Strategic Confusion: Russia’s Perpetual Brigade Reform

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 71

Russia’s rapid transition in the initial phase of reforming its conventional armed forces from a division-centric to a brigade-centric structure set the target of forming “85 permanent readiness” brigades. On March 26, the Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov, admitted that the reform was launched without the necessary underpinning of military scientific research, reflecting the overall weakness of Russian military science. Consequently, moving away from earlier reform efforts that were based around limited trials, the latest reform became a large-scale unscientific experiment lacking detailed planning. The reformers took to the road assuming the route did not matter, while determining the final destination later; no more evident than in the numbers and structuring of the “new look” brigades (EDM, April 5, 6).

In a two-part article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, Alexei Arbatov, the Head of the Russian Academy of Sciences Center for International Security, examined Russia’s foreign and defense policies highlighting their inherently conflicting priorities. Although Arbatov focused mostly on the nuclear aspects of defense policy, his observations concerning the Ground Forces’ brigades exposed further underlying problems in defense planning. Arbatov described the numbers and strategic posture of the Ground Forces’ brigades in the context of the new joint strategic commands (OSK’s). In his view, West and South OSK’s deploy 30 brigades, Center OSK 20 brigades (excluding bases in Central Asia) and East OSK 14 brigades, advancing the concept that major regional conflicts with NATO remains the priority, with less brigades required for possible local conflicts in Central Asia and fewer still for a regional war in the Far East (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer,, April 6). Arbatov claimed the total number of brigades is 64, or 21 short of the original target in 2009.

The figure of “85” brigades has long lost its relevance, only serving as an early target, which was not quite reached. However, in the Potemkin’s village of statements by the top brass, confusion is paramount. In February, Makarov’s attempt to answer the critics of the reform on the issue of the possible diminution of the mobilization potential, centered on claiming that Russia could deploy up to 180 brigades.  However he ignored the seemingly small details of the Russian state’s ability of to either equip or fully man these brigades. On March 15, Colonel-General Alexander Postnikov the Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of the Ground Forces, told the Federation Council Defense and Security Committee that by 2020 there would be 109 brigades (Interfax, February 10, March 15).

The fantasy figures of 180 and 109, which are mysteriously calculated, may represent a clumsy political effort to placate reform critics with numbers aimed at offering reassurance on mobilization. During the current training year, the defense ministry plans to mobilize an entire brigade from the reserve, most likely during the operational-strategic exercise Tsentr 2011, confirming that at least some attention is being paid to the issue. However, on the actual numbers of Ground Forces’ brigades, Postnikov stated there are now 70, rather than Arbatov’s figure of 64. The CINC of the Ground Forces explained that more brigades will be formed annually. On the restructuring of the basic brigade concept, he added that these would be light, medium and heavy. Postnikov also told the same Federation Council Committee that a total of 47 brigades will formed on the principle of “future type” with 42 based on Russian territory.  However, he did not define this term. It is likely that these brigades are the focus of the modernization (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 16).

Arbatov argued that Russia’s military priorities do not correspond to the ambiguous multifaceted nature of the country’s foreign policy and suggested that contradictions in defense policy are even intensified by the current reform and modernization efforts. This stems from the “weakness and purely formal character of the political monitoring of military policy in the country’s reform. Rational methods of evaluating the proposals of interested departments and corporations are absent. The mechanisms for the development of doctrinal, budgetary, programmatic and military-tactical decisions are out of alignment,” according to Arbatov (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 6). Until this is corrected, foreign and defense policies will remain ineffectual.

Nonetheless, in the absence of thorough scientific research, the reform is open to widely differing interpretations. If the posture of the Ground Forces’ brigades in West and South OSK’s is geared toward regional conflict with NATO then the “new look” is void of any meaning. Moreover, the basic brigade concept has changed since the reform began, mainly due to discovering weaknesses as the brigades were being tested during operational-strategic exercises. The brigade structure first resembled smaller divisions, which were slow to relocate and lacked mobility during exercises and hence the switch to three basic types. Arbatov suggested that during the crisis in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, Moscow lacked feasible deployment options: lightly armed battalions however can reinforce elite airborne formations, and in future light brigades could fulfill this function. Tsentr 2011, scheduled to be held later in the training year in Central OSK with the participation of members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will rehearse intervention in Central Asia in a local conflict. Makarov places this exercise in the cycle of Osen 2009 and Vostok 2010 which will conclude the “verification of the capabilities of the armed forces command and control system and the newly formed formations and units,” adding that this enables further refinement of the use of forces on all strategic axes (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 18).

Preparations for Tsentr 2011 appear decidedly dated. Taras Rudyk described in Krasnaya Zvezda combined-arms training in Central Military District/OSK. Under the overall command of Major-General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, motorized rifle brigades in the combined-arms army recommenced live fire exercises at the Yurga training range in Siberia. General Tonkoshkurov addressed brigade personnel including conscripts on the “art of tank attacks and algorithms of offensive combat,” while mixed results were noted in the performance of tank crews. “We will carefully analyze these flaws, mistakes and miscalculations and do our best to prevent them in the future,” explained Colonel Roman Berdnikov, second in command in the motorized rifle brigade (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 26).

Confusion persists in the reform, over brigade numbers, structure and their posture on strategic axes, as reputable Russian analysts offer misleading strategic conclusions. However, the contradiction between the bygone era of tank-centric warfare and a turbulent adoption of network-centric capabilities may yet undermine the foundation of the modernization program.