Leadership: Russia Goes Back To The Future


February 21, 2013: The sudden change in leadership in the Russian Defense Ministry last November was not supposed to reverse a decade of military reforms, but that appears to be what is happening. Senior members of the Defense Ministry are now advocating returning to the use of divisions (the army is now based on brigades, a system pioneered in the West) and a large reserve force. The reason for this was the possibility of a large war in the east. The only major foe out there is China but China was not mentioned. Nevertheless, China is the major potential threat to Russia. The Chinese Army is three times larger and has fifteen tank and mechanized infantry divisions it could place on the Russian border. China is also reorganizing its ground forces into one based on brigades rather than divisions. Still, China has three times as many brigades. Officially, Russia has ceased to consider Chinese ground forces a threat as Russian nuclear weapons are supposed to be what would stop a Chinese ground assault. Traditionalists in the Defense Ministry are pointing out that nuclear war would destroy both nations and that the current situation allows China to quickly grab the Russian Far East (which China has long claimed) and then call for a peace conference. This is the sort of tactic China has used in the past and the Chinese are big fans of their imperial past.

Meanwhile, Russian reformers are on the defensive. Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, there have been growing efforts to drag the army out of the 19th century. There has been resistance to change, especially when it involved ancient and often uniquely Russian practices. All this new stuff from the West was seen as, well, un-Russian.

There are many recent changes that rattle the traditionalists. For example, the reformers got troops liberated from the prison-like restrictions they have long endured. For generations Russian conscripts were confined to their barracks when not on duty. This was not pleasant, as the barracks were often decrepit and uncomfortable. The barracks themselves are now being upgraded because they long lacked flush toilets, showers, central heating, and many other amenities Western troops take for granted. In these old barracks troops were allowed to bathe once a week in a bathhouse (actual or improvised for the occasion). One of the latest reforms will install showers in all barracks, along with wi-fi (in some) and new furnishings. New barracks have flush toilets and central heating. During the Cold War Russian troops stationed in East Germany lived in modern barracks, and that was one reason why duty in Germany was considered a choice assignment.

Another new reform that received a lot of opposition from traditionalists had to do with socks. The reformers want to replace the traditional rugged (and crudely made) slip on boots and foot wrappings with Western style combat boots that use laces, come in many different sizes, and are meant to be used with socks. The problem with the foot wrappings (“portyanki”) was that if you did not wrap your feet just so, slipping the foot into the “tarpaulin” boots would leave your flesh exposed to the rough inside surface of these boots. This could lead to debilitating blisters. The old-fashioned boots were widely disliked by most of the troops forced to use them. The number of older officers who still favored this 19th century footwear are fading away. By the end of the year portyanki and the old boots that only come in two sizes will be gone, unless the growing power of the traditionalists can block this.

Military reform has never come easily to Russia and usually occurred when a particularly strong and harsh ruler was in charge. In modern times Russia has undergone four periods of major military reform. The first was in the early 18th century, under Czar Peter the Great. The next was under Field Marshall Milyutin in the late 19th century. In the 1930s, over a dozen daring reformers made the military ready for modern warfare. However, most of these men were executed by paranoid dictator, Josef Stalin, just before World War II. For over 60 years there was not much real reform until 2008, when Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov sought to recast the Russian military into a force similar to those found in the West. This meant fewer officers and conscripts, more NCOs and volunteers, plus new equipment, weapons, training methods, and tactics. Serdyukov was recently replaced and it was thought that his reforms would be halted. That appears to be happening. One of Serdyukov’s most unpopular (within the military) moves was to shrink the size of the officer corps. Despite the fact that most of the officers being let go were not really needed, this elicited a lot of protests from active duty and retired officers.

The mass officer firings continued anyway. Shrinking the officer corps proved bad for officer morale, as could be expected. Moreover, most of the good officers had left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the Russian military saw its budget slashed by 80 percent. Building an NCO corps was difficult because the 1930s reforms had gotten rid of it (because officers, all members of the Communist Party, were considered more politically reliable than NCOs). The big problem is the collapse of the Soviet era military industries. With orders from the Russian military disappearing in the 1990s, many of these firms disappeared or switched to civilian products. Those that survived did so with export orders. The defense industries lost their best people, who left for better paying jobs overseas or in new non-defense firms in Russia.

Then there's the corruption, which expanded in the military in the 1990s, as the size of the force shrunk over 70 percent. Officers and troops sold off a lot of unneeded military equipment and officers stole money they had control over. This caused all sorts of problems, from lack of maintenance for equipment and barracks to shortages of fuel (to stay warm during the severe Russian Winter) and food (causing hunger and even some starvation deaths among lower ranking troops). For most of the last decade military prosecutors have been busy sending corrupt officers to jail. But that has not eliminated the problem. Low troop morale also remains a problem. Thus it should be no surprise that the government has given priority to keeping nuclear weapons, and the missiles that deliver them, in good shape. As for the rest of the armed forces, change is coming very slowly but it keeps coming. The ancient Russian army traditions are gradually being peeled away and the Russian army is slowly evolving into a 21th century force.




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