March 19, 2009: Russia recently removed General Valentin Korabelnikov, the head of military intelligence (GRU) apparently because Korabelnikov did not agree with the current downsizing of the Russian military. Then there was the matter of a public demonstration, by some GRU personnel, protesting the loss of their jobs. This was not, and was never, allowed. It is simply not done.
The GRU is one the three main Russian intelligence agencies. It is about the same size as the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), and is responsible for conducting espionage operations overseas. Sort of like the CIA. But the Federal Security Service (FSB), with nearly 100,000 personnel is more than twice as large as the GRU and SVR combined. Russia also has Federal Communications & Information Agency (FAPSI), which is about half the size (in personnel) of the FSB, and is a direct equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency.
All Russian military organizations are being cut by the new reforms, which come on the heels of a massive post-Cold War reduction. The Russian armed forces lost 80 percent of its strength in the last 18 years, but a disproportionate number of officers remained. Last year, the government announced plans to make major cuts in this bloated officer corps.
Currently, the Russian military has about a million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units that are largely uniformed and armed like soldiers). But there are 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three, and includes 1,107 generals, 25,665 colonels, 99,550 majors, 90,000 captains, and only 50,000 lieutenants. With all that, some 40,000 officers positions are still vacant. The proposed reorganization would eliminate 20 percent of the generals, 65 percent of the colonels, 75 percent of the majors, and 55 percent of the captains. The number of lieutenants would increase 20 percent. The number of military organizations (about 2,500) would also be cut (by 80 percent) over the next three years. Most of these are reserve units, Cold War relics, containing only a cadre of officers. In the event of a major war, reservists (who are no longer available) would be called up to use the stockpiled equipment (also now missing.) The Stavka (general staff) will have its personnel cut 61 percent (to 8,500), and this includes large cuts in the GRU. Many generals are not happy with the cuts, and disorder among officers connected with commando units is disquieting.
The senior officers (lieutenant colonel and above) will be retired, all others will be offered retraining. The money saved would go to training and promoting more NCOs, and enlisting more volunteer (or "contract") soldiers. The Russians want an all-volunteer forces, but have lacked the money to replace all conscripts with higher quality, and more highly paid, volunteers. Note that data on how many troops there are of each rank in the Russian military is still considered top secret stuff, and these numbers were recently released as a Defense Ministry official discussed reforms with the media. This was apparently done to reduce sympathy for the thousands of soon-to-be former officers who might go around complaining that the military is falling apart.
An additional problem was the GRU spetsnaz feeling that they were not getting the respect and good treatment they deserved. The FSB spetsnaz units had better fringe benefits and pay. On top of that, the GRU spetsnaz spent more time in hell holes like Chechnya. Now some are getting layoff notices. Down in the Caucasus, a lot of the actual fighting was between non-Chechens (al Qaeda types) and Russian commandos (GRU Spetsnaz.) Some 80 percent of the Chechen casualties are inflicted by the Spetsnaz teams, who are the only troops that regularly patrolled the mountains where the Chechen rebels and their foreign allies hid out. Most of the dead and captured rebels are not Chechens. They are foreigners, many of them Arabs. This has largely quieted down, but the GRU spetsnaz still do six month tours down there.
The Spetsnaz are mostly conscripts, which is in sharp contrast to Western commandos (who are volunteer careerists). But the conscripts were carefully selected and were volunteers for Spetsnaz duty. GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) Spetsnaz brigades in Chechnya, suffered about ten percent casualties for each tour. The brigades were usually under strength. Moreover, entire brigades were not sent into Chechnya, so there were only a few hundred Spetsnaz there at a time. The Spetsnaz are there mainly to collect information on the rebels, locating their camps and travel routes. Artillery or bombers are called in to do the actual attacks. When the Spetsnaz do run into rebel units, they inflict far more casualties than they take.
Russia doesn't send more Spetsnaz to Chechnya because these units spend a lot of time training and are needed elsewhere, especially in Central Asia and for counter-terrorism duty. Moreover, duty in Chechnya is grueling, as the Spetsnaz don't have all the special equipment and specialized helicopters that Western (especially American) commandoes have. Russia also considers their Spetsnaz as a strategic reserve for emergencies, and thus likes to keep at least three of the seven GRU brigades in reserve, training and ready for any unexpected emergency.
The GRU has not been slighted in all these reforms. Two years ago, a new, $300 million headquarters for GRU was opened. The 670,000 square foot GRU complex contains the latest of everything for one of the smallest of Russia's intelligence services (the domestic, and foreign, intelligence services are larger). Over the past six years, the increasing flood of oil revenue has made it possible to rebuild the intelligence services. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there followed a decade of decline for the intelligence services. The feared KGB became the threadbare SVB, with domestic intelligence taken over by the FSB. Many Soviet spies defected, and sold their secrets to Western intelligence agencies. While many intel specialists were cut loose, many were kept on the payroll, just in case. The GRU was the most reluctant to part with many of its officers, but now it's open season on officers who don't have a really good reason to stay in uniform.