these matters, but they are in complete agreement that the General Staff is the body that does and should focus on “planning, analysis, and brain work.” Shlykov does not dispute Ivashov’s assertion that the General Staff was caught off guard by the start of the conflict in Georgia: what is shocking is that for Russia to have come anywhere near a premeditated war of aggression against its southern neighbor, the “brain” would have been tasked with the planning and execution of the operation, not caught by surprise by the initial events over the first two to three days.

As the Russian armed forces adjust to the implications of the conflict in August, there are early signs of its impact on the priorities for upgrading and procuring military equipment. Colonel-General Vladimir Popovkin, chief of armaments and deputy minister of defense, suggested that those events have forced a rethinking about how the Russian armed forces will develop in the future. “Naturally the state defense order is being adjusted, and for two reasons. On the one hand, in light of the experience of the operation to compel Georgia to make peace. On the other, in light of the results [of the modernization and procurement from the state budget program] achieved last year,” Popovkin observed (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 2).

The main challenge relates to modernizing existing equipment, while also introducing new equipment; and here Moscow is keen to take advantage of the experience of other armies that have tackled similar issues. “As for studying other countries’ experience of modernizing Soviet and Russian equipment, from trophies captured from the Georgian army we have familiarized ourselves closely with what has been done in Ukraine and the Czech Republic. What we have seen there is of no interest to us,” Popovkin said. So, in Moscow’s view, simply adding Western equipment to the force inventory, as in Georgia, does not equate with successfully improving combat capabilities (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 2).