Russian Military Reform Drowns in a Sea of Nostalgia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 26

Army-General (retired) Makhmut Gareev (Source:

Since the appointment of Sergei Shoigu as the Russian defense minister in November 2012, the conceptual basis for the reform of the Armed Forces, so closely associated with his predecessor Anatoly Serdyukov, has gradually ebbed away. Leading defense theorists and policymakers offer high doses of military nostalgia, but struggle to conceal the death of the “new look” reform (see EDM, February 5).

Army-General (retired) Makhmut Gareev, the president of the Academy of Military Science and Russia’s leading military theorist, used the opportunity of his speech to the academy in January 2013 to blast key features of the Serdyukov reform. Gareev told his audience the law on defense will be supplemented by Article 21, which will allow a new “defense plan” to be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. Whereas, Article 22 of the law on defense defines “territorial defense,” specifying the activities at federal and regional levels during war and emergency situations. Gareev sees this as a major step forward in strategic defense planning. However, on the “achievements” of the reform during 2008–2012, Gareev questioned the move to abolish the Ground Forces’ divisions and replace them with brigades; in his opinion, this has left such new units “2.5–3-fold” weaker than the pre-reform divisions. Yet, in his theater-specific critique, he was even more damning, stating that in the event of a “large-scale” war in the “East” the creation of Motorized Rifle and Tank “Divisions,” as well as reserve components, would become necessary. Gareev could only have had in mind a conventional war with China, but his comments indicate that he does not believe in the viability of the “new look” brigades, or their utility in the Russian Far East, while also adhering to a “reserve” component that is not properly trained and maintained (see EDM, February 5).

Gareev’s constant references to Soviet military experience during the Great Patriotic War, and the utility of lessons drawn from that era for the remodeling of the modern Armed Forces confirm him as an outstanding Soviet patriot and theorist; he struggles to understand the significance of adapting conventional forces to suit the challenges of the information era. Yet, Gareev remains very influential within Russian defense and security circles. The presence of Defense Minister Army-General Sergei Shoigu during his speech to the academy attests to the return of nostalgia as the comfort bunny for a defense establishment bereft of fresh and innovative ideas (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 1).

Gareev reviewed a recent book by Anatoliy Tsyganok (US and NATO Intervention in Libya and its Implications for Syria, Iran, the Caucasus: the Russian View). Gareev notes that Tsyganok wants to overhaul modern theory on the use of airpower, the Navy and Special Operations Forces centered upon the adoption of “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) capabilities. While this is rooted in the analysis offered on Western operations over Libya, Gareev’s failure to comment on Tsyganok’s views is deafening (Voenno Promyshlennyi Kuryer, February 6).

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, responsible for the defense industrial sector, pours his own unique and bombastic views from this old Russian Samovar. Rogozin, despite his post and knowledge of how desperately unreformed the domestic defense industry remains, attempts to portray it as having a potentially bright future—one making it the “locomotive” for the entire economy. His Potemkin Village dreams for the domestic defense industry are unsupported by state efforts to reform these slumbering hotbeds of corruption, and his comment that it is “wise” to keep tanks, flies in the face of any consistent effort to adopt C4ISR approaches (Voenno Promyshlennyi Kuryer, February 6). Nevertheless, the fact that Rogozin is already talking about the State Armament Program (gosudarstvennaya programma vooruzheniya—GPV) 2016–2025 is not a sign that he harbors real confidence in the potential success of the present GPV (

The Moscow-based military analyst Aleksandr Golts notes the numerous small steps taken by Shoigu since his appointment to either re-examine or even question the “Serdyukov” reform, with many of these serving to undo elements of what was implemented during the past four years. These include returning the Main Combat Training Directorate to the General Staff, which may undermine the authority of the Military District commanders, or reversing cuts affecting the military education system. This list of reconsiderations and reversals grows on a daily basis, as does the burgeoning corruption scandal surrounding Oboronservis and the disgraced Serdyukov. Yet, the underlying message contained in these small steps is that much of what Serdyukov did can now be openly questioned and, more importantly, reversed. This is good news for all those officers opposed to the reform, or simply ambivalent to its glamorous aims (Ogonek, January 14).

Even the most obvious achievements of the Serdyukov era are being rehashed to erase the memory of the disgraced minister. It was widely known, for instance, that the reform of the military district system into four enlarged districts to function as joint strategic commands during combat operations had been actively supported and advanced by the former Chief of the General Staff Army-General Yuriy Baluyevskiy, while he remained in his post. Now the narrative has Baluyevskiy and presidential chief of staff Sergei Ivanov advancing this reform and even conceiving its timescale for implementation by December 2010. It seems that Serdyukov’s greatest “advances” during his tenure were really the work and ideas of others, according to this perspective. The brigade-based structure, so closely associated with the reform, is also torn apart by retired officers who claim, for instance, that the 29th Army in Chita (Zabaykalsky Krai) only has one functional brigade (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye,, January 30).

The advocates of pursuing C4ISR and network-centric approaches to modern combat operations are now largely notable by their absence. In their place are figures such as Baluyevskiy, Gareev and Rogozin—only the latter holds a current defense-linked post. These figures have differing views but unite around the soothing comfort of “the good old days.” This is no genuine replacement for the displaced reform. The state needed to disassociate the controversial nature of that reform from the hated figure of Serdyukov; but instead seems to be gradually dumping much of the conceptual framework linked with the former minister. Previous reform efforts ran aground on various rocks, such as institutional inertia or conflict between the General Staff and the defense ministry. Whereas the “new look” has died in the arms of a defense industry incapable of delivering C4ISR to match its high rhetoric.