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Russia’s underrated military reforms

Updated: Mar 15

Russia has announced various defense reforms since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But, for nearly two decades, these were little more than paper tigers. The Russian military was not tested in any large-scale commitment of conventional forces, instead engaging in proxy wars in its immediate neighborhood fought with irregular and special-operation forces.

In the two wars in Chechnya, the performance of the Russian armed forces was far from satisfactory, but Russia shifted the war effort to local proxies and Interior Ministry troops, avoiding the need for the armed forces to change substantially.

Lack of money and bureaucratic resistance meant that attempts to increase professionalism and combat-readiness in the Russian armed forces led nowhere. The bill of this negligence was to be paid in the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.

Russian tanks moved into Georgia in August 2008. The Kremlin denied that regime change in Tbilisi was on its agenda, but in fact Russian forces moved too slowly to achieve such a goal.

While they succeeded in their strategic aim of humiliating Georgia and reinforcing Russian control of Georgia’s separatist regions, there were numerous tactical and operational problems.

Russian forces were slow in mobilizing and deploying to the theater; troops from different divisions had to be synchronized before the invasion through maneuvers in the Northern Caucasus, because Russian forces relied on mobilization to fill the ranks and certain regiments were kept unmanned; and inexperienced and talkative conscripts proved to be a security problem.

The Russian military had to rely on superior numbers instead of quality. Coordination between the arms of the Russian forces proved difficult. Tactical and operational planning was poor and inflexible, as was leadership. Situation awareness was poor, and led to many incidents of “friendly fire”. Russia failed to exploit the advantage of air superiority, and supply lines were overstretched.

Most strikingly, Georgia’s US-trained troops proved tougher than anticipated. Their leadership was more flexible; they acted as good combat teams; and they were much more motivated than the Russians, partly due to their superior individual equipment.

Georgia had upgraded vintage Soviet equipment with Western night-vision and communication devices that made them more effective than their Russian counterparts, although Georgian troops lacked the heavy armor, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft equipment to defeat the Russian forces.

The poor performance of the Russian armed forces demonstrated the need for real defense reform.

The Russian leadership realized that, if performance did not improve, they would find it difficult to use the military to intimidate or coerce larger neighboring countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, or Kazakhstan, should they embark on policies diverging from the Kremlin’s interests.

The strength of the Georgian forces taught the Russian leadership that combat- and leadership-training, effective logistics, and higher levels of professionalism are much more important for the overall performance of military forces than high-tech equipment.

In addition, it showed them that small incremental improvements on existing equipment would increase their performance considerably at a much lower cost than introducing all-new generations of weapons systems and combat vehicles.

The new round of Russian military reform started in late 2008, after the Georgian campaign was over. The armed forces had not undergone such a rapid transformation since the 1930s, and before that the 1870s.

The authorities planned the “new look” reform in three phases, starting with the reforms that would take the longest to produce results. First, increasing professionalism by overhauling the education of personnel and cutting the number of conscripts; second, improving combat-readiness with a streamlined command structure and additional training exercises; and third, rearming and updating equipment.

Western analysts’ focus on the rearmament stage of the reforms, which has not yet been completed, has caused them to overlook the success of the other two stages. These have already given Russia a more effective and combat-ready military, as demonstrated by its fast and coordinated intervention in Ukraine.

The first stage of the reform tackled the professionalism of the Russian armed forces – troops as well as leaders. The overall number of officers – both general staff and staff officers – was reduced dramatically (in line with the streamlining of the command-and-control structure), the warrant officers corps was dissolved, and professionally trained non-commissioned officers (NCO) were introduced.

For the first time, the Russian army had a pyramid structure, with few decision-makers at the top and more officers servicing the troops. This freed resources for other reform projects, and reduced bureaucratic battles between rival offices.

Officers’ wages increased fivefold over the period of the reform, and greater management skills and commitment were demanded from them in return. New housing and social welfare programs added to the financial security and prestige of armed forces personnel.

Since the early 2000s, Russia had experimented with hiring more professional soldiers instead of conscripts, but now financial resources were available to increase their numbers on a large scale.

This allowed the troops to use more high-tech equipment (conscripts serve too short a period to be effectively trained on complex weapons systems) and increased the combat-readiness of elite forces (paratroopers, naval infantry, and special forces).

The military education system was overhauled, reducing the number of military schools and higher education centers from 65 to 10, and introducing new curricula and career models.

Many of the education and training reforms were modeled on the systems of Switzerland and Austria, whose ministries were happy to please their “strategic partners” in Moscow by granting them insights into their NCO and officer training programs.

The aim of Russian military planners was that the new generation of officers should be able to lead their troops in complex environments and quickly adapt to new situations by applying state-of-the-art (Western) leadership techniques.

Last but not least, individual soldiers’ equipment and uniforms were modernized, increasing morale and confidence.

The second phase concentrated on increasing troop readiness, and improving organization and logistics. Russia revamped the entire structure of its armed forces – from strategic commands down to new combat brigades.

The aim was to increase readiness, deployability, and the ability to send large numbers of troops abroad on short notice.

The reforms reduced the discrepancy between the armed forces’ real strength and their strength on paper.

During Soviet times, the army relied on mobilization – calling up reservists – to achieve full combat strength. Each division was only staffed 50 to 75 percent (with two to three regiments not manned) and required reservists to fill all ranks. This procedure took time and was difficult to hide from the public, and hence would have been a clear indication to Russia’s neighbors that military action was imminent.

Russia had not resorted to mobilization since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, due to the fear of domestic dissent. As a result, before each deployment, battalions and regiments had to be assembled in-situ from different divisions according to the level of staffing and equipment that was available at the time.

These “patchwork” units were not successful in the Russian-Georgian war, as the different units and officers had hardly trained together and barely knew each other.

Hence, the reforms significantly reduced the overall strength of the Russian army on paper, cutting structures that relied on mobilization and introducing high-readiness combat-brigades (40 “new look” brigades were formed from 23 old divisions – a nominal reduction of about 43 percent).

Then the command structure was streamlined. The military districts were transformed into joint forces commands, and their number was reduced. This cut the levels of hierarchy as the military districts now have access to all land, air, and naval forces in their zone.

Unnecessary administrative commands were closed, especially in the army and air forces. Even more dramatic were the cuts and reorganization in the logistics apparatus of the army, where extensive out sourcing and reduction of administrative personnel increased effectiveness.

To further boost troop readiness, maneuvers and exercises were increased. Large-scale “snatch exercises” were conducted to ensure that Russia could react to a variety of contingencies in its immediate neighborhood.

Not surprisingly, the list of mobilized units and participants in the 2009 and 2013 high-readiness maneuvers and the war in Ukraine do not differ much – the Russian armed forces generally rehearse what they intend to do.

In theory, within 24 hours of alert all airborne units (VDV) should be deployed, and all Russian “new look” brigades ready to deploy.

While such high readiness levels have not yet been achieved, one has to bear in mind that before the reforms some Russian divisions needed about a year of preparation before deploying to Chechnya.

Smaller-scale battalion- and brigade-level exercises and live-fire exercises have also increased considerably since the mid-2000s. These are used for tactical leadership training, to familiarize new commanders and units with each other, and to make higher-level commands aware of any shortcomings in the new units.

The results of the reforms are clearly visible. During the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Russian army kept between 40,000 and 150,000 men in full combat-ready formations across the Russian-Ukrainian border.

In parallel, Russia conducted maneuvers in other parts of the country, comprising up to 80,000 service personnel of all arms. Moreover, the troops stayed in the field in combat-ready conditions for months before being rotated.

Not even during the second Chechen war had the number of permanent troops maintained in the field been so high or lasted such a long time. Before the reforms, combat-readiness plummeted immediately after deployment due to inefficient logistics. This is not the case now.

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