Kremlin Guards in 2017. Military power has always been regarded as of critical importance by Russian and Soviet leaders, but after the collapse of the USSR, Moscow was left with a dramatically weakened military.
1991-Present: Fall and Rise of the Russian Military
Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the Russian Federation inherited several formidable tasks and challenges from its Soviet predecessor. For the newly-formed Russian Ministry of Defense, the most immediate challenge was to relocate military equipment and personnel from the newly independent states of the former USSR and countries of the disbanded Warsaw Pact into a new Russian state.1 The assets of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal were of particular importance. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, the four states with nuclear weapons in their territory, eventually reached an agreement to dismantle all tactical and strategic nuclear weapons in the non-Russian republics or return them to Russia.2 The issue of conventional military forces was much more problematic. Forces returning from Eastern Europe had to be reintegrated into the new Russian military, while those in the newly independent states were viewed as the basis for budding national militaries for new sovereign countries.3
Returning military forces from Eastern Europe were often shipped piecemeal back to unprepared bases in the Russian Federation.4 Other units located in the territory of the former Soviet Union were absorbed by the newly independent states. In certain cases, units such as the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine or the 14th Army in Moldova actively resisted the attempts by the Soviet successor states to absorb these forces. Some of these stranded units became embroiled in ethnic conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Tajikistan.5 Most significantly for the new Russian military, interior military districts, which under the Soviet Union contained low-readiness mobilization forces such as the Moscow and North Caucasus Military Districts, now became “front-line” districts bordering foreign states.6 The Russian Federation emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union with a much smaller military and an entirely new set of security challenges.7
Russia’s new military faced dramatic budgetary, readiness, and personnel shortfalls, as well as uncertainty of its role as Moscow struggled to determine its place in the post-Cold War world.8,9 Russia cut military spending drastically during the decade of post-Soviet economic turbulence. Fielding of new weapons systems slowed to a trickle and eventually halted; the huge former Soviet arms industry struggled, focusing on gaining hard currency by selling its most modern weapons to foreign buyers.10 At the same time, Russian military units lacked funding and fuel to train and exercise, and pay was often months in arrears. The readiness of the force was minimal, and the popular image of the Russian military of the 1990s remains ships rusting at pier side, pilots unable to fly, and Russian officers moonlighting with second jobs to make ends meet.11
Troops gathered around a fire for warmth during the Chechen conflict; the difficulties Moscow’s weakened military faced during its operations against the separatist republic underscored its deterioration during the 1990s.
Moscow also had difficulty manning its military. Press reports on military life that began to appear during the glasnost (openness) era of the late 1980s highlighted the harshness of the conscript’s lot, and in particular the brutal and sometimes deadly dedovschina hazing of new draftees. Draft evasion became endemic, with many young Russian men using any and all legal or illegal measures to avoid military service.12,13
Russian generals voiced complaints about the poor quality of the conscripts they actually received, as they were often unhealthy, poorly educated, and sometimes arrived with criminal records.14 The military’s most painful trial, however, was caused by insurgency within the borders of the Russian Federation. From 1994 to 1995, undermanned and poorly trained Russian forces struggled to take and secure the breakaway Chechen Republic in the North Caucasus.15 The military's problems and limitations were widely publicized by the Russian and international press, further undermining its reputation and reinforcing the desire of young Russians to avoid service.
Throughout the post-Soviet era, there was a recognized need to reform and modernize the military.16 Not only did the Russian military suffer from the readiness and manpower shortfalls outlined above, but Moscow’s forces retained their cumbersome Soviet-era organization, designed for the mobilization of massive numbers of reservists to conduct deep mechanized theater operations in the context of a major war.17 The 1990s and first decade of the 21st century saw a series of military reform efforts announced, discussed, and only abortively implemented. Russia’s first Minister of Defense, General Pavel Grachev, (1992-1996) posited the creation of a fully manned and equipped small “mobile force” component that could rapidly move to a conflict area and hold the line until additional forces mobilized;18,19,20 Minister of Defense Igor Sergeyev (1997-2001) created a new strategic nuclear deterrence force based on his previous service, the Strategic Rocket Forces;21,22 and Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov (2001-2007) and Chief of the General Staff Yuriy Baluyevsky (2004—2008) pushed for the establishment of new regional theater commands and filling the military’s ranks with professional “contract” personnel.23,24 By the late 2000s, these reform plans remained largely unimplemented, unsuccessful, or abandoned.
Russian SS-25 ICBM launcher; given the weakened state of its conventional forces in the years after the collapse of the USSR, Moscow prioritized the maintenance of its nuclear capabilities.
One arguable exception to this series of military reform failures was the effort during the late 1990s to create “permanently ready forces,” a subset of the Russian force structure made up of units with better manning and equipment levels.25,26 These units were created and used during the second Chechen conflict (1999-2004) and enabled Moscow to intervene more rapidly and with more capable forces than during the first Chechen War (1994—1995).27
Despite modest improvements and a measure of success in the second Chechen conflict, the Russian military still entered the first decade of the 21st century with a Soviet-era mobilization force structure almost completely equipped with dated Soviet-era equipment. Shortfalls in modern command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) equipment and capabilities were particularly notable. Russian military limitations were fully on display during the August 2008 “five-day war” with Georgia.28 Russian forces prevailed and defeated their relatively weak Georgian opponents, but after-action analysis by the Russian military highlighted many failings. Air and artillery strikes missed their targets, an army commander had to resort to a cell phone to contact a higher headquarters,29 and several aircraft were lost to Georgian air defenses. While internationally many were impressed by the ability of the Russian military, so derelict in the 1990s, to accomplish its mission, Moscow was spurred by what it viewed as critical shortfalls in Georgia to rapidly push forward a whole new set of reforms—known as the “New Look”—which had been under discussion before the conflict.38
Minister of Defense Shoygu at the 2014 Victory Day Parade; since 2012, Shoygu has presided over the continued modernization of the Russian military as well as its operations in Ukraine and Syria.
Transition to the New Look Program
Moscow’s limitations in modernizing its military had led to heavy dependence on its aging nuclear forces to defend the state. But while the presence of a robust nuclear deterrent dissuaded potential aggressors from directly attacking the Russian Federation, it was not flexible enough for Moscow to use in small, local conflicts such as Georgia or as a tool of power projection. The New Look program was a comprehensive and massive effort, aimed to change the Russian military from a Gold War-style mobilization force to a more ready, modern, and professional military able to respond to 21st century conflicts.30 Partially-manned Soviet-style divisions were reorganized into what were planned to be fully-manned brigades; officer ranks were trimmed from 350,000 billets to initially 150,000, although later the number rose to 220.000; the contract manning effort was reshaped and reinvigorated, with a goal of 425,000 professional enlisted personnel in the force by 2017;31 the six extant military districts were reshaped initially into four joint strategic commands, which controlled all military assets in their areas in peace and war; and lastly, a massive state armaments program was initiated, allocating 1.1 trillion rubles over 10 years, aiming at fielding a Russian military with 70% new or modernized equipment by 2020.32,33,34,35,36,37
The New Look was controversial and painful for many in or associated with the Russian military establishment.39,40,41 Even military education and medical support organizations became targets for major reductions. In late 2012, the unpopular Minister of Defense associated with the reform effort, Anatoliy Serdyukov, left office and the former head of the Emergency Situations Ministry, Sergey Shoygu, took over.42 Shoygu proved adept at easing some of the most unpopular aspects of the New Look while largely retaining and refining the essence of the reform program.43
The years of Shoygu’s tenure have seen the New Look military engaged in a series of active operations. In early 2014, Russian naval infantry, special forces, and airborne troops rapidly seized control of the Crimean Peninsula.44 While they faced almost no opposition, the operation gave the world its first look at a military that appeared surprisingly disciplined and well-equipped for those whose image of
Russian forces was formed during the years of decay in the 1990s. Although their presence was denied by Moscow, Russian special forces and troops operated to mobilize, lead, equip, and support separatist militias in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine from spring 2014 to the present. Ukrainian forces have stressed the capabilities of the Russian-enabled separatist units, especially with respect to C4ISR, artillery firepower, and air defense.45,46 In September 2015, Moscow launched its first expeditionary operation since the Soviet era, deploying fixed-wing and helicopter aviation assets to Syria. Combined with other military support to the Asad regime such as intelligence information, advisors, ammunition, and artillery, Russian action arrested the decline in the Syrian regime’s military position.47
The Russian military today is on the rise—not, as the same Soviet force that faced the West in the Cold War, dependent on large units with heavy equipment, but as a smaller, more mobile, balanced force rapidly becoming capable of conducting the full range of modern warfare. It is a military that can intervene in countries along Russia’s periphery or as far away as the Middle East. The new Russian military is a tool that can be used to underpin Moscow’s stated ambitions of being a leading force in a multipolar world.
Russian Joint Strategic Commands
Russia has established five Joint Strategic Commands (Obyedinennoye Strategicheskoye Komandovaniye - OSK) to deal with perceived threats from the west, south, east, and Arctic.48