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Russian Defense Reform: Current Trends

Authored by Dr. Irina Isakova. | November 2006

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The Russian government has demonstrated a serious intention to address the issue of defense reform and modernize the military. Russia?s defense reform is being implemented now, though it is far from being complete. The pace of the reforms and the sequence of measures needing to be taken have been adjusted to the fast-moving political and economic environment. The present stage of the reform process is a transitional phase to radical systemic changes in defense posture planned for 2011-15. It also reflects the political dynamics of the forthcoming elections in Russia. The key new developments are:

  • Setting clear parameters and timing for radical Command and Control (C&C) transformation, including abandoning the Military Districts, transferring control to the operational commands and strategic ?directions? (i.e., strategic areas) in 2010-15;
  • Establishing a joint headquarters for special purpose forces;
  • Reforming military intelligence;
  • Adjusting Russia?s new nuclear posture;
  • Reforming the defense industry and opening doors for private investments; and,
  • Establishing new forms of civil control over the military (increasing presidential influence).

Russia?s political establishment, in setting a goal of reforming the defense system by introducing transparency, accountability, and civilian control over the military, is concentrating its efforts on sustaining and modernizing nuclear strategic forces and creating robust counterterrorist special-purpose forces. These are judged to be the initial and essential tools for responding to both global and regional/local security challenges. Training is increasing, changes are being introduced to command and control and mobilization policy across the defense and security sectors, and new weapons systems are coming on line. Modernization of Russia?s defense and security establishment is considered to be one of the primary national development programs. The business community is expected to join the government?s efforts in funding this process, especially the procurement programs. This monograph attempts to describe the framework and current patterns of Russia?s defense reform.


The Russian Federation?s (RF) defense reform has proceeded through different cycles and stages, almost always under both internal and foreign criticism. Even in 2006 the debate continues, not only about whether it has been successful, but also about whether there is some sort of ?road map? in reforming the Russian military and security services. In the recent past, defense reform in Russia has lacked the attention it deserves. Rather, the acute financial and structural problems that the Russian military was facing?deterioration of its potential and capabilities, growing crime rates, and hazing in the military?served as the focus of analysis and research. Many defense analysts therefore saw the declared goals and tasks of defense reform as mere wishful thinking or theoretical exercises. As a result, new trends in implementing defense reform went almost unnoticed except for the assessments of a few military experts.1

Today an assessment of current developments in Russia?s defense reform once again has become essential for several reasons. First is the increasing probability of Russian energy supplies becoming an integral element of the U.S. energy supply system. As was revealed in March-April 2006, the U.S. market is ready to receive up to 10 percent of its supplies of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia. There is even a possibility of increased LNG deliveries to a level of 30 percent of the U.S. market. The security of energy supplies thus becomes an important issue for both the U.S. and Russian defense and security establishments. The Russian military services, especially the navy,2 have been given new missions in providing security to offshore installations, platform infrastructure, and maritime transport routes. Their ability to provide security in these fields thus becomes important for their U.S. counterparts. Moreover, the procedures and rules of engagement (ROE) that could allow joint U.S.-Russian actions also become part of both states? security agendas.

Second, the state of Russia?s nuclear posture raises additional questions about the nature of the strategic relationship between Russia and the United States. The article ?The Rise of the U.S. Nuclear Primacy? by Keir A. Lieber and Duryl G. Press in the March 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs questioned the capability of the Russian nuclear triad to continue a policy of deterrence, or to withstand and respond to a U.S. preventive nuclear strike.3 This article triggered a strong political reaction in Russia. It inspired a debate among policymakers and defense experts about the state of Russian nuclear forces and the nature of the future strategic and nuclear relationship between the United States and Russia.

Third, the success of Russian defense reforms will have a direct impact on the results of the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections in Russia. Defense reform affects up to 30-40 percent of the voting constituency. The decisions taken as part of its implementation touch those who serve, their families, and veterans of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and other services, not to mention those who consider themselves to be potential conscripts. Such groups have a huge stake in the decisions taken in reforming the mobilization base of the defense establishment. The preferences of this 30-40 percent of voters could be crucial in determining the results of the next elections and the choices the nation will make in defining its defense direction over the next decade.

Fourth, a restructuring of Russia?s military-industrial complex is considered to be an essential element of defense reform. The creation of vertical integrated holdings in specialized sectors (aviation, shipbuilding, information technology, etc.) is regarded as one of the essential tools for restructuring the defense industry and for channelling private, including foreign, investments into the defense sector. The creation of such holdings presents a dilemma for western and U.S. companies, i.e., whether to consider the new Russian corporations as potential partners or competitors. For instance, United Aviation Construction Corporation (UACC), one of the proposed aviation holdings currently being organized, is going to consolidate the majority of Russian aviation firms and related research and development (R&D) bureaus in the field. The product line of Russian Region Jet (RRJ) is going to be its main core civil project, in which the U.S. Boeing Corporation is represented substantially. Irkut, one of the Russian firms that is to participate in the merger, offered to sell 10-25 percent of its shares to the European Air Defense System (EADS) prior to completion of the merger, potentially making EADS an active participant in the giant Russian aircraft firm UACC. Fulfillment of such defense reforms, which tend to entangle Russian defense-related industries with those of the West, have enormous political, economic, defense, and strategic implications for U.S. companies. The implementation of new regulations for investment in the defense sector in Russia thus creates additional challenges and opportunities for the U.S. firms.

Fifth, implementation of defense reform creates new patterns of civil-military control, revealing the patterns of Russia?s understandings of transparency, accountability, etc. Sixth, and finally, the proposed patterns of the modernization of the armed forces and defense reform in general demonstrate with whom and how the U.S. military can better communicate and cooperate with the Russian armed forces in order to address jointly new security challenges.

The basis of the current reform effort was established in the late 1990s. By the end of 2003, there was an increasing number of reports that the Russian military had emerged from the ?crisis of survival? and was entering a stage of systemic development. The latest version of military reform (2004-08) is being implemented now, at least in part. Professionalization of the military continues, although at a slow pace and with some setbacks; and the goal to provide the armed forces with high-tech equipment and the capability to use it has begun to be realized.

Military reform is supposed to touch the structural elements of the military (reorganization of the General Staff in the Ministry of Defense and introduction of new principles of military command and control); reduction in numerical strength; initiation of a transfer from reservist mobilization principles to a system of contract service;4 implementation of security sector reform, with emphasis on counterterrorism; and achievement of an overall modernization of the defense technical base. Despite inconsistencies in implementation of its original designs, Russian military reform has a road map. Its goal is to realize the transition of archaic, inefficient defense machinery to a new-generation defense posture, capable of addressing the whole complex of contemporary challenges. Neither of these goals has been reached, but in each area a number of steps to introduce systemic changes have taken place.

Currently the focus of defense reform is:

  • New command and control principles;
  • Mobilization system;
  • Modernization and rearmament;
  • Security sector reform (with special focus on counterterrorism measures); and,
  • New forms of civil control over the military.
  • Preservation of nuclear deterrence is also considered to be an essential element of?in fact, an absolute requisite for?defense reform.

    Defense reform in the RF was a long-awaited necessity. It was needed to deal with the internal requirements of military organizations, to address needed changes in response to internal strategic transformations of society and its administrative management system, as well as to current challenges posed by the spread of international terrorist threats.5


    1. Isabelle Facon, ?The Modernisation of the Russian Military: The Ambitions and Ambiguities of Vladimir Putin,? Conflict Studies Research Centre, Russian Series 05/19(E), April 2005; Steven E. Miller and Dmitri Trenin, ?The Russian Military: Power and Policy,? Steven E. Miller and Dmitri Trenin, eds., The Russian Military: Power and Purpose, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004; Stephen Blank, Threats to Russian Security: The View From Moscow, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2000; Stephen Blank, ?The Framework of Russian Defense Policy Under Vladimir Putin,? paper presented to the II Conference on Russia?s Security Environment, Center for Strategic Leadership, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, December 4-6, 2000.

    2. In October-November 2005, a new mission for the Russian armed forces was announced by First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov. The Minister went public with a new mission statement for the navy during his inspection visit to Vidinyaevo, Murmansk region (a base of the multifunctional and combat nuclear submarines), on May 16, 2006. The Northern Fleet is going to take the mission of safeguarding the transportation routes of Russian liquified natural gas to the free market customers. The Northern Fleet is to take part in serious exercises in the world?s oceans. Russia has capabilities to take part in the Non-Proliferation Initiative, as the Northern Fleet possesses up to 75-80 percent of total naval combat capabilities. See ?Sergei Ivanov Had a Working Visit to the North Fleet,? ITAR-TASS, May 16, 2006. Dr. Stephen Blank assumes that this mission will be transferred to other services as well: ?The Northern Fleet, and presumably other formations as well, are now openly tasked with defending energy platforms and tankers.? See Stephen Blank, ?Reading Putin?s Military Tea Leaves,? The Jamestown Foundation Eurasian Monitor, May 19, 2006.

    3. Keir A. Lieber and Darryl G. Press, ?The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. LXXXV, No. 2, March-April, 2006, www.foreignaffairs.org/20060301faessay85204/keir-a-lieber-daryl-gpress/the-rise-o.

    4. Victor Ozerov, ?In XXI Century Our Army Cannot Allow Itself to Exist as It Did,? www.Strana.ru, March 14, 2005.

    5. In one of his articles, former Chief of the General Staff General Anatoly Kvashnin made the following point:

    One of the vital elements of the military reform is making a transfer to the territorial principle of C&C over the military and other services of the Russian Federation . . . . The system of a military-administrative territorial division in Russia is based on a territorial principle of subordination, command, and control. The realization of this principle in full should help to unite all elements of operational control of the ?power ministries? under one executive official, who as a result should carry personal responsibility for defense and security of the state within the defined territorial boundaries. . . . Today?s victory on the ground is not to be achieved without gaining superiority in the air and space, and without active information superiority. . . . The principal character of future wars will be determined by the use of high precision weapons, intelligence-information systems, and radio-electronic warfare. The increasing possibility of incorporating all these components in one joint combat system will change radically any future military activity. . . . Forming of this system began in the Russian armed forces in the mid-80s. Presently it is at the stage when such a system is receiving realistic features and can be established on the existing material basis . . . . Establishing a unified system of technical assistance and logistics for the armed forces and all other forces and military formations and institutions of the Russian Federation that are responsible for the state?s military security is becoming one of the main priority tasks of military construction.