After years of
neglect due to financial constraints, the Russian military has
entered a period of systemic development. The ongoing defense
reform has introduced a few important changes, but so far the
pace of the reform is slow. In order to review the current
reform effort, a number of factors - the resistance of the
military elite to change, the demographic factor, the lack of a
clear defense doctrine, the restructuring of the defense
industry and the state of civil control over the military -
will be analyzed. These limitations will define not only the
pace of the defense reform, but also Russia’s ability to play a
more active role in the international arena.
Defense Reform, Russian Defense Doctrine, Russian Defense
Over the past
several years, President Vladimir Putin has managed to restore
Russia’s status as a great power. Russia became a major energy
supplier, experienced economic recovery, consolidated its
relationship with China, expanded its influence in the former
Soviet states and played an active role in several international
developments, such as the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program and
the Kosovo settlement. Russia’s resurgence as a strategic actor
in the international arena raises a number of questions about
its security policy in the near future.
An important aspect that will shape Moscow’s security policy is
the military factor. In particular, what will the Russian
military look like in the coming decade? Will it be a huge army
based on conscripts or a smaller and professional one? How
efficient will the Russian Army be in counterinsurgency
operations? Will nuclear deterrence remain the central pillar of
Moscow’s defense policy? In answering all those questions, it is
important to review the defense reform effort that has started
since 2003 and is still taking place.
Defense Reform in
Russia: Defining the context
defense reform has not gained the attention it deserves in
Russia. Financial and structural problems, like the
deterioration of capabilities, hazing and growing crime rates,
have dominated the debate about the future of the Russian armed
forces and defense analysts overlooked some important
developments that took place over the last years.
As a result, defense reform has been the subject of controversy
among military analysts for some time.
Simply examining one aspect of the ongoing reform - the rise of
the defense budget or the reduction and reorganization of the
military - will not provide us with satisfactory answers. One
has to define the suitability of the present defense doctrine,
the extent to which the reorganization has actually modernized
the Russian military, the degree to which the increased spending
has added new capabilities and the state of civil-military
relations in order to reach a holistic understanding of Russian
has to examine a number of structural limitations that affect
the pace of the ongoing reform: financial constraints, the
demographic crisis, the vast territory, the Cold War legacy and
the Soviet strategic culture, and the reorganization of the
defense sector in order to critically assess the prospects of
the current reform.
In search of a
The reform of
the Russian military has been a priority for President Putin
since he came into power. The latest military reform programme,
adopted in 2003, set as its main objective the partial
professionalisation of the armed forces over the period
2004-2008. The reform plan emphasizes the need for reductions in
force size, a gradual decrease in the use of conscripts in
favour of professional soldiers, the creation of a professional
non-commissioned officer corps, drastic changes to officer
training and education, and greater political oversight of
behind these reforms has been to transform Russia’s military
into a flexible and modern force that will be able to deal
successfully with the new security challenges, and to
participate in crisis management, peacekeeping and
counter-terrorist operations. Indicative of this new rationale
is the release of the “Urgent Tasks for the Development of the
Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”, by the Ministry of
Defence on October 2003. The so-called Ivanov Doctrine
deemphasises the threat posed by NATO and highlights new threats
and missions, like global terrorism and the need to deal with
smaller scale conflicts.
procurement policies and military exercises demonstrate a
different picture. Large scale operations, including
first-strike nuclear operations using ICBM’s or tactical nuclear
weapons outweigh counterinsurgency and counter-terrorist
Military exercises portray regional or large-scale wars for
which the call of the reserves and transfers of large, military
formations between theatres are necessary in a very limited
period of time. This seems at least odd given the fact that
during this entire period of time, Russian officials and
military representatives declared that large-scale wars were
very much unlikely in the near future. The fact that the Russian
Army is preparing for these kinds of conflicts suggests
According to Stephen Blank,
despite its rhetoric, the military elite still believes that a
large scale war with NATO or even China is a real possibility
and that the Russian forces should be ready to conduct all types
of operations, from nuclear war, to peace-keeping missions and
For Blank, Russia’s doctrinal ambivalences and tendency to
preserve a full conflict spectrum capability demonstrate that
its elite still perceives itself as an empire.
Characteristic of the
above were the discussions for the need to rewrite the military
doctrine, during the annual conference of the Russian Academy of
Military Sciences that took place in January 2007. In March
2007, Russia’s Security Council has announced that it will
prepare together with other departments a new military doctrine,
arguing that since
the present military doctrine was adopted, the geopolitical,
military, and security situation of Russia has changed
Russia has strongly criticized the setting up of NATO bases and
the proposed deployment of the U.S. missile shield in Central
Europe. Moscow also opposes the eastward expansion of NATO, as
well as Georgia and Ukraine's drive to join the Western military
all-conscript army: Structural limitations
armed forces amount to 1,100,000 personnel. A large part of
these soldiers - roughly 70% - are recruited by conscription,
with the rest being volunteers. Since 2002, the Russian military
has been trying to initiate a shift from an all-conscript army
to a professional one. So far there is no significant progress.
At present, no serious cutbacks in the number of Russian
conscripts can be perceived, and the reduction of military
personnel seems rather unlikely in the years to come given the
current strategic situation of the Russian Federation.
Covering a huge territory and a long borderline, Russia is in
need of a big army. Taking under consideration the national
demographic crisis, it is doubtful whether Russia can afford to
completely abandon the conscription system for at least a decade
ahead. The constant population decrease, simply limits the
availability of potential recruits.
NATO’s expansion is used as an effective argument against
reducing the size of the Russian armed forces. NATO’s
enlargement postpones a full transition to contract service and
favours a mass army. On the other hand, Alexei Arbatov,
correctly points out that the maintenance of a large army at the
expense of quality, equipment and combat readiness is not
justified. Such an army is obviously unsuitable not only for
major wars (against NATO, US or China), but also local wars or
regional conflicts that involve counterinsurgency and
dilemma between a large and stiff army based on conscription and
a smaller, professional and combat ready one, Russia chose both.
According to Arbatov, a small, elite army is created within a
larger one. In particular, armed units of permanent combat
readiness and well equipped soldiers numbering in total about
200,000 will coexist within a bigger low-combat readiness army
that will still consume the vast share of the budget.
Ironically, the elite army will be too small for the full
conflict spectrum that Russia needs and the big army will hardly
be useful for anything except auxiliary functions.
arsenal: A minimal deterrence capability?
Despite deep cuts in
its nuclear arsenal, Russia still maintains a deterrent force.
Nuclear weapons continue to be seen in Russia as a symbol of the
Russian Federation's status as a great power. The nuclear
capabilities serve as a deterrent against both nuclear and
conventional threats. The intention is to modernise the nuclear
arsenal, but the modernisation proceeds at a very slow pace.
There is a mass removal from service of older strategic arms and
a minimal introduction of new ones.
the SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 are scheduled to be withdrawn from
service by 2015. By 2025, most of the current Russian
silos-based as well as mobile-launched ICBMs will reach the end
of their service life and will have to be decommissioned,
leaving Russia with a significantly reduced deterrent
capability. Likewise, the ballistic missile submarine fleet is
also in the process of downsizing.
Over the last years, the decommissioning and elimination of the
old nuclear submarines was made a priority, bringing the
modernization programs to a halt due to a lack of funds.
However, a new platform, a modified Borey class submarine, was
launched in April 2007 that can only carry Bulava, weapons that
are not yet operational. In 2007, the Russian Federation had
only six Delta III assigned in the Pacific Fleet, six Delta IV
based in the Pacific and Northern Fleets, and three Typhoons
submarines operating in the Northern Fleet.
By 2015, Russia
will retain a minimal deterrence capability. According to
Stephen Cimbala, realistic or minimum deterrence includes
balance and minimum deterrence in offensive weapons; the
capability to penetrate any opposed defenses and asymmetrical
responses to perceived threats or technology enhancements by
The United States’ plans for the development of a new Ballistic
Missile Defense (BMD) system causes concern in Moscow, but even
a reduced nuclear arsenal is adequate in order for a minimal
deterrence to be in place.
Military: Resistance from the inside
So far, the record of
reform has not been that impressive. The main reason for the
slow pace of reform is that the Russian military is
change. The military, due to its central role in Russian
politics (see the role of the military in the August 1991 putsch
and the Chechnya conflict) enjoys an administrative and
operational autonomy that is unprecedented in the West. Never
before have the civil authorities tried to exercise control over
The reform plan that Putin and Ivanov put forward aims to
downgrade the role of the General Staff and exercise some form
of control over its performance. The legacy and prestige that
the powerful Russian military has historically enjoyed among the
Russians, its traditional autonomy (monopolizing knowledge over
military affairs, no oversight of the military budget by
civilian authorities) and certain political and structural
characteristics, like favouring universal conscription and state
controls over military-industrial enterprises, are all being
challenged by the present reform.
A large part of the
Russian military hinders the plan to make the armed forces
professional, since professional armed forces are challenging
the concept of a national army (a mass army based on universal
conscription). Most senior military officers trained during the
Soviet era believe that an efficient army is a mass army
recruited by universal conscription, and backed up by a large
reserve. Trained in concepts that place emphasis on mass
numbers, quantity and firepower, Russian officers tend to
distrust projects aimed at creating a smaller, professional army
far removed from their cultural referents.
in a professional army, orientated
primarily against new missions, they would not have appropriate
knowledge or skill to educate, train or command the new forces.
The project for an army intended
to respond primarily to small-scale conflicts, to fight
non-state actors and to counter non-military threats in
cooperation with internal security and police forces, and to be
integrated into international military deployments, has met
strong resistance within the military elite.
To sum up, the
generals have shown little desire to implement reforms that
would present, according to them, a serious risk to national
security or are potentially unfavourable to their corporate or
The attempts by the Kremlin to overcome the military’s
opposition have been hindered by two more factors, a domestic
and an international one. The
factor is the absence of pressure from Russian society. Due to
the centrality of the military institution in the history of the
Russian state, there has been no decisive impetus in favour of
military reform from Russian society and the political class,
contrarily to what happened in Western countries. Actually, many
Russians believe that a radical reform of the army would present
a serious risk to national security. The international factor
has to do with certain
international developments - the integration of the Baltic
States into NATO, the unilateral withdrawal of the United States
from the ABM Treaty and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - that
have convinced the Russian generals that the traditional threat
from the West is still present.
Spending more or spending enough?
Since 1999, Russian
defence spending has increased steadily, reflecting the policy
orientation of governments under Vladimir Putin as well
as strong economic growth.
According to Military Balance,
National Defense expenditures in 2007 were set at 821 billion
rubles, which amounts to 2.9 of Russia’s GDP. The National
Defense spending has more than doubled in nominal terms since
2003, highlighting the willingness of the Kremlin to proceed
with defense reform.
On the other hand, Alexei Arbatov, correctly points out that
there is a sharp contradiction between the size of the military
budget and the size of the armed forces. Russia’s military
spending is comparable with those of Great Britain or France,
whose military forces number 250,000 men, whereas Russia’s army
is about 1,100,000 men. Furthermore, the maintenance of such a
large army and huge stocks of equipment absorbs a large part of
the defense budget, thereby allocating only a small part for
technical modernization, research and development.
Defense Industry: An
Vladimir Putin, the Russian defense industry has been
restructured and centrally controlled. Following the pattern
that has been successfully applied in the energy industry, Putin
has increased government ownership and intervention.
In an effort to reform the defense sector, Kremlin decided the
unification of all defense procurement into a single office, the
consolidation of individual manufactures - mainly in the
aviation, radio-electronic and shipbuilding industries - in
larger government run umbrella enterprises and the creation of
the governmental Military Industrial Commission (MIC). The later
is tasked with overseeing the development of the arms industry
and coordinating the defense-industry restructuring policies.
In addition to the MIC, the government also introduced a new
agency to exercise civilian control of military procurement. The
Federal Agency on Procurement of Weapons Systems, Military and
Specialized Equipment and Logistics that will come into force in
2008, will be responsible for preparing, monitoring and signing
contracts, as well as accounting. Characteristic of the
Kremlin’s willingness to fight corruption in the defense sector
was the appointment of Anatoly Serdyukov, former head of the
Federal Tax Service, to replace Sergei Ivanov as the new
Minister of Defense.
years, Rosoboronexport (the Russian Arms Export Agency) has
increased its value of exports. Russian weaponry is offered at
lower prices than those of western producers, along with
flexible finance policies and after-sale service.
Output of Russian-made military hardware has grown over the last
years and is likely to be further boosted by recent increases in
domestic funding as well as multibillion arms-export deals with
Algeria, Indonesia, Venezuela, China and India.
In addition, after years of industry dependence on export
orders, domestic demand is showing signs of recovery.
total cessation of arms purchases by the Ministry of Defense
in the mid 1990s forced the defense sector to seek new markets.
Exports became the only practical means of survival. In order
to preserve the defense sector, the Ministry of Defense began
to finance R&D programs that did not have direct application
to the needs of the Russian armed forces, but which were aimed
at foreign procurement.
fact that the Russian defense sector has been on the rise in the
last few years, it is important to point out that its future is
uncertain. Investment on research and development has increased,
but it is hard to compensate for almost a decade of economic
starvation. In addition, Russia will have to compete for markets
in China and India against these countries’ own arms industries.
The EU’s plan to sell weapons to China will further diminish
Russian arms sales to Beijing.
Russia’s efforts to develop new markets in South-East Asia and
Middle East point to the right direction. The drive against
corruption, the success of the procurement reform and the need
for increased funding will shape the industry’s future in the
Civil control over
the military is an important element of the ongoing defense
reform effort in Russia.
Parliament has not always been
successful in persuading the government to introduce legislation
increasing civil control over the military. For instance, since
2000, the Russian government has stalled consideration of the
draft federal law “On the Armed Forces of the Russian
Federation,” by the State Duma.
In addition, defense experts draw attention to the weak role
played by legislators in the implementation of defense reform,
mainly the failure to exercise parliamentary control over the
budgeting process. Although both the president and the parliament exercise control
over the military, there has been a tendency to introduce new
modes of civil control. The most important development in this
area is the establishment of the Public Council that was created
by the Russian Ministry of Defense in August 2006. The Public
Council oversees legal documents and bills that are initiated by
the MoD. The Council is also responsible for the legal rights of
military servicemen and MoD’s civilian employees, the conditions
of the military service and aspects that involve military
discipline and law enforcement.
Since 2003, the
Russian military entered a stage of systemic change. The number
of servicemen in the armed forces has been reduced, the defense
budget has been raised and a program to increase the number of
contract-based conscripts over the coming years has been
introduced. The defense industry has been reorganized and new
patterns of civil control have been established. Indicative of
all these evolutionary developments is the fertile debate about
the need to rewrite the country’s defense doctrine. Although
most of the measures taken by the Russian military and political
elite, over the period 2003-2007, point to the right direction,
the pace of the reform is rather slow, due to several
limitations. Most of these limitations are of a systemic nature,
such as the national demographic crisis, a long period of
neglect in terms of modernization, research and development, and
a strong military culture that has been shaped during the Cold
War period and demands the maintenance of a large military
To conclude, defense
reform in Russia has finally gained the political attention it
deserves. The reform is far from complete, as it is in a
transitional phase and its success is uncertain. Nevertheless,
taking into account the available resources and structural
constraints, the transformation of Russia’s military into
professional army backed up by a large reserve force and with a
minimal deterrence capability, seems to be the rational choice.
The way Russia
will adjust to the rapidly changing security environment, the
state of its economy over the coming decade, the willingness of
the military elite to adapt to the new security challenges and
above all the role that Russia wants to play, will shape the
pace and result of the defense reform.
See selectively Eugene Rumer, Russian Foreign Policy
Beyond Putin, Adelphi Paper 390 (London:
International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007).
Irina Isakova, Russian
Defense Reform: Current Trends, (Carlisle PA:
Strategic Studies Institute, U.S Army War College,
November 2006), p.1.
Rumer, Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin, p.68.
For more details regarding the April 2003 Reform Plan
see Dale Herspring, “Vladimir
Putin and Military Reform in Russia”, European
Security, vol.14:1 (2005),
For an analysis of the Ivanov Doctrine see
Matthew Bouldin, “The Ivanov
Doctrine and Military Reform: Reasserting Security
Stability in Russia”, Journal of Slavic Military
Studies, vol.17:4 (2004), pp.619-641.
Regarding the lack of a coherent defense doctrine see
Stephen Blank, “A New Russian
Defense Doctrine?”, UNISCI Discussion Papers, 12
Pavel Felgenhauer, “Russian Security Council plans to
draft military doctrine”, Eurasia Daily Monitor,
March 22, 2007, accessed online, 29/12/07,
Report”, CSIS Files no.1 (Bucharest: Center for
Security and International Studies, May 2007), pp.44-45.
Rumer, Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin, p.72.
Arbatov, “Russian Military Policy Adrift”, Briefing,
vol.8:6 (Moscow: Carnegie Moscow Center, November 2006),
Rumer, Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin,
See The Military Balance 2007 (London:
International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2007),
See Stephen Cimbala, “Russia’s Strategic Nuclear
Deterrent: Realistic or Uncertain?”, Comparative
Strategy, 26:3 (2007), pp.185-203 and
Defense Reform: Current Trends, pp.31-38.
Regarding the civil-military relations in Russia see
David Betz and Valeriy Volkov, “The False Dawn of
Russian Military Reform”, Conflict and Security,
vol.4:2 (2003), pp.48-50.
Regarding the institutional and operational autonomy of
the Russian military see
Alexander Golts, and
Tonya Putman, “State Militarism and its Legacies. Why
Military Reform has failed in Russia”, International
Security, vol.29:2 (2004), pp.121-158.
Politics of Russia’s Elusive Defense Reform”,
Political Science Quarterly, vol.121:4 (2006),
Isabelle Facon, The Modernization of the Russian
Military: The Ambitions & Ambiguities of Vladimir Putin
(Defence Academy of the UK, Conflict Studies Research
Center, August 2005), p.3.
Characteristic of the above is the failure to reform -
professionalize the 76th Airborne Division.
See Rob, Thornton, “Military Organization and Change:
The Professionalization of the 76th Airborne
Division”, Journal of Slavic Military Studies,
vol.17:3 (2004), pp.449-474.
Facon, The Modernization of the Russian Military,
For more details on Russia’s 2007 Defense budget see
The Military Balance 2007, pp.191-192.
“Russian Military Policy Adrift”, pp.4-5.
Regarding the parallels between the energy and defense
sector and the increasing state control over these two
sectors in Russia, see Stephen,
Rosoboroneksport: Arms Sales and the Structure of
Russian Defense Industry (Carlisle PA: Strategic
Studies Institute, U.S Army War College, January 2007),
Alexander, Nicolli, “Russia’s defense industry. Phoenix
from the ashes?”, IISS Strategic Comments, vol.13
(London: International Institute for Strategic Studies,
October 2007), p.2.
Irina, Isakova, “The Russian Defense Reform”,
Eurasia Forum Quarterly,
vol.5:1 (2007), pp.80-81.
Nicolli, “Russia’s defense industry”, p.1.
For more details on Russia’s arms-export trade see
The Military Balance 2007, pp.192-194.
See Ruslan Pukhov, and Mikhail Barabanov, “Challenges to
the Reform of Defense R&D in Russia”, Moscow Defense
Brief, no.7(2007), accessed online 29/12/07,
Rumer, Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin, p.61.
Russian Defense Reform, p.53.
Isakova, “The Russian Defense Reform”