Several statements and interviews from Russia’s military top brass, especially marking the fifth anniversary of the appointment of Sergei Shoigu as minister of defense in November 2012, note the effort to reintroduce a number of divisions to the order of battle (OOB). These structural-level changes appear to mark a departure from Anatoly Serdyukov’s (defense minister in 2007–2012) reforms to move the OOB to a brigade-based model. The reappearance of divisions in the Ground Forces has also been interpreted as a sign that the General Staff is preparing to conduct “large-scale” warfare against a conventional enemy. This interpretation seems to fit with the idea that the Russian military is preoccupied with confronting a threat from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, some of the details around the move to reintroduce divisions to the OOB, as well as the locations of these formations, point to Moscow preparing for long-term conflict in Ukraine, replete with a range of escalation options (see EDM, March 6, 2018; TASS, December 22, 2017).
In an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda, the commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces, Colonel General Oleg Salyukov, touched on the underlying thinking involved in these changes. He noted that during Shoigu’s leadership, a number of combined-arms brigades were reorganized into divisions. Salyukov referred to seven divisions across three military districts, before noting that these can increase firepower and strike over a broader front. Salyukov denied any intention to move entirely away from a mainly brigade-based OOB (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 7).
Among these seven recreated divisions, four are located in the Western Military District (MD): the 2nd (Taman) Motorized Rifle Division—Kalininets, the 4th (Kantemir) Tank Division—Naro-Fominsk, the 3rd Motorized Rifle Division—Valyuki, and the 144th Motorized Rifle Division—Klintsy. Two are in the Southern MD and one in the Central MD: the 150th Motorized Rifle Division—Kadamovskiy and the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division—Khankala (Southern MD), as well as the 90th Tank Division—Chebarkul (Central MD). Two more divisions are under construction in the Southern MD, scheduled for completion by the end of 2018; therefore, the overall plan for the reformed divisions is four deployed in each of the Western and Southern MDs, with one in the Central MD (see EDM, January 9, 2018; April 25, 2017).
Salyukov explained that the divisions provide important experience for commanders in controlling larger formations, while the brigades afford a level of mobility. Although he made no mention of the battalion tactical groups that now feature as a permanent set of structures in the Ground Forces’ OOB, Salyukov described this mix of divisions and brigades as a “balanced groups of forces” (sbalansirovannyye gruppirovki voysk). This concept appears to encapsulate a more balanced approach to force structure than the defense ministry pursued during the reforms of 2008–2012. While there was much dispute in the General Staff concerning the utility of “heavy” combined-arms brigades, with efforts to remodel the organic brigade structures to allow for more firepower, the reintroduction of a small number of divisions seems to address this perceived deficiency. It also facilitates improved command and control of large force groupings, drawing upon lessons from the periods of the force buildup of troops close to Ukraine (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 7).
Salyukov consistently places these changes in the context of defense modernization and stresses an increasing reliance upon high-precision weaponry and other advanced systems. Like his top brass colleagues, Salyukov is impressed by the results of testing such systems in Syria, and the political leadership supports the wider introduction of such systems in the future. Indeed, the senior leadership of Russia’s Armed Forces expresses growing confidence in the military manpower, with sufficient numbers of contract personnel entering service and being retained, coupled with modernizing the inventory and increased interest in the high-precision dimension of rearmament (TASS, December 22, 2017; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 7, 2017).
The wider introduction of high-precision weapons, such as cruise missile systems, demonstrated and tested in Syria, transcends the Ground Forces, representing a deeper policy to boost the volume of such assets throughout the military as part of the integration of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Rooted in the experience of the operations in Syria, it is certain that the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) will greatly benefit. Unsurprisingly, therefore, following President Vladimir Putin’s speech on March 1, holding out the promise of future “super weapons,” the VKS recently trialed a new advanced hypersonic missile—the Kinzhal (“Dagger”). Although no official designation has been provided for the missile, it is referred to as the KH-47M2 Kinzhal, with the defense ministry releasing footage of its firing from a MiG-31DZ; the missile system is being tested in the Southern MD. The Kinzhal is a hypersonic missile traveling at Mach-10 and above, with low radar visibility, high maneuverability and built-in evasive measures, and a range of up to 2,000 kilometers. It is promoted as having no counterpart anywhere in the world, with the boast that it can overcome any adversary’s missile defense (Tvzvezda.ru, Aif.ru, March 11; Izvestia, March 10).
While these are offered as examples of tremendous breakthroughs in technology, the development of such systems often lies in Soviet military theory and procurement plans. The history of the Kinzhal system draws on developments occurring in the US Air Force in the 1950s and the Soviet interest in matching or countering such capabilities. What has changed is that Moscow is now actively investing in such projects and thus, even if the approaches are “old,” their procurement in the future fits with the drive toward greater range and high-precision conventional strike capability (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, March 13).
While the top brass will welcome the introduction of a broader and more diverse range of high-precision strike systems, it is the more prosaic changes in the force structure, coupled with nuanced concepts in the application of combat power, that help boost Russian military capability. Thus, Salyukov’s phrase “balanced groups of forces” (sbalansirovannyye gruppirovki voysk), should be noted, as well as how Russian military thinkers envisage the deployment of such forces across a wider “front.” These structural changes were drawn from the need to address weaknesses in the OOB, resulting from the hurried reforms of 2008 as well as lessons from the experience of assembling larger force groupings close to the border with Ukraine. Beyond the Ukraine conflict, such developments, complimented by modernization and shifts in operational tactics, will place a wider set of military options at the Kremlin’s disposal, making recourse to military power more palatable in a variety of situations, not least for coercive purposes.