The Tears of the Bear: The Russian Army in the 1990s (Peter Antill)
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, it was really only a matter of time before the once formidable Soviet Army would follow suit.
"The Soviet Army was a large and relatively effective force, at least for the high intensity war for which it was designed. It had a clear sense of mission, a high degree of internal cohesion and a plethora of adequate to good equipment. The disintegration of the USSR has destroyed all this." [note 1]
This process accelerated over the next five months and in May 1992, President Yeltsin signed a decree authorising the formation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. From birth this entity was not in very good health (having been created under stress from the death of the USSR) and while Russia established itself as being the legal successor to the Soviet Union, many of the former Republics nationalised the armed forces that were on their soil, with the attempts by Russia to keep a degree of cohesion through the mechanisms of the CIS (CIS - Commonwealth of Independant States - the successor to the Soviet Union, an organisation the Russians hoped would bind the former Soviet Republics together in common foreign, economic and defence policies) having failed. The loss of the border areas of the former Soviet Union has meant that a large proportion of the most modern military hardware, infrastructure and parts of the air defence system has been lost to Russia.
"Russia was left with only 37% of Soviet MiG-29's, 23% of SU-27's, 43% of IL-76's and it lost the overwhelming majority of TU-95M and TU-160 strategic bombers. It has only a little more than half the former airfields and half the runways over 1800m are in urgent need of repair, and facilities, including protection, are generally lacking." [note 2] The new Army has had to face the problems of redeploying hundreds of thousands of men and items of equipment back to a heartland that is substantially lacking in infrastructure, on top of having to manage downsizing, restructuring and change how the force is manned. These were having to be contemplated and then undertaken in conditions of hostility from several areas of the Homeland, antipathy at home, chronic underfunding and collapsing morale within the Armed Forces themselves. On top of this, it wasn't until November 1993 that legislation was pushed through the Russian Duma (Parliament) that established the Russian Military Doctrine, and the guiding principles by which the Armed Forces should organise, equip and train. Until then it had no such guiding light in the stormy seas of change. Given this unpromising background, it is probably somewhat of a surprise that the Army "has not fractured, has completed its withdrawals and CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe - a treaty signed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, limiting the number of conventional weapon systems for each country, whether at home, deployed elsewhere in Europe, or from abroad (as in the case of the USA and Canada)) commitments on schedule, has provided an effective instrument of policy in the "near abroad" and has started to rebuild itself from the wreckage of its Soviet predecessor". [note 3]
No matter whether it is high-tech conventional war or low intensity counter-insurgency operations (which is the sort of warfare the Russian Army will most likely be facing in the near future) commanders will still have to rely on the skill and reliability under fire, of the individual soldier as the key to success. Unfortunately both are in rather short supply, as are recruits in general. By 1994, the Russian Ground Forces were around 250,000 under strength (about 46% of establishment) and had only received 82,000 contract servicemen. [note 4] The main reason for this is the collapse of the conscription system which has meant that of those liable for call-up, around 84% are legally entitled to deferment or exemption, 8% are claimed by the Interior Ministry and other Security agencies, which leaves the remaining 8% (or 75,000 recruits) for the whole of the Armed Forces. This is not the only problem though, as there have been numerous complaints about the quality of recruits in recent years. As virtually all students of higher education can defer their service, the Army is deprived of most of the more intelligent, better educated citizens that used to fill the specialist and Non Commissioned Officer ranks. In fact only around three-quarters of recent draftees had completed their secondary education, and a significant number had a criminal record as well as drug and / or alchohol problems.
Contract service has been seen as some, as a possible solution to the manning crisis, and while it has potential, the process of moving to a greater degree of professionalisation has only met with limited success. The scheme was introduced at the end of 1992 for all the services (there had been an earlier trial scheme in the Navy, but had failed) with the eventual aim of having about 30% of the other ranks as professional soldiers by 1995, and about 50% by the turn of the century. While the personnel targets seem to have been met, many have opted for administrative posts, rather than combat units. The quality of those recruits have been something of a disappointment as well, with the Army having to reject a substantial proportion (up to 30 - 40% in some regions) on grounds of ill health or criminal convictions.
Morale has suffered in the services as well, and while the Armed Forces do tend to reflect the values of society, it is incorrect to lay all the blame for the bad conditions and morale on the despair, disillusionment and lack of respect for authority that characterises the wider society. Many of the conditions have been carried over from the old Soviet Army, and made worse by the breakdown in morale, by the poor quality recruits having to be taken in, many of whom form sub-cultures and gangs which are a destabilising influence and have an adverse effect on discipline. The worst of these is dedovshchina (the often violent abuse of young soldiers), which combined with the poor conditions, over-crowding in barracks, poor diet and hygiene, and lack of effective medical care, mean that up to 50% of draftees do not want to serve.
In many ways, the US Army was faced with similar problems in the late and post-Vietnam era as the Russian Army is today. The US Army managed to overcome them by becoming an all-regular force, having a decent foundation of NCO's with which to build upon, and having a still dedicated officer corps.
"The Russian Army has rejected the former, shows no signs of being able to solve the NCO problem and, crucially, has a profoundly disillusioned officer cadre." [note 5] Many officers complain of worsening living conditions, the lack of prestige with which the services are held in society, and the fact that pay scales have not been keeping up with the civilian sector. On top of this, housing is a very serious problem, and while there have always been shortages, these have been heightened by the withdrawal of around 600,000 troops from the former Groups of Soviet Forces in Central Europe and the Baltic States. Almost 300,000 servicemen were without quarters at the start of 1994, according to Deputy Defence Minister V. Mironov. [note 6] Not only that, but many officers (and warrant officers) are living in slum area hostel accommodation at best, and tank sheds and offices, at worst. Local authorities it seems are less than willing to discharge their duty in finding accommodation to an Army they no longer hold in any esteem. Even where housing does exist, it is more often than not, lacking in associated infrastructure (such as schools, kindergartens, hospitals and shops) and basic utilities. While Russian officers are no worse off than many other Russian citizens, this is of little comfort to the members of an honourable profession, who were much better off, under the Soviet system. The break down in morale can also be attributed to the real sense of betrayal that some officers feel over the retreat from Afghanistan, the loss of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the USSR itself. The Chechen war didn't help either. To loose the Cold War was one thing, to loose against a band of Chechen guerilla fighters did not help the Army's self-esteem at all. They feel that the society that once cherished them, now rejects them and treats them with disdain, they receive little social protection and little thanks for their efforts to preserve the Army and Russia's place in the world. Additionally, the lot of the junior officer, which was never enviable, has been made much worse given that in some units, the officer to other ranks ratio has dropped to 1:1, and proper training is nearly impossible, given that most of the time has to be devoted to routine maintenance, and working in the civilian economy to make ends meet. Officers have often been reduced to guards, mechanics and boiler stokers.
In such conditions, it is unsurprising that many officers' goal has become one of self-preservation, if not one of self-enrichment (like the soldiers under them). Instances of equipment and weapon sales to civilians and the misappropriation of billions of rubles has occurred. A new social entity has spread throughout the Army, that of the military commercial clan, which was born in the Western Groups of Forces, towards the end of the 1980's. Its influence pervades all levels of the Army, and while some sort of commercial activity is bound to happen with what officers have to make do with, it is inexcusable to sell weapons to warring factions in "near abroad" [note 7] trouble spots which are sometimes used on Russian troops, and civilian criminals. With this in mind, it's not surprising that voluntary retirement is proceeding faster than the planned downsizing. The Army is loosing the younger, brighter and most able of its officers at a rate faster than the military schools can turn them out, which is exactly the type of men who the Army needs to keep to see it through its present crisis. Even where officers want to continue their profession, it has meant many getting second jobs (moonlighting), as one of the biggest problems is that the Army only gets paid irregularly. In a survey by Red Star, over 80% of officers responding had a second job, many of which had to take manual labour jobs as the practise is illegal (however many senior officers tend to turn a blind eye) and they cannot complain too much about the work.
With all that is going on, it is unsurprising that crime has increased dramatically in the Russian Armed Forces, as it has done across society. In 1995, the crime rate increased by 5.6%,and those in the Armed Forces rose by 30%. [note 8] However, this phenomenon is not new, rather it is an expansion of the criminal activity that was part of Soviet Army life. Such activities included the theft of state property; patronage and protectionism; the use of official position for personal gain; routine mis-use of military manpower by officers; non-official regulations, including dedovshchina (The Rule of the Granddads). With the disintegration of the Soviet Armed Forces in late 1991, conditions were right for this to flourish. Given the socio-economic conditions many conscripts and officers found themselves in, it is unsurprising that many turned to crime to improve their lot, or continued it, when they were recruited. The indifference to authority and discipline comes from the degenerating conditions in society as a whole, and the loss of prestige the Army has suffered.
"The Russian military is unique in that it has lost not only manpower, money and mission, but also a war, an alliance and a country." [note 9]
It is reasonable then to accept the worries expressed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces that combat readiness is rather less than it should be. With the current manpower shortages, commanders on the ground have to forego combat training to ensure that everyday tasks (like maintenance on vehicles and buildings) get done. Companies and battalions, on the whole, now only do two field exercises a year (one of which is live firing), with regiments and divisions biannually. It seems that outside of the elite airborne and peacekeeping formations, most units are undermanned by up to 50%, which means that there is only one combat ready division in most of the military districts. Simple routine administration and maintenance would occupy most of these units' time, even without having to do some work in the civilian economy to make ends meet, or build their own cantonments in the case of forces withdrawn into Russia. Will soldiers and officers alike ever gain the correct experience if they see a spade more often than a machine gun, or never command a full strength unit, or go on a live firing exercise? Along with personal problems, equipment problems are also affecting combat readiness. This stems in part from the Soviet Army's legacy to the Russian Federation. Up to 75% of the equipment inherited is outdated and 40% of all repair facilities are outside Russian territory. Spare parts and fuel are very hard to come by, and pilots are logging only around 25 - 30 hours per year flying training (worrying, given that the NATO minimum is 120 - 130 hours).
It seems likely that given the disparity between the statements made by those at the very top of the command structure, and what really seems to be going on in the Armed Forces, the old problem of deception, bribery and falsification are preventing the true picture from being seen. This doesn't bode well, if its true. The general perception in the military seems to be that the reform process is not succeeding, or if so, at a very slow pace. The moral decay, lack of cohesion, declining morale and discipline threaten not only the Army but the state as well. With growing social tensions both within the Army and between the Army and society, these threaten an explosion within the Army at worst, or its increasing politicisation, at best. Many senior officers would welcome an authoritarian style government and think that western democracy is unsuitable for Russia.
Even if the situation is not as bad as is painted, the Russians seem to be constrained by the Soviet mentality that security equals military power, and other foreign policy tools, such as good neighbourliness, cooperation, diplomacy, economic strength, trade and political respectability, have limited contributions to make. Such a mentality is evident in the Russian Federation Military Doctrine adopted in November 1993. It committed the state to the remilitarisation of society, the return of the military to its privilaged place, continued heavy defence expenditure to re-equip the military with world class weapons, and a large mobilisation capibility in both industrial and personnel. This is something the country can ill afford, given the state of the Russian economy.
"The insatiable demands of the military did much to bring about the collapse of the USSR. They may yet do the same for Russia." [note 10]
It has been argued that "Russian defence policy is a study in failure. Russia has failed to develop a coherent governmental structure to make and implement effective or sensible defency policy." [note 11] There has been a visible failure to establish democratic civilian control over the Armed Forces, helped in part by the creation of a number of competing military organisations by Boris Yeltsin. The increased privatisation of the state and the means to apply violence resembles a trend in many failing African states. Such a privatisation of the state has been represented by the private, sectoral or institutional players who use the tools of public power (in this case the military) for private gain.
This division and disarray means that Russia is unlikely to be able to be able to defend its own sovereign territory or integrate the CIS either from a counter-insurgency type threat, or from a more conventional one. The military doctrine instead contains a veiled threat to use nuclear weapons even if only conventional systems are being used against it. As such, "Russia's military instruments are useless. The chains of command are broken and split by rival factions. There is no rule of law, systematic or regularised procedure for making and implementing policy decisions, or any accountability to the Duma or Juditiary." [note 12] Many of the security services, branches of the armed forces, police or paramilitary organisation have overlapping functions and it is not clear as to exactly how many personnel they have or where their budgets are spent once the Duma approves them. It is unlikely that the Ministry of Defence truly knows where the money goes as each military institution has its own administration and chain of command, and the budgetary process is highly politicised, as their budgets depend on the political reliability. So while the Army struggles for funds, "the MVD, upon whose performance the regime's internal security depends, is pampered." [note 13] The competing organisations therefore participate in partisan politics and foreign policy, which complicates the attempts at reform.
What Russia needs so desperatley, a modern, professional, democratic and competant army is not going to be possible without major reform. The reform process started in 1997 focussed on economics and force structure, not creating democratic control and installing a decent command structure. The reformers (including Yuri Baturin, Anatoly Chubays and Deputy Premier Nemtsov) demanded that the armed forces make do with even more stringent budgets and sack generals. Defence Minister Igor Rodionov had called for an end to the multiple military organisations, but the reformers were not going to undermine the power of the MVD (the Army's main rival), power which they wanted for themselves. The state of the regular and military economies dictates that a solution must be found soon. Defence conversion has failed to make an major impact and defence spending and procurement seems to be orientated towards the nuclear forces and research and development to exploit the revolution in military affairs. Internal procurement is not likely to improve until around 2005 and so the defence industry has been given an (almost) free hand to sell abroad, even to potential rivals (such as Iran, India, Indonesia, and China). The instability in much of the former Soviet Union and parts of Russia, as shown in the Transcaucasus (Chechnya, Abkhazia and Georgia) and Central Asia (Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia) means that Russia has continued to have to conduct operations and station substantial forces there, at great cost. The use of the Army in internal scenarios, as well as the MVD has angered many officers, and the possibility that they might refuse to conduct such missions has implications for internal stability. Additionally, the increased emphasis on the possible use of nuclear weapons is dangerous, given the underinvestment in the nuclear command and control system which has degraded since the end of the Cold War, means that the policy of launch on warning could lead to an erroneous launch.
The Soviet Union "was not merely a state with an impressive war machine. The state itself was a war machine, with every aspect of its organisation geared towards the mobilisation of massive economic and military potential to conduct a world war." [note 14] The Russian leadership have realised that this model is totally inappropriate for the Russian Federation with new economic, social and political realities, with a favourable international situation, demanding extensive reform. The Russians distinguish between military reform and reform of the armed forces, of which the former is far more sweeping. It involves a searching look at the country's requirements, its aims and objectives, its place in the world and the security threats that are evident. It would encompass not only changes to the armed forces but also the Ministry of Defence, the military-industrial-complex, policy making apparatus, command and control, the legal framework of the state and social and economic policy. Such changes should be enshrined in a national security concept, from which the military doctrine (that is, the policies for the structure, training, equipping and use of the armed forces) is derived. So any major reform of the armed forces is going to depend upon clear leadership from the highest echelons of the Russian Government, as well as changes to social and economic policy.
The initial reforms were spearheaded by General Igor Rodionov, but achieved little, with Rodionov only lasting some eleven months, the victim of political infighting between Yeltsin and General Aleksandr Lebed. The new team was headed by A A Kokoshin (as Secretary of the Security Council), who has had over six years experience in defence matters and who understands the economics of defence. The new Minister of Defence was General Igor Sergeyev (former Commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces) and was known to be deeply in favour of reform, as was the new Chief of the General Staff, Anatoliy Kvashnin. Finally, by early 1998 the armed forces finally had guidence from the top, with a presidential decree of 17 December 1997 issuing a new security concept. This document defined both the threats to Russia and the direction in which they should be tackled. While the decree spelt out that NATO's expansion was worrying and a possible cause of tension and internal trouble (through increased information warfare, economic pressure and subversion) there was little prospect of major overt aggression in the short to medium term. The main problem will be the fragile state of the Russian economy which could lead to seperatist movements on the fringes, far away from central control. Internal problems will be dealt with through various means icluding political negotiation, strengthening law and order, more attention on health issues and the environment and the fostering of economic progress, as well as investment in science and technology. External threats will be met by non-military means as far as possible, including diplomatic initiatives, co-operation with other states (or groups of states) and use of the UN, CIS and OSCE. Military forces will be maintained, although the emphasis moving to nuclear forces, although the conventional forces will be downsized somewhat, and rapid deployment forces will be used to rush to any hotspots that might spring up.
The national security concept reflected a compromise between the various ministries. It is very vague, and as such not very useful as a blueprint for the far reaching reform that is necessary. The armed forces were left waiting for the detailed military doctrine on which they could start to take action. Such questions that were left unanswered were:
Until these are answered, the reorm process is likely to be carried out on an adhoc basis, and be seen as a way of saving money, and not giving Russia the armed forces she needs. However, some tentative steps have been taken, including:
- What political and diplomatic tools will be used to compensate for the decrease in military strength?
- What is the possible nature of future conflict in the short, medium and longer terms?
- Where and when are these conflicts likely to occur?
- What should the armed forces look like in the future?
- What resources will be made available?
- What will the division of roles and responcibilities between the Ministry of Defence and the other ministries be?
While a start has been made to reform, "some fundamental issues have not yet been addressed, that some recent measures are misconceived or are insufficiently radical and that some aspirations and unrealistic and unlikely to be realised." [note 15] These include:
- Kokoshin has given the Ministry of Defence the lead in questions regarding defence.
- The General Staff are to draw up a new military doctrine and a plan for the reform of the army.
- The five branches of the armed forces have been reduced to four: the Strategic Deterrence Forces (the old Strategic Rocket Forces as well as the space forces and the anti-ballistic missile forces), the Air Force (incorporating the Air Defence Forces, the PVO, minus the anti-ballistic missile forces), the Ground Forces and the Navy.
- The Military Districts are to be reorganised with five becoming operational-strategic commands (Moscow, Leningrad, North Caucasus, Transbaikal and Far East) with the other three becoming operational-territorial commands. The number of military districts is likely to be reduced from eight to six.
- Hollow units and formations are being reduced by almalgamating units or disbanding them entirely in an effort to bring the remainder up to full strength.
- The forces under the Ministry of Defence will be gradually reduced in establishment from approximately 1.7 million to 1.2 million and other ministries that compete for conscript manpower reduced from fourteen to four (Border Guards, Interior Troops, Railway Troops and FAPSI) and will be downsized. There will be a large reduction in both officer and non-commissioned officer numbers.
- The number of military education establishments will be cut from 103 to 57, the system overhauled, and more emphasis placed on management and staff culture training.
- The Ministry of Defence is to pass its road and railway construction organisations to other ministries and sell off surplus facilities and land, and privatise those elements which it deems suitable. It will b able to keep a large share of the receipts to pay for housing and welfare schemes.
- The military-industrial complex is to be reorganised and rationalised with the number of enterprises being reduced from 1,700 to 600 (already started with such examples as the amalgamation of MiG and Sukhoi) and the Government is to pay its 20 billion ruble debt so that new equipment can start to come on line from 2005.
- There will be tight control over the defence budget so that it will not exceed 3.5 per cent of GDP and inhibit Russia's economic recovery.
- There is a need for a realistic military doctrine that takes account of the possibility of local and regional wars, the fragmentation of command and control and the over-reliance on nuclear weapons.
- The granting of greater autonomy to the military districts could carry dangers, especially as one of the threats identified in the national security concept was regionalism and seperatism.
- The command and control arrangements for the Ground Forces need to be overhauled.
- Aspirations to greater economic and military integration in the CIS are unlikely to be realised.
- There needs to be legislation regularising the position of the armed forces and give social and economic guarentees to servicemen.
- There needs to be a serious look at what armed forces Russia realistically needs and can afford, and the reform process to achieve them, given its economic situation. Russia is attempting to maintain half the Soviet Union's defence and internal security structure on 10 percent of the 1980s budget.
- The issues of pay and conditions, the treatment of serving soldiers, the lack of a professional NCO class, morale and discipline, crime and the entire ethos of the armed forces need to be addressed.
- Reform of Russia's military-industrial complex is vital as there is a large over-capacity, and foreign sales can only take up a certain amount of the slack.
- Blank, Professor Stephen, "Russia's Armed Foces on the Brink of Reform", Research Paper C97, CSRC (RMS Sandhurst), October 1997, 21 pages.
- Dick, C.J. "The Russian Army : Present Plight and Future Prospects", Occasional Brief 31, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), November 1994, 11 pages.
- Dick, C.J. "The Russian Army : Present Plight and Future Prospects", Occasional Brief 34, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), May 1995, 4 pages.
- Dick, C.J. "A Bear Without Claws : The Russian Army in the Nineties", Research Paper C89, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), June 1996, 7 pages.
- Dick, C.J. "Russian Military Reform: Status and Prospects", Research Paper C100, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), June 1998, 10 pages.
- Orr, M.J. "The Deepest Crisis : The Problems of the Russian Army Today", Occasional Brief 48, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), October 1996, 5 pages.
- Orr, M.J. "The Current State of the Russian Armed Forces", Research Paper D60, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), November 1996, 18 pages.
- Waters, Dr T. R. W., "Crime in the Russian Military", Research Paper C90, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), November 1996, 14 pages.
[note 1] [BACK] 1 C J Dick, "A Bear Without Claws : The Russian Army in the Nineties", Research Paper C89, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), June 1996, p. 1.
[BACK] 2 Col Gen P S Deynekin , "Basic Directions of Air Force Organisational Development and Training under Current Conditions", Voennaya Mysl, 7/1993, pp. 2 - 8 cited in C J Dick, "The Russian Army : Present Plight and Future Prospects", Occasional Brief 31, CSRC (RMA Sandhurst), November 1994, p. 1.
[BACK] 3 C J Dick, "The Russian Army : Present Plight and Future Prospects", November 1994, p. 1.
[BACK] 4 The armed forces as a whole were about 1.25 million strong, which is equivilant to around 65% of establishment. C J Dick, November 1994, p. 2.
[BACK] 5 C J Dick, "The Russian Army : Present Plight and Future Prospects", November 1994, p. 3.
[BACK] 6 C J Dick, "The Russian Army : Present Plight and Future Prospects", November 1994, p. 4.
[BACK] 7 The "Near Abroad" is the territory around its borders that Russia regardes as having a special national interest in, and includes the former Soviet republics and to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe.
[BACK] 8 Dr T R W Waters, "Crime in the Russian Military", November 1996, p. 2.
[BACK] 9 Benjamin Lambeth, "Russia's Wounded Military", Foreign Affairs 74, cited in Dr T R W Waters, p. 4.
[BACK] 10 C J Dick, "The Russian Army : Present Plight and Future Prospects", November 1994, p. 8.
[BACK] 11 Prof Stephen Blank, "Russian's Armed Forces on the Brink of Reforn", October 1997, p. 1.
[BACK] 12 Prof Stephen Blank, "Russian's Armed Forces on the Brink of Reforn", October 1997. p. 2.
[BACK] 13 Prof Stephen Blank, "Russian's Armed Forces on the Brink of Reforn", October 1997. p. 3.
[BACK] 14 C J Dick, "Russian Military Reform: Status and Prospects", p. 3.
[BACK] 15 C J Dick, "Russian Military Reform: Status and Prospects",. p. 7.
How to cite this article: Antill, P. (2001), The Tears of the Bear: The Russian Army in the 1990s, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_russianarmy1990.html