Russian Military “New Look” Hovers In Limbo

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 206


Recent attempts by Russian officials and members of the top brass to talk up the achievements of three years of reforming the Armed Forces have produced more questions than answers. There are signs that Moscow would like to present an image of a carefully worked out and systematic plan to conduct and achieve such “reform,” which in the pre-election period now looks as far-fetched as President Dmitry Medvedev’s talk about economic “innovation.” A common theme in these statements is to highlight structural changes, downplay reversals or confusion present in the planning process and simply ignore the implications of any weaknesses.

In an extensive interview in Vzglyad on October 26, Igor Barinov the Deputy Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, reflected on the strengths and weakness of the reform of the Armed Forces launched in October 2008 under the leadership of Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov. Barinov’s opening statement read like a condemnation of the entire process, saying that little by little officers and officer traditions were lost and broken, recruitment of cadets in military schools was suspended for two years and this will “prove very difficult to correct suddenly.” Barinov outlined the main tasks of the reform, as envisaged in the fall of 2008, including the downsizing of the officer corps, restructuring the Armed Forces, developing proper non-commissioned officers and centralizing and improving the system of combat training. He highlighted the formation of the new command and control (C2) system which in his view has increased the controllability of units and subunits. From January 1, 2012 servicemen will receive a new monetary allowance, though these predominantly structural achievements had failed to take into account the specific characteristics of the military structures (Vzglyad, October 26).

Barinov also said he expected further “partial” adjustments to the C2 system. Responding to a question about whether the Armed Forces can meet the challenges of fighting three types of conflict simultaneously with a maximum of three different enemies, Barinov said the emphasis will be on establishing integrated mobile force groupings from various combat arms to respond to such a crisis. He also confirmed the under manning of the brigades, which his interviewer estimated were mostly manned at a level of 75 percent. Barinov explained this situation in military manpower within the units had resulted from the failed policy on contract personnel and in particular that this had not been made an attractive option for young Russian men (Vzglyad, October 26).

In a recent effort to support the central themes in the transformation of the Armed Forces, the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, gave an interview to Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Makarov emphasized that the nature of modern warfare has changed, which has compelled seismic shifts in how Russia’s Armed Forces are structured, equipped and trained. In his view, future wars will involve noncontact combat operations. This has displaced the need for multimillion-man forces fighting on linear fronts. Stressing the network-centric approach, which lies at the heart of this vision for the transformation and development of new capabilities, Makarov laid great emphasis on high-technology precision weaponry utilized in a unified information space and said that procurement must focus on the information component in equipment. While Makarov’s commitment to network-centric developments in the Russian military is by no means new, he was equally at pains to reassure his audience that despite this transition the tank remained a crucial element in the vision for military hardware. No-one wanted to downplay the central role of the tank. Responding to a question concerning there being only two tank brigades in the table of organization and equipment, Makarov said the General Staff was “satisfied” on the tank numbers in the Motorized Rifle Brigades. He elaborated by saying that in these brigades, the number of tank battalions is increasing from one to two using a “unique swap” of armored vehicles between structures (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 25).

While advocating new approaches to warfare, it seems that those committed to more familiar tank-centric methods are resisting such change. Equally, doubling the number of tank battalions in the Motorized Rifles Brigades reveals that the brigade-based concept itself remains a work in progress. However, in his search to offer evidence that things really are changing at a systemic level, Makarov raised the issue of combat training. The chief of the General Staff notes the dramatic impact on the formulation of new field manuals. These documents were carefully crafted and are concise as possible, with the focus on individual initiative and forcing everyone in the military to “think harder.” In the old field manuals officers were required to formulate orders for two or three levels below them, which led to a culture within which initiative and problem solving was stifled. Now the individual commanders are expected to show initiative and take responsibility, which Makarov reflected had “turned out to be very difficult” (Zvezda TV, September 12).

This uphill struggle to change military culture is also evident in officer fitness initiatives. In July, Dmitry Litovkin reported the results of this year’s officer fitness tests. Approximately 10,000 officers were tested in the General Staff, main commands of combat arms and branches and various directorates. Litovkin noted that this involved push-ups, chin-ups as well as running and swimming. Reportedly 95.6 percent met “performance standards,” while the remainder will be required to retake the test or face being discharged from service. Similar testing in the summer of 2010 resulted in removing 20 percent of the officers for lack of fitness. A fitness center has opened in the General Staff building, and Serdyukov has had another installed on the second floor of the defense ministry. While the move to change the traditional correlation between girth and career advancement has been tailored to suit an image of the “new look” it less than clear whether high standards are being set. A fitness chart featuring numerous indicators is used to plot progress, tallying how many push-ups or chin-ups are achieved, though if the chin-ups prove too straining then it can be compensated for by swimming further. In other words, there are no minimum requirements, and though possibly working up a sweat similar to a Jane Fonda workout, the fitness program for officers does not resemble a combat fitness test (

Incentivizing the fitness levels by offering bonuses of up to three times the salary level to those who achieve “athlete” status also seems to pave the way for corruption to flourish. It appears that higher standards, fostering initiative and strengthening the structures will advance at a glacial pace.