Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 212

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to downsize and restructure the country’s armed forces appeared to move forward last week, but announcements on the subject made after a key meeting of the Russian Security Council on November 9 appeared to raise as many questions as they answered. The Security Council, an increasingly influential presidential advisory body and headed by one of Putin’s close associates, Sergei Ivanov, apparently gave official approval to a military restructuring plan which aims to reduce the size of Russia’s military establishment by some 600,000 over the next several years. The council’s recommendations will now go to the Kremlin, where it is expected that Putin will formally approve them. The November 9 council meeting followed up on the September 27 session, during which the same defense reform issues were discussed. Opposition to the restructuring plan was said to have been so intense, however, that the council leadership was forced to put off making final decisions until last week’s meeting (see the Monitor, September 29).

Military reform has in fact been a hot topic in Russia since a very public row broke out this past summer between the country’s two top uniformed officials–Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin. The main contours of that debate, however, which revolved around a competition for resources between Russia’s strategic and conventional forces, were swept aside by the recriminations which followed the sinking of the submarine Kursk on August 12. The navy’s ineptitude on that occasion outraged the Russian public and drove the Kremlin to consider a considerably more far-reaching shake-up of the armed forces. By the time of the September 27 Security Council meeting, key Kremlin and council officials had made public their proposals to cut the regular armed forces by some 350,000 troops and to bring total reductions up to approximately 600,000 through parallel cuts in the troops of the country’s security agencies and in civilian personnel within defense and security structures.

Indeed, while the plans to cut the regular armed forces undoubtedly generated opposition within the military leadership, some reports out of Moscow suggested that the September 27 Security Council meeting was, in fact, scuttled not by anger in the Defense Ministry but rather by objections from leaders of Russia’s eleven security structures. That same view appeared to be supported in several Russian reports of the November 9 meeting. They suggested that last week’s session had actually focused its attention primarily on overcoming the objections of three of those agencies: the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD), the Federal Border Service (FPS) and the Emergency Situations Ministry. Some reports intimated that leaders of Russia’s demoralized regular army had in fact thrown in the towel and weakly acquiesced to Putin’s planned reductions.

Whether that is true or not, the few figures made available following the November 9 meeting largely replicated those released in September and made it clear that the brunt of the upcoming reductions will fall on the regular armed forces. According to Vladimir Potapov, one of the Security Council’s deputy secretaries, some 365,000 of the 1.2 million troops now subordinated to the Defense Ministry–more than 30 percent–will be cut over the next five years. Among the roughly 1 million troops now subordinated to the country’s security ministries, by contrast, only 105,000–roughly 10 percent–will be axed. At the same, some 130,000 civilian employees of the defense and security structures–out of a total of about one million–will lose their jobs. Of the uniformed personnel to be eliminated, some 240,000 will be officers, according to Russian reports, including 380 generals.

But reports of the November 9 Security Council meeting were perhaps more notable for the information they did not contain. In September, reports had said that the Ground Forces were slated to take the biggest hit–losing 180,000 men–while the navy would shed 50,000 and the air force 40,000. Reports following the November 9 meeting did not say whether this distribution of cuts had been finalized and approved, however. It was likewise unclear what the distribution of reductions among the security ministries is to be and whether they had been finalized. Perhaps more importantly, reports contained no information regarding how–or whether–the armed forces and security structures are to be restructured. That is, the Kremlin has itself criticized earlier Defense Ministry moves to cut military personnel without simultaneously streamlining the armed forces’ administrative and operational structures. That practice has led some Western and Russian experts to complain that the contemporary Russian army is nothing more than a smaller version of the top-heavy, bloated and inefficient Soviet army which preceded it. Putin and Security Council officials presumably intend to ensure that their reforms do not replicate this earlier effort, but they have as of yet provided no real details as to how they intend to accomplish this task.

This vagueness may of course be deliberate. As long as Russian political leaders do not spell out the details of their planned reductions, they can perhaps avoid generating opposition within the most heavily targeted specific military or security agencies. But that only puts off the inevitable. It also raises the possibility that the Kremlin will fail to launch the fundamental rethinking of Russian military doctrine and security policy–based on a realistic assessment of both the threats that face Russia and the country’s economic capacities–which should form the basis of any viable military restructuring plan. As it is, Security Council officials suggested last week that, under the current reductions plan, the Russian army would be incapable for the next ten years of waging a large-scale conventional war. What is unclear is whether the Kremlin has devised interim plans–plans it is capable of selling to the military leadership–which will ensure the ability of Russian forces, at the least, to maintain a reliably controlled nuclear deterrent and to successfully carry out smaller scale conventional conflicts like the one in Chechnya and like those likely to arise on Moscow’s southern border (New York Times, AP, CNN, BBC, November 9; Izvestia, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vremya novostei, Vremya MN, Reuters, November 10).