A month ago on November 6, President Vladimir Putin sacked Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, replacing him with Sergei Shoigu, a former long-time emergency situations minister (MChS), who was only last May appointed governor of the Moscow region. Russia’s top general—the first deputy defense minister and chief of the general staff, Army General Nikolai Makarov—who was driving Serdyukov’s drastic reorganization of the military, was replaced by General Valery Gerasimov. The defense ministry is being cleansed of Serdyukov’s top appointees, with Shoigu bringing in some of his old-time colleagues from the MChS, which in Russia is a militarized institution. Meanwhile, investigators and the state-controlled press are continuing to supply the public with additional sleazy details of top-level misappropriation in the defense ministry under Serdyukov’s watch (see EDM, November 29).
Little has emerged about what changes in policy and substance the new Russian defense leadership may introduce. Shoigu was a low-level Communist Party official before 1991 with no military background. But during his almost 20 years as MChS chief, he was promoted to the rank of Army General. Shoigu retired from active service this year after becoming governor of the Moscow region. Shoigu has been reinstated into active service and last week has chaired his first official armed forces top brass meeting (the defense ministry “collegium”) dressed up in four star general splendor, complete with decorations—a sharp departure in style from Serdyukov, who was a businessman–turned–top state official. The “collegium” meeting was closed to the press, and Shoigu did not talk to reporters. However, his press secretary Darya Zatulna later announced: “The new defense ministry leadership will continue Serdyukov’s work with corrections in nuances, like better defining to the defense industry the technical details of new weapons.” It was also reported that a Defense Ministry Main Directorate of Military Training, reduced by Serdyukov in 2010, will be reinstated together with similar directorates within the branches of the military (Kommersant, November 28).
This week, General Gerasimov spoke at a traditional end-of-the-year meeting with foreign military attachés, accredited in Moscow. The outline of his presentation was carried by Russia’s official news agencies: no drastic change in the course of the reform—only some “corrections.” According to Gerasimov, the military reforms that Serdyukov and Makarov began in 2008 were ordered by Putin and must continue. Gerasimov promised that some parts of the plan to reorganize military education and introduce widespread “outsourcing”—the contracting of civilian commercial companies to provide troops with food and maintenance—will be looked into and possibly rewritten. Gerasimov announced that the draft will continue and Russian troops will in the future consist of a mix of one-year serving conscripts and contract soldiers that will “man the more important positions,” while conscripts occupy the rest. Gerasimov insisted there are no plans to increase the time of conscript service and that “one year is quite enough” to train a reserve soldier who could be called to arms in a possible future mobilization. Forming an all-volunteer armed force was never seriously considered by the general staff, stated Gerasimov, “not only because of the cost,” but primarily to continue to sustain a mass mobilization capability (RIA Novosti, December 4).
On December 5, Shoigu announced that a decision made under Serdyukov to move the Kirov Military Medical Academy from the center of St. Petersburg to the suburbs has been overturned. Plans to move the academy were reportedly unpopular in St. Petersburg and were, apparently, criticized by Putin (Interfax, December 5). This decision seems to be, at present, the most prominent strategic result of the dramatic downfall of Serdyukov in the midst of a major corruption scandal.
The new defense ministry top brass—Shoigu and Gerasimov—are treading cautiously, avoiding the press and refusing to spell out to the public any comprehensive plans of how to deal with the serious problems the Russian armed forces are experiencing. The Russian military is armed with obsolete Cold War era weapons, while its combat units are seriously undermanned because there are not enough conscripts or contract soldiers. Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the defense industry Dmitry Rogozin admits that Russia’s battle-hardened Airborne corps—the VDV—is armed with weapons only two percent of which are considered modern (RIA Novosti, November 12). Only the VDV divisions and army brigades deployed in the South Military District facing the Caucasus are manned over 90 percent with servicemen, while the rest of the army brigades are manned 60 percent or less (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 22). In 2012, less than 300,000 conscripts will be called up—about the same number as ten and eight years ago; but then, national service was two years instead of one. Plans to replace conscripts with contract soldiers have faltered: their numbers are too low, professional and moral qualities are dubious and many leave service before their three-year contracts expire (Kommersant, October 1).
It is virtually impossible to build cohesive permanent battle-ready units out of badly motivated conscripts that have served just several months and are mustered out after serving a year. Constantly mixing school-age conscripts and older ill-disciplined contract soldiers in the same units is equally detrimental to increasing morale and readiness. The former Black Sea Fleet commander Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, who is today the chairman of the Duma defense committee (Communist party faction), is promoting an increase of conscript service to 1.5 years “at least” to restore army battle readiness (Izvestya, November 22). A number of retired generals have addressed Shoigu, demanding he reverse Serdyukov’s reforms they deplore and begin to restore the old great Soviet armed forces by regularly retraining reservists to restore the mobilization potential, and increase the overall number of men at arms (Interfax, November 29).
Komoyedov’s initiative was rejected by the ruling United Russia party that controls the Duma and by the defense ministry (RIA Novosti, November 23). The decision to decrease conscript service was made by Putin and adapted into law in 2006. At that point, Serdyukov was chief of the tax service and cannot possibly be blamed for this policy. Putin is not ready to admit any mistakes, however, while Shoigu, Gerasimov and United Russia are in no position to question the supreme leader. A full reversal of Serdyukov’s reforms seems impossible: any increase of conscript service would be unpopular, while financial and population deficiencies make a massive Soviet-style military build-up unattainable.