The Fog Of Russia’s Military Reform – OpEd


By Dieter Farwick

To start with a fair statement: To adjust military forces to the new strategic environment and old and new challenges comes close to squaring the circle taking into account all relevant factors. There is no “reset”- no start from scratch. Reformers have to deal with “old thinking”, outdated structures, a politico-military culture and not-so-new armament and equipment as well as social responsibilities – to name a few.

It might be one of the most difficult jobs to be a politico-military planner in Russia about 20 years after the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact as well as the retreat of the Soviet Armed Forces from Afghanistan – a humiliation in the view of many Russians and the “old guard”.

From the outside world it is very difficult to recognize the distinction between official declarations and the reality within the Russian Armed Forces.

It is the undisputed merit of Roger N. McDermott to lift the fog of Russia’s military reform in his well-researched book ”The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces”.

He covers the whole spectrum from the military doctrine via the “table of organization and equipment” to the generals, officers and NCO who have to give life to the desired and necessary reform.

The quest for military reform of the Russian Armed Forces, which started after the demise of the Soviet Union, got a new momentum after the five-days war against Georgia in August 2008. During the learning and modernizing process serious deficiencies have been recognized ranging from the miserable operational performance of the generals and officers via the insufficient command and control system to outdated armament and equipment. The smaller but better equipped and well-trained Georgian military forces brought the Russian forces close to the brink of defeat.

In the aftermath of the war President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took the initiative to push for the “new look” for an “innovative Russian Army”. The lack of a grand design since 2008 has resulted in too many changes of efforts, too much back and forth in the conceptual framework. Examples of irritations have been the dramatic reductions of the officer corps and the question whether a voluntary army or a conscription system should be the blueprint for the future.

The question of the quality of officers and NCOs is key to any military reform in Russia. It is a fundamental issue whether an authoritarian system like Russia is able to get, train and educate officers and NCOs who master challenges in territorial defense, peace enforcing or peace keeping operations. In a system in which initiative and risk taking is dangerous, there is no chance to get the “strategic soldier”, who takes the risk and initiative not waiting for orders from his superiors.

Roger N. McDermott raises an important issue with worldwide implications. The weakness of the 1 million people strong conventional Russian Armed Forces lowers the nuclear threshold – especially looking at the development in the Eastern part of Russia where China poses a potential threat.

It is also an obstacle for nuclear arms control. Russia is not interested in the reduction or demolishing of Tactical or Theater Nuclear Weapons. They need those weapons – more than NATO – for deterrence purposes.

Roger McDermott is right in observing that in NATO there are different threat perceptions about Russia. The Eastern European NATO members see Russia differently than Western European NATO members. The “strategic concept” of NATO pays tribute to these different perceptions. It gives the defense of NATO territory a prominent role.

Roger N. McDermott’s book is a treasury for all people who have a vested interest to learn more about the reality in the conventional Russian Armed Forces which do no longer pose the former threat of a massive conventional attack against NATO members.

Roger N. McDERMOTT, “The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces”, The Jamestown Foundation, 2011

Dieter Farwick

Senior Vice President
World Security Network Foundation
BrigGen (ret.)
Former Force Commander and Chief Operations at NATO HQ Farwick

World Security Network

The World Security Network is not American, Asian or European: we are the largest global-elite action network for foreign and defense affairs—focusing on the young, new elite of the world

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