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The Incredible Shrinking Russian Army
by James Dunnigan
October 10, 2014

For centuries the Russian Army was rightly feared because of its huge size and the determination of its leaders to win at any cost. That army died out in the 1990s and was replaced by not much. This can be seen clearly during recent Russian efforts to annex parts of Ukraine. For the operations in and near Ukraine the Russians have sent in about twenty percent of their combat brigades, usually the most effective (Spetsnaz and airborne) and experienced (ones recently in the Caucasus). Parts of at least three of these brigades are currently inside eastern Ukraine. Over a dozen combat brigades have had some of their troops in Ukraine so far this year. These brigades represent the best Russia has, as the rest of the army is crippled by inexperience and shortages of personnel and equipment. Russia is still trying to replace obsolete and worn out Cold War era weapons and equipment.

Since Russia does not admit it has troops inside Ukraine, the hundreds of Russian soldiers killed there so far have been coming back and the families are increasingly angry about the government secrecy about how their sons died and where. Despite strenuous efforts to suppress news of dead soldiers the Internet allows the news to get around and the families of dead soldiers to get in touch with each other and organize protests and unrest the government does not want. All this is another side effect of military reforms that are still under way.

In Russia the reforms of the army that began in 2008 have reduced the number of army units from over 1,800 to fewer than 200 now. Many of the disbanded units were part of the reserve or organizations that had become irrelevant but continued to exist anyway. The army strength is now about 300,000, including SOF (special operations forces, or Spetsnaz). The combat forces comprise 55 combat brigades (33 mechanized infantry and four tank, 22 Spetsnaz, airborne or air assault).

These brigades are about half the size of American combat brigades and about a third of the personnel are conscripts who serve for one year. So the skill levels of troops in these brigades is much lower than for comparable troops in American or British brigades (and elite brigades in French, German and some other Western forces.) There are also 28 combat support brigades (eight armed with multi-barrel rocket launchers like the U.S. MLRS, nine with short range ballistic missiles, ten with anti-aircraft missile systems and one engineer brigade).

The reforms basically dismantled the Soviet era reserve system that maintained over a hundred divisions and hundreds of support units that had equipment but less than ten percent of their troops. In wartime these units were quickly manned by reservists (conscripts who had recently completed their two years of active service). In the half century since World War II the reserve system fell apart and discarding it was a smart move because it was not worth the cost of maintaining. When mobilized the reserve divisions proved much less capable than expected. But eliminating the old reserve system means Russia only has active duty brigades available for any emergency. The Russian Army is now smaller (in numbers and capability) than the American, something that had never happened before.

Russia also has persistent problems obtaining and retaining experienced personnel. Conscription is unpopular, but the money is not available to completely replace conscripts. The current plan is to increase the number of contract (higher paid volunteer) troops to 425,000 (for the army and Interior Ministry) over the next few years. There other problems with conscription, the most obvious ones being that the number of 18 year olds is rapidly declining each year. The latest crop of draftees was born after the Soviet Union dissolved. That was when the birth rate went south. Not so much because the Soviet Union was gone but more because of the economic depression (caused by decades of communist misrule) that precipitated the collapse of the communist government. The number of available draftees went from 1.5 million a year in the early 1990s, to 800,000 today. Less than half those potential conscripts are showing up and many have criminal records (or tendencies) that help sustain the abuse of new recruits that has made military service so unsavory.

With conscripts now in for only a year, rather than two, there is a tendency to take a lot of marginal (sickly, overweight, bad attitudes, drug users) recruits in order to keep the military and Ministry of Interior units up to strength. But this means that even elite airborne and commando units are using a lot of conscripts (who volunteer for this dangerous service). Most of these young guys take a year to master the skills needed to be useful and by then they are discharged. Few choose to remain in uniform and become career (contract) soldiers. That's primarily because the Russian military is seen as a crippled institution and one not likely to get better any time soon. With so many of the troops now one year conscripts, an increasing number of the best officers and NCOs get tired of coping with all the alcoholics, drug users, and petty criminals that are taken in just to make quotas. With the exodus of the best leaders, and the growing number of ill-trained and unreliable conscripts, the Russian military is more of a mirage than an effective combat (or even police) organization.

All this is in sharp contrast to the old days. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it had five million troops. Now it's less than one million in just Russia (which has about half the population of the old Soviet Union but most of the territory). Although the Russian armed forces lost over 80 percent of its strength since 1991, a disproportionate number of officers remained. A decade ago the Russian military had about 1.2 million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units). But there were 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three. With all that, some 40,000 officer positions were still vacant. The reorganization eliminated over half of them but left many surviving officers bitter and in a bad mood.


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