Russian shift to a contracted Army

In a move intended to bring Russia to the level of most modern armies of the West, its military is ready to begin the next stage of massive reforms of its national armed forces to ensure their active development within the next decade, according to recent statements made by Russian military commanders and local defence analysts.

The five-day war with Georgia, in August 2008, revealed some serious deficiencies of the Russian army, such as poor readiness for local military conflicts and insufficient armaments, and led to a plan for massive overhaul of the national military. The first stage of this reform began shortly after the 2008 conflict, and continued until its completion in early 2020. 

The ongoing first stage of reform has resulted in the massive re-armament of the Russian armed forces, including new weapons and combat equipment.

In addition to large-scale re-armament, the first stage of reform also stood up several dozen new combat-ready formations and improved militaristic sentiments in the country. It also had a strong influence on the domestic and foreign policies of the Russian government in the last decade. In the early 2010s, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to discard outdated Soviet concepts of military development, which were primarily based on a war with the whole world. He re-directing the major focus of the Russian army toward territorial conflicts, and liquidation of threats at Russia’s borders.

According to recent statements by General Ruslan Tsalikov, Russia’s Deputy-Minister of Defence, the massive re-armament of its armed forces is largely complete, and last year was a record year in terms of new combat equipment for the needs of all military branches.

According to Tsalikov’s data, last year’s  volume of deliveries amounted to 6,500 units, an increase of modern weapons in Russia’s military arsenal of up to 68.2%.
Among the most important deliveries in 2019 was the Avangard missile system with hypersonic units, the Peresvet laser systems, and the Prince Vladimir nuclear submarine cruiser.

While the Russian Ministry of Defence plans to continue the renewal of its military arsenal over the next 10 years, the main concept of a second stage of reform is expected to provide solutions to some the most pressing internal problems of the Russian army. In addition, attention will go towards raising its efficiency and mobility and improving the interactions between the different military branches.

In regard to mobility, according to an official spokesman of the Russian General Staff, improvements in Armed Forces mobility is expected to be one of the most important tasks faced during the second stage of reform – despite the fact that some success in this field has already been achieved in recent years.

According to Alexander Golts, a well-known Russian military expert and editor-in-chief of the Russian Daily Journal portal,  the rapid deployment of 40,000-50,000 troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border within two days, 26-27 February 2014, was a clear example of such progress.

Golts describes the deployment as “a fantastic success! When Chechen rebels attacked the Russian Dagestan Republic in 1999, it took three weeks to transfer the first battalions of paratroopers there.”

Still, the Russian Ministry of Defence plans to achieve even higher rates of deployment, particularly land forces, until 2030, planning to use the experience of the U.S. deployments of its troops during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

In the meantime, according to the official spokesman for Russian Defence Minister, Sergey Shoigu, in addition to the increase in mobility, further optimization of manpower within the Russian army, continues to be key. 

For this purpose, the number of units and formations within the structure of the Russian army will be reduced. The biggest reductions are expected to be in skeleton units (particularly those where the number of officers exceeded the number of soldiers by almost double). At present, the share of such units in the overall structure of Armed Forces in Russia is approximately 20-25%, being significantly lower the 75-80% figures in 2008.

According to the Ministry of Defence, the second stage of reform includes plans to reduce the dependence on recruitment, however the draft system will not be completely abandoned.

The overall manpower of the Russian national army is expected to remain at the current level of 900,000-1,1 million people for the next decade. Still, despite the fact that manpower has significantly declined in recent years, most independent Russian analysts believe the army has too many civilians and not enough soldiers.

Pavel Luzin, an expert on Russian Foreign and Defense Policy, commented that: “Despite the previous reductions, the Russian Armed Forces remains an excessively bureaucratized mechanism, where the number of civil servants is more than 900,000 people and only 10% of military staff are ready to perform serious combat missions.”
Representatives from the Ministry of Defence disagree with such conclusions, and plan to continue optimization of manpower until 2030. In contrast to the past, this time the focus will be on the officer corps. Between 2008 and 2020 the Russian command staff was reduced from 335,000 to 220,000 people, and the Ministry of Defence plans to further reduce of these figures in years to come.

Another problem that must be dealt with is the culture of dedovshchina (hazing and constant bullying of junior soldiers). A recent state­ment from Sergey Shoigu says the Ministry of Defence plans to solve the problem  by 2030. This topic tragically returned to the agenda in October 2019, when a young conscript shot ten people on the base, killing two officers and six fellow soldiers.

According to investigators, numerous incidents of hazing had been perpetrated against the shooter and other young soldiers from his military unit.

In addition to hazing, the so-called “fraternities” remains another problem that negatively affects Russian troops, as it usually leads to ethnic conflicts between soldiers. As some Russian military analysts told in an interview with Shephard Media, Muslim soldiers or those drafted from the republics of the North Caucasus often take revenge on Slavs in the barracks for the discrimination suffered by their co-religionists or compatriots in civilian life.

The Ministry of Defence hopes that a solution to the problem of hazing and fraternities will help restore the prestige of military service among the young people in Russia. The introduction of various social benefits and motivations for dischargees and retired military men will also improve the perception of respect.

So far, the Russian army has been repeatedly criticized for the lack of economic, professional, intellectual and other prospects for military personnel after their retirement. However, within the next 1-2 years plans are underway by the Ministry for the creation of additional post-military career opportunities.

Alexander Golts believes the current low prestige of military service in Russia has become an acute need. The number of people who sign military contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence has been declining in recent years – after several years of consecutive growth. According to his data, the annual inflow of contract soldiers to the Russian army at present does not exceed 50,000 people, which is significantly lower than the figures of some previous years.

Accordingly, an improvement of the interactions between the private corps and command staff of the Russian army will be another major concept of the planned reform. That is expected to be achieved by the restoration of the institute of junior commanders, which has been destroyed in recent years.

In fact, the lack of junior commanders for the first time occurred in the Soviet army in the middle of the 1960s after the retirement of so-called “extended-termer”, mostly sergeants and foremen who had served in the Armed Forces since the beginning of World War II.

The Ministry of Defence intends to be more active in the training of junior commanders in years to come. For this purpose, the quality of military education in Russia will be significantly improved, and that will be achieved by enlarging military schools, expanding their capabilities, and providing an opportunities to conduct year-round practical training for future commanders of all ranks.

As an official spokesman for Shoigu explained, the former military schools will be replaced bylarge training centers creating a powerful training base that will ensure effective theory and practical training of future officers.

Such training will make officers more versatile and create opportunities to work collaboratively with different branches.

The second stage of the reform is also expected to bring serious results for the solution of another perennial problem – corruption. 

Despite some recent successes in fighting corruption, it still remains a very problematic issue that is reflected by recent arrests of some high-level commanders on the suspicion of massive thefts. The 2020 arrest of Khalil Arslanov, deputy head of the Russian General Staff on the suspicion of theft amounting to the total sum of RUB 7 billion (US$97 million), is one astounding example.

The government plans to solve the problem of high mortality rate in the Russian armed forces, which, according to some analysts’ calculations, varies in the range of 2-3%.

According to recent statements made by Ruslan Tsalikov during an interview with the Russian military newspaper Krasnay Zvezda, implementation of the second stage of the reform is an acute need, taking into account that NATO continues to build up forces in Europe, as well as the decision by the U.S. to leave a number of international treaties, among which are ABM Treaty, the INF Treaty and The Treaty on Open Skies.

Tsalikov says they have also updated the military doctrine and nuclear strategy, allowing for a “limited nuclear war. In general, NATO is enmeshing Russia into a new arms race.”

He noted that the Russian defence budget has remained stable for several years, unlike to military spending of the United States and other NATO states. 
According to Tsalikov, the Russian Ministry of Defence plans to continue the practice of sudden inspections and training of large military groupings – with up to 40,000 people at a time.

In regard to funding, starting from 1999, the annual growth of military spending in Russia was in the range of 18-22%, which was one of the highest figures in the world at the beginning of 2000s, which meant that every fourth ruble of the federal budget was allocated for the needs of the armed forces.

During the second stage of the reform, the volume of spending on the Russian army will vary between 2.5 and 3% of the national GDP, compared to 4.5% in the early 2000s.

In 2020, the Russian military budget will reach 3.1 trillion rubles (almost US$50 billion), which is almost RUB 110 billion lower that 2019. Almost half of this budget will be used for the purchase of new weapons and combat equipment. 

According to recent statements of Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is a need for gradual cutting of military spending, as the “peak of modernization has already passed.” This, according to him, has led to the successful replacement of a significant part of Russian weapons and combat equipment. 

Still, despite the pandemic, it is planned that the Russian military budget will be further increased in 2021. That will take place despite the pandemic and associated with its negative consequences for Russian economics. 

One of the reasons of the planned increase of military expenditures is the ongoing imports of some weapons and components for the needs of the Russian military forces from abroad. 

Despite the import substitution in the Russian military and industrial complex, a significant part of military products in the country are still produced using imported components, primarily in the electronics sector. The recent devaluation of the Russian rouble has put additional pressure on the country’s military and industrial complex, which employs up to 4 million people. 

According to Pavel Luzin, maintaining the annual defence budget at RUB 3 trillion is an acute need for Russia, as its reduction will lead to the decline of state defence order and may result in serious financial problems for the companies operating in this market. 

According to Luzin, at present, up to 50% of Russian military costs are used for maintaining of the existing military forces (compared to 70% in the case of the U.S. army) and, it is expected this figure will continue to grow in years to come. But despite repeated calls for reduction, Russia isn’t tightening its belt too much; the reform plans include a significant salary increase to the officer corps. 
Eugene Gerden is an international writer specializing in global military and defence industries.