The current Russian defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was appointed in early 2007. This provoked outrage in the army establishment because Serdyukov had no military background, and this appointment was seen as a sign of Putin’s disdain toward the generals.
Until late 2000 Serdyukov had been a furniture salesman in St. Petersburg. After Vladimir Putin, an old friend of his wife’s father, became president he would change his place of work to the northern capital’s Federal Taxation Service. Gradually during Putin’s second term he grew into a position as the head of this agency; he was put in charge of all the taxes collected in Russia. From that position he supervised part of the investigation of Mikhail Khodork-ovsky’s Yukos case, gathering information about its tax avoidance schemes.
Having proven himself a reliable and effective manager, the next appointment wasn’t far away: the armed forces. At that moment it was a huge problem. Salaries weren’t paid; morale was low; there was no regular training, no supply. Total corruption, completely rotten. In this desperate condition during the late nineties, the military almost rebelled against the state. According to rumor, it was Putin’s job as the head of FSB to tackle it. The key figure, the mastermind behind the army’s conspiracy to overthrow Yeltsin, was Lt-Gen. Lev Rokhlin, who was killed in the summer of 1998 (officially by his wife). If the rumors are true it means Putin wasn’t trusting the army a lot. So after Serdyukov was appointed in 2007, generals saw him not only as an incompetent figure with no respect for their uniform but also as quashing any dissent. In a way, that is what he accomplished.
Although reform was vaguely planned in advance and had somewhat begun under the previous minister, Sergey Ivanov, one event put the real impetus to it. In August 2008 there was war between Georgia and Russia. During that campaign it became obvious that the army was completely disorganized. There was no mutual understanding between the different branches.
The army that was stationed in the North Caucasus was organizationally ineffective. Some regiments were moving forward while others stayed behind. As a result, the general commanding this 70 000-strong force was wounded in action as Georgians ambushed his column. Communication was in disorder. Officers had to rely on their cell phones to call each other. One heavy bomber was shot down by Georgian anti-aircraft forces. (The question was, why would anyone use a strategic bomber anyway in such a small area? There was no clear answer to that.)
It became evident that there was a great need of reform, so a deep analysis was made and they came up with what became known as the “New Look” of the Russian Armed Forces.
This concept itself is more a notion than a real plan. It states that Russia, with its current regime, international position, economy, industrial potential, ideology, and demography, doesn’t need the “World War III” army that the Soviet Union had and that had continued in the post-Soviet era. We don’t need to take over the world and we don’t need to defend ourselves against all the capitalists’ armies. So there will be two emphases: (a) highly mobile, modern, and much smaller—cheaper—conventional forces to solve minor local conflicts (in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and maybe the Arctic) and (b) modernized strategic potential to keep us safe in case a big power (NATO or China) gets crazy ideas about taking our resources without paying for them.
So with an iron hand Serdyukov started to push the armed forces toward this goal. For instance, there were some “cadre” regiments—not fully manned, some of them with only 10-20 percent of their personnel. During mobilization for a real conflict, all these structures would be filled in with people, arms, and supplies. These regiments did not constitute a standing army, but just a readiness for mobilizing one.
Hence when deciding to have a much smaller, versatile, mobile army, ready to be redeployed quickly from one site to another, they simply eliminated those regiments.
The reformers also are keen to implement “network-centric” warfare, although no one fully understands what that means. Head of General Staff Nikolay Makarov is enthusiastic about this notion. Here’s what they try to show in their briefings: The Russian army is based on strict hierarchy. To communicate you have to go through all the steps upward. For example, if you face a problem on the front line, you have to report up and up and up the ladder of command until at some point there is someone with enough authority to make a decision—say, to send some reinforcements to your place or call in an air strike. By the time the reaction finally comes, the situation has already changed. What they are calling for now is not this pyramid structure but a matrix with parallel lines. To put it simply, if you are on the ground as a noncommissioned officer in charge of a squad, you can call in for an artillery strike directly. This also will affect communication of all kinds. The US armed forces’ computer systems around the world now are inter-connected in one network and communicate with each other. There are people who oversee this process but they don’t even have to push a button; it will all go on automatically. That’s what they are hoping to have here in Russia.
Another decision was to make the army more professional. Now there are officially about 220,000 officers (the cut was so significant that there are discussions underway about adding 70,000 more). The total number of people in the “New Look” forces is supposed to be one million people. In 2008 it was over two million. These are the official numbers. Actually now, when they count officers, non-commissioned officers, and the soldiers that are being drafted and contracted every year (they have been trying to use less conscription and more contract soldiers) the total is no more than 800,000 for all branches of the armed forces. The numbers will probably be revised upward toward the level that they talk about, but at present it’s well under that.
This cut in numbers created more social disturbances in the army. Many officers had to retire because they are no longer needed. Federal law provides that they and their families must be given a flat and cannot be dismissed until that happens. Officers are demanding them now but the army is trying to avoid it; not enough have been built. So tens of thousands of officers are in a strange position: They cannot start working in civilian jobs because this will end their army contract and their claim for a flat. But they aren’t performing any army job and are receiving only a fraction of their salary.
At the same time, officers and soldiers who are still in the battle lines do only their professional jobs now. They do training—physical, technical—but they no longer cook, buy supplies, or do laundry or repairs. All those things are outsourced to companies (some of them allegedly owned by Serdyukov’s associates).
Strategic forces are also rearming rapidly, though not without controversy. Two modern fourth-generation nuclear submarines will be ready by August 2012. Those will be armed by brand new “Mace” (SS-NX-30) ICBMs. Ground mobile (truck-based) “Yars” (SS-X-29) ICBMs with MIRV are also starting to enter service. This May there was a first test of another prospective heavy missile. However, old, Soviet-vintage missiles and subs are being destroyed in accordance with START-3. Presumably we will have a smaller but much more sophisticated arsenal.
So Serdyukov actually succeeded, although morale went even lower. Officers all around the country hate him (the feeling is mutual), but he actually set a goal, pursued it, and achieved it in 3.5 years. Officers’ salaries are more than double the average of Russians. Soldiers also got quite a large increase in pay. By 2016 the goal is for the army to be half professional soldiers and half conscripts. If it goes well, by 2020 it will be a completely professional army.
But now they face several other problems. One is the mutual disdain of generals and their “furniture” boss. Serdyukov decimated the army and deprived generals of the possibility of conducting their own corrupt businesses. It is well known that he privately calls people he has to deal with “little green men” (referring to the green uniform of the land army and the strange, almost alien, logic that military men have in Russia). For example, I was once invited, along with several other journalists, for a short official ceremony aboard a Russian carrier ship. The minister’s private plane that we were taking to the north where the carrier is stationed is divided into three rooms: two similar luxury ones and one fitted as a regular plane. Serdyukov occupied the first one, together with his secretary, making six high-ranking generals and admirals stay cramped in the second one and also not letting them use the lavatory in front of the plane. So a four-star general, Serdyukov’s closest ally in this reform and second in command of the military after him, Chief of General Staff Makarov, had to use the same toilet as common journalists and security staff.
Putin was well aware of this situation and planned to have a minister of defence with a military background in his new cabinet. It was almost decided on a new candidate (the current Roskosmos head Popovkin was named unofficially) but at the last moment Serdyukov had to stay. If someone else took his position it would mean that all the ways in which Serdyukov’s clan was making money (allegedly through construction of new housing for the military) would be exposed. So even though Serdyukov doesn’t want to continue and the generals are unhappy with him, they cannot part.
Another, more structural, problem is rearmament. Serdyukov was so successful in modernizing this army that he persuaded Putin to give him a huge budget for rearming. By 2020 he will have received about 23 trillion rubles ($683 billion) for rearmament. They are already receiving some of it. But now they realize that Russian industry cannot produce anything worth this amount. With this huge budget, now they understand that industry is far behind.
In Izhevsk, for example, there is a huge industry that produces Kalashnikov rifles. They produced an enormous supply of them but now the army doesn’t buy Kalashnikov rifles anymore. They say “No, thank you. We have enough for thirty years.” So the workers at the factory won’t have jobs. At this moment it’s a semi-private enterprise. They produce some hunting rifles for the US market, where they are very popular, but it’s a pittance.
But according to law, they are supposed to keep their productive capacity up, in case Russia has to fight an all-out world war quickly. Having to support all this productive capacity without having any place to sell all they can produce means that the enterprise cannot make a profit. They are now trying to end these restrictions and make more modern small arms on a smaller scale. They previously produced only one kind of Kalashnikov rifle but now they want to produce a whole range of products.
It’s the same with in Severodvinsk, up north by the White Sea where the submarines are built. They also have problems. There is a huge fight going on between the company and the minister of defence, who complains that the company has included in their contract all the money they pay to keep up the community infrastructure, including for example a kindergarten. “We’re not going to pay for the kindergarten.” The company says that there is no way that it can work otherwise; the city will die. The new nuclear subs mentioned above were supposed to be ready a year ago, but now it’s going to be July or August because of this fight.
So the military-industrial complex is mostly in ruins and those enterprises that still produce something are badly managed.
The ministry of defence tried to buy international products instead, but of course you can’t buy a lot from NATO countries if you’re Russia. You must have your own production. They bought one helicopter carrier and France will build three more, but there’s intense opposition from patriotic hawks in parliament and from Russian industry. It’s humiliating—not to mention unprofitable—if our minister of defence buys weapons from Italy or the US. The problem is that Russian military industry cannot produce anything worth the money the ministry of defence now has to spend.
So now Dmitry Rogozin, who was a special envoy to NATO, is appointed deputy prime minister to Vladimir Putin. His main job is to make this industry work and produce something that can be bought for $680 billion.
They will be modernizing production, but one thing Putin lacks in his strategies is perspective. He might have thought about fixing the military complex before budgeting this 23 trillion rubles, only to discover that they cannot be spent. And now they’re going to repeat the same mistake.
For centuries Russian military tradition demanded strict hierarchy from top to bottom. If you don’t follow orders, or if you take some initiative, you can be punished—even decapitated. This was how the officers were trained. Now the reformers intend to rebuild the army along Western military lines. But Russian military schools are now in disarray; over 70 existed in 2008, but only 10 survived the reforms. And professors who are left in those academies are still teaching cadets the old Soviet way of fighting wars. So we will have Western command and control tools, a Western brigade system, Western “network-centric” doctrines—and a completely Russian mindset of officers inside this machine. They have to invite Western specialists from West Point or St. Cyr, as Peter the Great once did, to create this new Western kind of army. But no one in the Russian ministry of defence thinks this far ahead.
Ignat Kalinin covers military affairs for Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper in Moscow.
Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2012, page 13. Some rights reserved.
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