Russia’s New Model Army: “Mobilization Reserves”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 32

A key feature in the reform of Russia’s conventional armed forces was the concept of “permanent readiness,” built around forming permanently combat ready brigades, fully manned, and jettisoning the old cadre or skeleton units. On February 10, the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, stated that Russia has “180 brigades for mobilization purposes.” These are located within the military districts (MD’s) and combat equipment and personnel are planned for these structures. Setting aside the issue as to what type of war the General Staff envisages to necessitate mobilizing 180 brigades, observers were puzzled by the figure of 180. Even if Makarov was including other armed formations (such as border troops, etc) at least a proportion of the 85 permanent readiness brigades in the armed forces were factored into his calculation (Interfax-AVN, February 10).

Of course, Makarov was also referring to the related issue of reservists, and plans to form a “new” type of “mobilization reserve,” to support existing capabilities. The Duma is currently considering a draft law “On Inaugurating Changes in Separate Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation for Questions of Creating an Active Manpower Reserve,” which will also cover the interior troops and other federal bodies. Some reports indicate the future system will draw upon US experience, though the defense ministry stresses that this is only one element in its overall plans. According to Krasnaya Zvezda, an experiment will be conducted later in 2011 to mobilize an entire brigade from the reserve (Krasnaya Zvezda, December 29, 2010).

The bill itself focuses on the voluntary entry of reservists into a reserve army (rezervnoye voysko). Commanding officers would invite a conscript, prior to discharge, to sign a contract to return to the unit when required as part of a reserve army. The defense ministry would pay the reservists a modest monthly sum, experts suggested it will not exceed 8,000 to 10,000 rubles, and this like the term of the contract would depend on their military specialism and qualifications. These reservists would be retrained once each year. The General Staff would like rotationally trained reserve specialists to be used at military storage facilities, rather than assigning regular soldiers. Reservists may also be used in clear-up operations after an industrial or natural disaster (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 27). Such plans also betray long-term commitment to conscription as the basis of military manpower.

The defense ministry had sought to develop two separate laws on organizing army service and training a mobilization reserve, which may have reflected the aspirations of the General Staff to separate conscription issues and service issues (razvesti prizyvnyye i sluzhebnyye voprosy). Nonetheless, the bill was presented for consideration as a single draft law (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 28, 2010).

Resources have been earmarked in the defense budget for 2011, to increase spending on mobilization and training personnel outside the regular armed forces from 4.6 billion rubles ($1.57 million) to 6.7 billion rubles ($229 million) year-on-year. Many commentators regard this as insufficient; especially considering that part of the money is used to fund the DOSAAF (Voluntary Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation and Fleet). One estimate by a retired senior officer with experience in training the reserves indicates that forming a motorized rifle brigade using only reservists would require a minimum of 1 billion to 2 billion rubles annually (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 26).

If reservists are trained in downsized units, then it would confirm the preservation of some cadre units, despite the reform. The question of who conducts their training is equally important, since if this will be carried out by officers drawn from regular units it will further burden the officer corps. If the officers are serving as reservists, the quality of the training will prove to be low. For the reserve to function properly it would demand thoroughly revising the system of training. Equally, some Duma deputies advocate following the reserve model used in Belarus. In the Belarusian system men of draft age can offer reasons for being unable to complete conscript military service, and after passing a medical exam they are instead assigned to the reserve. During the following period (up to three years, depending on education and standard of military training) the reservist returns to an army unit for training in a military occupational specialism. The following stage involves spending a lengthy period in the reserve with periodic retraining in military assemblies (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 28, 2010). The distinction, however, is that unlike in Belarus, Russian conscripts are a rare commodity. This latest initiative, given that conscripts are the main pool for recruiting contract personnel, will introduce a potentially conflicting alternative.

Critics argue that there is nothing essentially new contained in the draft legislation. In the Soviet era, reservists were often less than totally combat-effective, with cases of their annual active duty training descending into a month-long drunken stupor. In western militaries paying and properly training the reserves, assigning officers from the regular armed forces to the process and ensuring that they ingrate well with regulars during operations is tremendously challenging. In Russia, the formerly pronounced emphasis on “permanent readiness” brigades, suggests that resources for mobilization might be scarce (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, January 27).

On February 10, an event organized by the National Association of Reserve Officers, met in Moscow with the defense ministry and its public council representatives. General Makarov was among more than 500 delegates in attendance. The event began with a speech by one delegate praising the Soviet Army, and later Major-General Yury Dakshin stated that everyone in the armed forces is happy with the reform, which resulted in heckling from the audience, shouting: “No need to lie, come down from the podium.” Makarov then read aloud a short pre-prepared speech and left the hall without taking questions (Komsomolskaya Pravda, February 10). Makarov’s reference to 180 brigades for mobilization may have been an attempt to rebuff such criticism.

The draft legislation on a mobilization reserve and planned experiment in forming a brigade from the reserve confirms the persistence of “mobilization” in Russian military thinking. The “permanent readiness” brigades are such only notionally with many in reality being undermanned. Measures to correct mistakes made during the reform conducted since 2008, including resetting the target for the number of officers to 220,000, denote more than simply a departure from its main themes: the reform is now transmuting into a mixture of old and new.