'Red Dawn' redux: Russia begins massive military modernization effort
Some 36,000 officers are expected to be cut this year and many Soviet-era 'phantom divisions' eliminated. But will the economic crisis undercut reforms?
After nearly two decades of false starts and failures, the Kremlin appears determined to begin the radical military reforms needed to fashion a modern army from the tangled wreckage of its Soviet-era armed forces.Skip to next paragraph
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Unlike previous attempts, little public fanfare accompanies the current effort to modernize Russia's army, begun in earnest after the dismal assessments began rolling in of the military's performance in last August's war with the tiny Caucasus republic of Georgia.
But behind-the-scenes infighting has reportedly been furious, pitting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev against most of the military's general staff, as well as some powerful nationalist and conservative political forces.
In the past month, several top generals and defense ministry officials have been sacked by the Kremlin, including chief of the GRU military intelligence Valentin Korabelnikov and head of the main personnel directorate, Mikhail Vodzakin, effectively crushing institutional resistance to the reforms, experts say.
Although the overall size of Russia's armed forces will slip modestly from just under 1.2 million to 1 million men, the planned changes will slash the 355,000-strong officer corps, particularly the bloated upper ranks, by almost 150,000. More importantly, it will reconfigure the forces to eliminate many Soviet-era "phantom" divisions, which have generals but no troops. In their place, a smaller number of fully staffed units will be formed and – eventually, it is hoped – retrained, equipped with modern weapons, and handed a fresh mission that expresses Russia's post-Soviet national priorities.
Supporters of the reform are jubilant. "By the end of this year Russia will have a new army," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former deputy defense minister who now works as a civilian adviser to the defense ministry. "All these skeleton formations from Soviet times will be replaced with real, functioning units. This alone is an achievement we have not seen in Russia for 150 years, a triumph of common sense over bureaucratic inertia."
But opponents insist this reform, which comes after almost two decades of futile tinkering with the military, will only hasten the collapse of Russia's once-proud armed services.
"This is not a reform, it is the final blow to the army," says Viktor Ilyukhin, a leading Communist parliamentarian and deputy chair of the State Duma's Security Committee. "The essence of these measures seems to be to cut staff, especially the officer corps. We are losing the professional basis of our army, and demoralizing those who remain. Officers have been constantly under stress of these endless reforms for the past 15 years or more, and they are exhausted and harassed by the constant threats of dismissal or demotion. This is the biggest damage."
A more efficient fighting force
At the heart of the debate are sweeping plans to abolish the Soviet-era "mobilization" army, which was designed to fight World War II against the massed forces of the West. In line with that model, the Russian military still maintains far-flung facilities, vast stockpiles of armaments, and an organizational structure that is meant to be filled out with millions of reservists in short order.
Besides streamlining the army's structure, the plans call for the military to sell off many assets that will not be needed in future, including factories, tracts of land, massive fuel dumps, and armories stuffed with outdated weapons.
"Our authorities are spurred by genuine necessity to make these changes," says Viktor Myasnikov, a military expert with the independent Moscow daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "The mobilization army utilizes the resources of the entire country; the whole economy serves its needs first, the country's needs second. It's expensive and threatens to bring Russia to the brink of bankruptcy. If we're to have a market economy, the army must be separated from the economy."