Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 156

Less than a month after they celebrated their annual holiday in traditionally raucous fashion, Russia’s elite airborne forces face a future made uncertain by both the Kremlin’s military restructuring plans and what some Russian sources report is backroom political maneuvering against the paratroopers within the high command. The restructuring appears to have had one immediate practical effect: Russia’s paratroopers will in the coming months cease to handle peacekeeping duties outside the country’s borders. That is no small matter, given that peacekeeping has until now been the exclusive purview of the airborne troops, and that more than 5,000 paratroopers are now serving in this role beyond Russia’s borders. The reported impact of political maneuvering on the airborne troops is less certain. According to certain reports, the Russian General Staff, led by its chief, General Anatoly Kvashnin, is hoping to limit the role of the airborne forces and is now pushing for the dismissal of the paratrooper’s current commander, General Georgy Shpak (Novye Izvestia, August 15). These most recent developments only highlight anew the degree to which reform of the airborne forces remains a highly charged political issue. That fact has in the past thwarted Kremlin efforts to rein in the paratroopers and could prove an obstacle to any effort by current Russian President Vladimir Putin to do the same.

According to Shpak, Russia’s airborne forces today consist of 34,000 troops, including some 5,600 assigned to missions abroad. Planned manpower reductions for the armed forces as a whole–some 365,000 military personnel are to be demobilized over the next several years–will reportedly cost the airborne troops about 5,500 personnel. While that means that the paratroopers will take a considerable hit, as a percentage of their total the reduction is actually less than that which faces the armed forces as a whole. The Airborne Forces command and its supporters have apparently also managed to turn aside proposals, said by some to have been pushed by the General Staff, that would have eliminated the independent status of the airborne troops and subordinated them instead to the politically resurgent Russian Ground Forces. Indeed, in remarks made in connection with the Russian Airborne Forces holiday celebrated earlier this month, Shpak went so far as to say that he had received assurances from the Russian president that the Airborne Forces would be subject neither to sharp personnel reductions nor to any loss of status as part of the supreme commander-in-chief’s strategic reserve (Vremya MN, August 2; Strana.ru, August 1).

The peacekeeping function has, however, apparently been formally withdrawn from the Airborne Forces command. According to a report published by Izvestia last week, a directive from the General Staff’s Kvashnin abolished the post of Airborne Forces deputy commander for peacekeeping operations. Other reports indicate that a special peacekeeping section is currently being organized within the Ground Forces command, and that it will both oversee the transfer of peacekeeping operations to the Ground Forces and organize training in this area of ground forces personnel. As some critics of the transfer have pointed out, the Ground Forces command at present has no professional peacekeeping units to turn to, and the service is said to be hastily organizing a training center in the city of Tver. There have been suggestions, meanwhile, that senior Airborne Forces officers may not be entirely happy with the fact that paratroopers will no longer be manning peacekeeping operations. Shpak was quoted early this month as saying: “We, as military men, are in full agreement with the decision which has been taken.” But he also suggested that transferal of the peacekeeping mandate could take more than a year, a comment that buttressed the claim of some observers who say that the Airborne Forces command is hoping to draw out the transition period as long as possible. The Russian daily Izvestia, meanwhile, recently quoted an unnamed high-ranking Airborne Forces officer as saying that: “We will leave. However, our place will be taken by those who do not know what they are doing. This means that people will be killed” (Strana.ru, August 2; Izvestia, August 24).

Indeed, if one Russian source is to be believed, the decision to deprive the Airborne Forces of their peacekeeping function is part of a more general and subtly conceived plan by current Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to cut the Airborne Forces down to size. Vremya Novostei earlier this month pointed out that previous Russian defense ministers over the past decade have been stymied in their efforts to rein in the politically powerful airborne troops. Ivanov, the newspaper speculates, is seeking to undermine arguments for maintaining the airborne forces at roughly their current level by depriving them of various functions. The first to go is peacekeeping; it will reportedly be followed by claims that Russia’s newly adopted defense doctrines foresee a reduced need for the country’s paratroopers. The newspaper also claimed that while several variants have been drawn up for reform of the Airborne Forces, none has yet been adopted, in part because of heated debates on the subject (Vremya Novostei, August 2).

On the positive side of the ledger for the Airborne Forces, however, are indications that their withdrawal from peacekeeping activities is actually connected to the fact they are being readied for a more prominent role as the core of what are to be Russia’s mobile or rapid response forces. In this capacity they will reportedly play an important part in reinforcing Russian troops along the country’s southern border–particularly in Central Asia–and will be tasked more generally for action in so-called “hot spots” in Russia and the CIS. According to this scenario, expenditures on training and equipping Russian paratroopers could actually increase in the months to come (WPS Weekly Analysis, July 6).

If the fate of the Russian Airborne Forces is indeed up in the air, it is unclear whether the paratroopers helped or hurt themselves during the Airborne Forces holiday at the beginning of this month. On August 5 Airborne units conducted exercises at the Tushinsky airport near Moscow. They were attended by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was apparently impressed enough to publicly reminisce about three parachute jumps that he had himself made as a young man with a paratroop division in Pskov. Only three days earlier, however, thousands of paratroopers converging on Moscow for the annual celebration had engaged in what seems to have become the real staple of this particular military holiday: fist fights and other unseemly behavior occurred at various spots throughout the city. In the end about 180 people were arrested for violating the public order–including about 100 paratroopers–and some fifty people were hospitalized (RTR, August 5; Izvestia, August 3, 6; Interfax, ANS TV (Baku), August 3; Strana.ru August 5).