Leadership: The Old Order Passes In Russia


November 13, 2013: The Russian Defense Ministry has introduced some unexpected changes this year. For the first time the “Command Center” for the military will be physically separate (in a new building complex) from the Stavka (the General Staff which has long handled planning and administration of the military). This is part of a trend towards installing more Western style civilian control over the military high command. At the same time attention was made to placating military traditionalists. Thus the Defense Minister also reversed the conversion of the two elite divisions stationed in Moscow (Kantemyrovskaya tank division and the Tamanskaya motor-rifle division) to the new brigade structure. The ministry also ordered the return of ideological training for troops and increased use of informants and opinion surveys to monitor morale and loyalty in the military. In effect, government has returned the use of the communist era "Zampolit" (political officer). In Soviet times every unit commander had a deputy (Zampolit) who represented the communist party and could veto any of the commanders’ decisions. The Zampolit was responsible for troop loyalty and political correctness. Sort of a communist chaplain. Earlier (2010) the Russian Army reintroduced chaplains, something that the communists did away with in the 1920s. The new chaplains are, however, expected to report on the loyalty of the troops, to church and state. Now additional officers are being added to handle ideological training and monitoring morale. Not exactly the return of the Zampolit but a return of most of the Zampolits’ duties.

This was not what a lot of senior officers expected when the reformist Defense Minister (Anatoly Serdyukov) was replaced with a new guy (Sergei Shoigu) a year ago. At first it was believed that the new boss was going to reverse a decade of military reforms, but that did not happen. While some senior members of the Defense Ministry were openly 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, that was only talked about and not acted on. The reason for this proposal 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 15 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. This is what kept the brigade reorganization alive, because brigades are more effective in dealing with insurrections and low-level unrest. Traditionalists in the Defense Ministry pointed 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. But the senior government leaders believed they could use diplomacy and new, faster moving conventional forces to prevent any Chinese use of “grab and declare peace” tactics.

For a while it seemed that Russian reformers were 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. But a year after the reformist Defense Minister was replaced most of his reforms are continuing and some (like making life more comfortable for the troops) have been expanded. Troops now have showers in the barracks and lots of hot water. The food is getting better and buffet style dining (used for decades in the West) is being introduced. New barracks are being built and life in the military is much less like being in prison, which is what it resembled until the reforms began.

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, washing machines, 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). In addition to showers in all barracks, along with wi-fi (in some) and new furnishings the 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.

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 made a lot of enemies in the military with his reform efforts and was replaced in late 2012. After that it was thought that his reforms would be halted. That appeared 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.

Yet 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 keeps 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 21st century force. The new Defense Minister didn’t halt the reforms, he just made them more palatable for the traditionalists and made it clear that the big changes were here to stay.




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