On January 26, the Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov announced an apparently routine measure to strengthen the Southern Military District by stationing additional Special Forces elements in Stavropol and Kislovodsk. GRU Spetsnaz (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye – GRU, Voyska spetsialnogo naznacheniya – Spetsnaz), the prestigious Special Forces under the General Staff’s military intelligence directorate, being located in these cities do not appear to result from a shift in the threat assessment. A defense ministry source indicated that Serdyukov had also issued a corresponding order to the General Staff to study the structure and procurement needs for these forces (Interfax, January 26). The roots of such measures must be traced to the wider reorganization of the GRU and changes affecting Spetsnaz since the drive to reform the Armed Forces was initiated in late 2008.
On December 22, 2011, Colonel-General Aleksandr Shlyakhaturov was reportedly released from his duties as the Chief of the GRU and officially replaced four days later by the 52 year-old Major-General Igor Sergun. Izvestiya’s sources suggested this decision had been taken in September 2011. The defense ministry’s official reason for dismissing Shlyakhaturov was his age, 64, the “maximum age for military service” (Interfax, December 26, 2011).
Shlyakhaturov had lasted two and a half years in his post, after replacing Army-General Valentin Korabelnikov – widely reported as being resistant to the reform plans for the GRU. During Shlyakhaturov’s tenure as the head of GRU, large-scale cuts occurred in the service, including eliminating three brigades and subordinating the remaining brigades to the commanders of the military districts. In October 2010, retired GRU officers told Jamestown that not only were the reform plans for GRU causing concern, but questions were being raised about the manner in which Serdyukov was implementing such initiatives.
Moreover, structural reorganization and changes in the GRU’s leadership is sharply criticized by Russian military analysts, such as the head of the Center for Military Forecasting, Anatoliy Tsyganok, who believes that this may damage military intelligence: “In the first place, the new chief must have a good understanding of the situation in all aspects of operations, not only concerning the US, but in Latin America and in the Middle East as well. And in the second place he must know the locations of the intelligence stations (rezidentura) and their strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, a change in the leadership of GRU is always an unpleasant event. And now, following all of these reforms, this is especially true.” Tsyganok referred to the need for the new chief of GRU to protect the agency from “the mindless rotations of the officer cadre,” to which he considers military intelligence officers should never be subjected (Izvestiya, January 2).
The sense in which GRU has been shaken by organizational changes during the past three years was reinforced by President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to GRU headquarters on January 19. Accompanied by Serdyukov and the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, Medvedev ostensibly visited the GRU in order to decorate senior officers. Medvedev praised the professionalism of the agency, but stressed that, due to the changing world, situation adjustments are required in intelligence priorities as well as its methods. Medvedev explained: “Consequently, a reorganization of the entire system of military intelligence has also occurred. These changes have been introduced. The results of the recent past show that the GRU is successfully coping with its established missions. And on the whole military intelligence is performing professionally and effectively. Of course, we need to increase the operational potential of the service, and its information potential, and its analytical potential” (https://news.kremlin.ru/video/1083, https://kremlin.ru/news/14329, January 19). His call to enhance the analytical side of its work suggests that the reformed GRU may be stronger in intelligence collection rather than analysis.
While the reorganization of the system of military intelligence has occurred, its impact on the Special Forces is particularly acute in terms of its manpower structure. On November 17, 2011, a large-scale counter-terrorist exercise was held on the base of the 16th Spetsnaz brigade in Tambov Region. Spetsnaz rehearsed counter-terrorist operations with forces drawn from the power ministries including the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB). The report on Rossiya 24 emphasized that GRU Spetsnaz officers are well trained and have extensive combat experience, while the exercise culminated in storming a building to free hostages (Rossiya 24, November 17, 2011).
However, on November 5, 2011, the Commander of the 16th Spetsnaz Brigade, Colonel Konstantin Bushuyev, provided a lengthy interview on Echo Moskvy in which he praised the professionalism of the brigade and stressed that combat training had intensified. Bushuyev stated that night classes are held for 50 percent of the training time. Nonetheless, in response to a question about the ratio of contract to conscript personnel in the brigade, the commander explained that the kontraktniki accounted for only 30 percent of the total manpower. In the longer term he said the brigade would like to reverse this ratio and become less reliant upon conscripts. Commenting on the problem plaguing the Armed Forces generally and specifically in Spetsnaz the commander said that conscripts serving for one year cannot be used in combat operations, and this recognition was the underlying reason behind deciding to set a 70 percent target for contract personnel and eventually reach “100 percent.” Meanwhile, some experiments are being conducted in the 16th Spetsnaz brigade, including forming subunits exclusively manned by kontraktniki (Ekho Moskvy, November 5, 2011). Bushuyev’s portrayal of the manning issues in the 16th Spetsnaz brigade suggests that achieving higher readiness levels remains a work in progress, while the experiments with forming contract personnel-manned subunits may well indicate that movement of such personnel within these units and the Ground Forces brigades would precede combat operations.
Although Russian military intelligence has experienced organizational transformation, deeper challenges still lie ahead. Spetsnaz certainly demands a higher ratio of contract personnel, which will take time to recruit and train properly. The subordination of Spetsnaz to the commander of the joint strategic command during combat operations also suggests that the General Staff regards Special Forces only as part of the wider tool kit at the commander’s disposal. Medvedev questioning, however obliquely, the operational and analytical potential of GRU has important implications for the General Staff’s capability to present the political leadership with realistic threat assessments, but if such weaknesses are intuitional then the agency can anticipate a protracted period of further reform.