Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 18

Contrary to some earlier reports, a number of Russian sources have said in recent days that President Vladimir Putin has indeed signed off on a military reform plan designed to both restructure and reduce Russia’s troubled armed forces. Earlier ones had claimed that enduring differences within the Russian High Command–sharpened in part by George W. Bush’s accession to the U.S. presidency–had led the Russian leader to postpone a final decision on defense reform (see the Monitor, January 19).

The contradictory nature of Russian reporting on this issue suggests both that infighting over the Kremlin’s defense reform plans has remained intense and that various participants in the debate may be selectively leaking information to the press. This sort of intrigue–which is fed by an absence of reliable reporting–also underscores anew the extent to which issues related to Russian defense reform have been decided by a narrow circle of elites from within Russia’s national security establishment. In this regard, the process by which Russia is formulating its defense reform smacks of the Soviet era and highlights the still limited reach of Russia’s democratic institutions and, in particular, of its parliament.

Reports published in recent days in the Russian press have said that Putin did approve on January 16 a package of military reforms he had originally been expected to sign in December. Details of the package have not been made public, but Russian sources say that it consists of some thirty documents which not only outline in detail military development plans for the next five years, but also define broader military priorities over the next twenty years. According to some sources, Putin also approved at the same time a draft program for arming the Russian armed forces (including, apparently, plans for defense procurement and development of the defense industrial sector). What is apparently a third document, a draft concept on the Russian government’s military development policies for the period until 2010 (which is presumably based on the documents signed January 16) will reportedly be submitted for official presidential approval around June of this year (AVN, January 22).

Russian sources appear also to agree on several other pieces of information regarding the January 16 documents. In general terms, the military reform package reportedly calls for Russia’s military to be restructured into a simplified three-branch system consisting of ground, air and naval forces. The ground forces, though facing the greatest manpower cuts, are thus restored the status of a full-fledged service branch. They were stripped of that status in 1997. Russian sources appear also to agree that the Strategic Missile Troops will be stripped of two sets of assets they acquired a short two years ago: Russia’s military-space and missile-space defense forces. Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, himself a former missile forces commander, had transferred those assets to the Strategic Missile Troops as a cost-cutting measure. They will apparently now be resubordinated to the Russian General Staff.

Russian reports say that Putin also approved a series of defense cuts first mooted last year. According to several sources, the looming reductions will see the armed forces shed some 365,000 uniformed personnel over the next several years, along with another reduction of some 100,000 jobs from among civilians working for the military. According to other sources, if troops subordinated to Russia’s various security organizations are also included, then the total size of the defense establishment–including civilian workers–is to fall from approximately 3.1 million to about 2.5 million people.

Russian reports tend to differ, however, regarding the more general future of the Strategic Missile Command. According to some reports, General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin emerged the victor in this regard. He ignited a firestorm of controversy this past summer when he submitted a draft military reform plan drawn up by the General Staff which called for rapid reductions in the size of Russia’s strategic missile forces and their absorption into the Russian Air Force. In line with this, his plan also called for the shifting of priority funding from the strategic missile troops to Russia’s conventional forces. Izvestia suggested on January 23 that Kvashnin had gotten much of what he wanted in this area. It reported that the Strategic Missile Troops will lose their status as an independent service branch and will ultimately be taken over by the Air Force., the Kremlin-connected news site, was more specific. It said that the Strategic Missile troops would be downgraded from a service branch to a service “arm” (a lesser designation), and would be absorbed by the Air Force in 2006.

But and other sources suggested that the battle over the fate of Russia’s strategic missile forces may not yet have been resolved. Indeed, the news site claimed that continuing sharp disagreements over strategic nuclear policy had been one of two reasons why Putin was a month late in signing the military reform package. Those disagreements were reportedly related in large part to the inauguration of U.S. President George W. Bush and to the public commitments made by members of his administration that the United States will deploy a national missile defense system. and other sources suggested that, under such circumstances, the Kremlin may foresee the need to strengthen rather than reduce the role of Russia’s strategic missile forces. Indeed, quoted unnamed “military experts” as saying that Russia might also choose to double its defense budget (from approximately 2.5 percent of GDP to 5 percent of GDP) if the United States indeed exits from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by going forward with missile defense.

According to, the second reason for the long delay in Putin’s approval of the military reform package was an ongoing battle between officials on the Russian Security Council (which has been given responsibility for drawing up a military reform plan) and General Staffers over the relative roles of the General Staff and the Defense Ministry. Kvashnin and others have argued that Russia’s military reform program should strengthen the command authority of the General Staff over Russia’s military forces while reducing the Defense Ministry’s role to one essentially of training, arming and administering the troops.

According to, that disagreement has still not been resolved. Indeed, if Russian Duma Defense Committee chief Andrei Nikolaev is to be believed, Putin’s January 16 decision to sign the military reform package nevertheless left a number of key defense questions unanswered. Without providing details, the retired Russian army general suggested that Kvashnin in fact had been rebuffed on a number of points–including the fate of the Strategic Missile Troops (Kommersant, January 18; Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 19; AVN, January 22, 25; Izvestia, January 23, 26;, January 19, 22).

All of this suggests that, approximately five months after the Kursk disaster and the launching of a major Kremlin push to finalize the details of a military reform program, key questions about the future of Russia’s armed forces may remain unanswered. Indeed, some in Moscow have questioned whether the impending reforms will in fact ultimately constitute a radical restructuring of the Russian military, and whether they will adequately address the country’s evolving security needs. In a commentary published on January 23, for example, the Russian daily Izvestia suggested that the military reform plan appears to have been shaped more by the political ambitions of some military commanders than by the country’s defense requirements. The Russian military expert Pavel Felgenhauer has similarly argued that there is as yet no reason to believe that Putin’s current reorganization of the armed forces will prove any more effective or meaningful than the failed defense restructurings launched by his successor, Boris Yeltsin (Izvestia, January 23; Moskovsky novostei, January 2).