Testing a “New Look”

18 december 2014

Ukrainian Conflict and Military Reform in Russia

Mikhail Barabanov is Editor-in Chief of the Moscow Defense Brief magazine.

Resume: What has been done since 2008 can probably be considered the most ambitious, consistent and effective military reform in Russia. The decisive turn from the traditional mobilizational army allowed Russia to create permanent and high readiness forces well adapted for operation in the post-Soviet region.

In the fall of 2008 Russia launched far-reaching military reforms that ushered in the biggest ever changes in the national Armed Forces since the birth of the Red Army. It took about three years for the military system to acquire a “new look” that differed dramatically in many ways from what the Red, Soviet and then Russian army had been like. This was a result of the political will displayed by both the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry headed at that time by Anatoly Serdyukov.

The basis of the overhauled Armed Forces never changed after Serdyukov’s removal and his replacement with Sergei Shoigu in November 2012. The new minister continued to lead the Armed Forces along the chartered course while avoiding major U-turns. The profound reform has enhanced the army’s combat capability and readiness; its actions in Crimea in 2014 and crisis over Ukraine are good evidence of that.


When Anatoly Seryudkov, an utterly civilian person, was unexpectedly appointed defense minister in February 2007, the army was in a complex situation. On the one hand, military reforms had been going on continuously since 1992, producing certain results. However, none of them was completed and all the main problems left by the Soviet army were exacerbated with new ones such as failure to hire enough contract servicemen. Today it has become obvious that Serdyukov was propelled to this position by Vladimir Putin with a sole purpose of carrying out deep reforms as a person who was not linked to the military establishment and who advocated a totally new “managerial approach” towards organizing the Armed Forces.

The reforms were expedited by the “five-day war” with Georgia in August 2008. Although the Russian army retaliated instantly and easily crushed the adversary’s troops, forcing them to flee, Russia’s military-political leadership assessed the use of the Armed Forces in that conflict controversially. And soon, at the end of August 2008, decisions were made, without much publicity, to move on to a new stage of the profound military reform in order to give the Armed Forces “a new look” geared towards participating mainly in local conflicts in the post-Soviet region. The fundamental military reform plan was officially announced by Defense Minister Serdyukov on October 14, 2008. 

The main issue was how to preserve the army’s mobilizational structure borrowed from Soviet times. Partial mobilization for local or internal conflicts had been out of the question for political reasons since the late 1980s, thus basically making it impossible to use the Armed Forces in limited conflicts. However, these conflicts kept erupting in the post-Soviet region after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, involving the army ever more frequently and climaxing in two Chechen wars. Neither the weak and unstable Yeltsin regime nor the Putin regime that replaced it in late 1999 dared resort to massive mobilization campaigns during the Chechen conflict.    

So the military command faced a challenging dilemma: how to preserve mobilization as the basis and at the same time find ways to effectively use the army, at least in limited wars, without mobilization. This dilemma became a pivotal point for military reform after1992. 

In addition to recruitment problems, a significant increase in the number of contract servicemen failed to enhance combat readiness as the contracted personnel simply “dissolved” in cadre and low-capability units. Any use of the army would have required the transfer of personnel from one unit to another to make it complete. But effective combat training was hardly possible in such reduced units.  

One of the solutions was relatively complete permanent readiness units which were supposed to exist along with cadre formations. As the economic situation improved and defense expenditures increased, by 2008 the country had created a certain number of permanent readiness units and formations that played the crucial role in the “five-day war”. However, the operation of permanent readiness units along with the rest of the army, which was largely mobilizational in nature, basically meant the existence of two armies at a time when the country was running out of resources. So scrapping the traditional mobilizational army and replacing it with permanent readiness forces was a matter of time.

This laid the groundwork for the 2008 military reform which was supposed to give “a new look” to the Armed Forces. This approach was backed up by new national security doctrines. Apparently, a large-scale conventional war between leading countries was deemed virtually impossible and the Armed Forces were to change their tactic from fighting a big war with several adversaries to participating in potential local conflicts on the Russian borders or in other CIS and near-abroad countries. The reassessment of possible participation in a large-scale war led to the abolition of the mobilizational system as an anachronism, as it was, dating back to Soviet times. Protection from other great powers (primarily the United States and NATO) was entrusted almost entirely to the strategic nuclear forces.   

As a result of reorientation from large-scale combat to local conflicts, in 2008-2012 the Army was transformed into “permanent readiness forces” made up of brigades based on existing permanent readiness units and formations which were brought up to strength with personnel from reduced and cadre units and formations. As more and more new brigades were deployed, their number by far exceeded that of permanent readiness units and formations that existed previously.  

The reforms almost halved the number of regiments and brigades in the Army, with the biggest cuts occurring in the European part of the country.

In the “old” Moscow Military District, 50 deployed tank and motorized infantry battalions were reduced to 22 by 2010. Army units on the border with Ukraine were inactivated almost completely with the dissolution of the 10th Tank Division (which consisted solely of the 6th Motorized Infantry Regiment) in the Voronezh and Kursk Regions where only a storage base remained for further deployment of the 1st Tank Brigade. The cuts were supposed to be made up for by the creation in Smolensk of a new air assault brigade equipped with helicopters, but this was never done. Essentially, one can speak about the unprecedented weakening of the Army’s strength in central regions of the country and on its western border. This was partly rectified by Shoigu in 2013 when the 2nd Taman Motorized Infantry Division and the 4th Kantemir Tank Division (formerly brigades) were redeployed outside Moscow, but both were and still are at half-strength.    

The 2008-2012 military reform degraded Russia’s combat capabilities in its western regions, which suggests that until the Ukrainian crisis (or at least until 2013) the military-political leadership considered armed conflicts and large-scale combat operations in the European part of the country (with the exception of the Caucasus) virtually impossible.    

At the same time, Moscow’s shift towards operations in limited conflicts riveted more attention to mobile and special operations forces. As a result, not only did the Airborne Troops avoid manpower cuts but they also kept their divisions and amplified their strength. Special operations forces, too, began their buildup and increased combat readiness. The modernization of army aviation units began swiftly and was accompanied by the procurement of a large number of new helicopters. Finally, at the beginning of 2012, reform ideologist, Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov ordered the creation of a Special Operations Forces Command and a Cyber Command. The former was conceived as “a super special purpose force” which was supposed to be eventually expanded to nine brigades to tackle a wide range of tasks.     

On the whole, what has been done since 2008 can probably be considered the most ambitious, consistent and effective military reform among post-Soviet states. The decisive turn from the traditional mobilizational army allowed Russia to create permanent and high readiness forces well adapted for operation in the post-Soviet region. This structure and posture have been kept up by the new military command headed by Sergei Shoigu.  

His style is large-scale snap inspections that require new military districts to go on full alert instantly. Apart from reference values, these inspections give the Defense Ministry an effective mechanism for putting a large number of troops on alert and carrying out partial mobilization. This mechanism was repeatedly used in 2004 as a form of pressure on Ukraine.     

Large investments in human resources and combat training paid off generously in 2014 with a better army and more skilful personnel, especially among officers. Another positive factor is a large number of officers with real combat experience acquired in Chechen wars, counter-terrorism operations in the North Caucasus and various local conflicts in post-Soviet states. Also, numerous exercises have been held at all levels, including regular strategic maneuvers, new education and combat training methods introduced, and more professional soldiers recruited. 

New arms and hardware supplies made since 2007 have considerably improved army material status and equipage, primarily in the Air Force and army aviation units.


The crisis in Ukraine became the first significant test for the reformed Armed Forces with “a new look.” Ironically, they found themselves on the verge of military confrontation with Ukraine, the second most militarily powerful post-Soviet state after Russia.

The covert Russian military intervention in Crimea in late February and early March stunned many and made some of the observers in the West and Ukraine talk about a new “hybrid war.” The operation to provide power support to the pro-Russian movement in Crimea and preclude Ukrainian security forces’ interference was planned and carried out quite smartly and effectively. As is known now, Russian Airborne Troops, Spetsnaz and the debuting Special Purpose Forces acted as the “polite people” on the peninsula.

The operation in Crimea was accompanied by a surprise operational readiness inspection ordered by President Putin in the Western and partly Central Military Districts on February 26. The stated goals of the inspection were fulfilled by projecting the troops in most cases far away from the Ukrainian border to other parts of Russia, including northern regions. This helped to cover the redeployment of several thousand troops of Spetsnaz and Airborne Troops to Crimea, along with the redeployment of military units to the Ukrainian border as a form of pressure on Kiev to prevent it from using military force in Crimea.

During the operational deployment Russian army units and formations showed a very high level of combat readiness and mobility. On March 12, the 18th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade from Chechnya arrived in Crimea, having marched 900 kilometers to the Kerch Strait. It was followed by the 291st Artillery Brigade from Ingushetia. With military transport planes providing airlift, the troops redeployment was impressively swift and well organized.    

Practically all combat-ready formations from the central part of the Western Military District and some of the forces from the Southern and Central Military Districts were redeployed to the border with Ukraine in March and April. Motorized infantry brigades moved using its own wheeled BTR-89/82 armored personnel carriers. According to Western estimates, by the end of April 2014, some 80,000 personnel had been amassed on the border with Ukraine (Crimea included), 40,000 in combat units among them.    

Western reports say that eight brigades (three motorized infantry brigades, three air assault ones, a marine one, and an artillery one), four regiments from the 2nd and 4th Divisions (three tanks regiments and a motorized infantry one), 27 battalion tactical groups (14 airborne ones, 12 motorized infantry ones, and a marine one), 13 special task forces and up to 10 separate artillery battalions were deployed near the Ukrainian border in April. They were concentrated within several groups directed at both Kiev (via the Sumy and Chernigov regions) and Donbass and southern Ukraine (via Mariupol).

These forces by far outnumbered Ukraine’s army whose mobilization announced in March went slowly, partly because the country’s base areas are located – as in Soviet times – mainly in its western regions. 

The rapid deployment of Russian troops in Crimea and on the border with Ukraine as well as the blocking of Ukrainian forces on the peninsula made it practically impossible for Kiev to come up with any effective countermeasures. As a result, on March 17 Crimea was incorporated into Russia, in less than a month after the start of the operation.

However, Crimea’s incorporation rather aggravated Russia’s strategic position by antagonizing Ukraine. This threat could have been eliminated either by changing Kiev’s policy or by weakening Ukraine in any way, preferably by dismembering it and integrating Russian-speaking regions in the south and east of the country, the so-called Novorossiya, into Russia.

This made “a second round” unavoidable in Ukraine as the Russian-speaking population in its southern and eastern regions was inspired by Crimea’s accession to Russia. Protests and seizures of administrative buildings swept Ukraine from early April, and armed groups that sprang up in Donbass proclaimed the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LPR and DPR, respectively). The crucial moment came when Igor Strelkov’s group arrived from Crimea to Slavyansk on April13. As Strelkov said himself shortly before that in his correspondence that had come to light, his actions had been motivated by full confidence in Russia’s military support that was supposed to prevent Kiev’s military interference in much the same way it had been done in Crimea.   

However, in response to the mutiny, the new Ukrainian authorities began a counter-terrorism operation in Donbass and started to bring in troops to suppress the separatists.

At that moment, Moscow had assumed a rather ambiguous position, especially amid the strongly negative reaction of the West that was taken aback by the rapid change of Crimea’s status and worried by the prospects of a complete collapse of Ukraine as a cornerstone of the anti-Russian “cordon sanitaire.” Moscow’s formidable statements and the continuing military buildup forced Kiev to act cautiously and limit its response in Donbass to police actions since a considerable number of the Ukrainian troops were tasked with countering direct Russian intervention. And yet, with more and more Ukrainian soldiers joining the counter-terrorism operation, by the end of April the campaign in Donbass had begun to develop into an armed confrontation.   

To all appearances, the Russian leadership was not prepared for Ukraine’s decisive reaction, especially amid mounting Western sanctions. The Kremlin had apparently overestimated the magnitude of pro-Russian “activism” in the south and east of Ukraine and the weakness of its new authorities, while underestimating the power of nationalism in Ukraine and its elites’ interest in preserving independence and their role in it. On April 24, the Russian Security Council decided against sending troops to Ukraine to support the rebellion in Novorossiya. In May, Russia began to pull out a large number of its troops from the Ukrainian border. On June 1, in response to the Kremlin’s request, the Federation Council withdrew its formal permission to use the army in Ukraine.    

The consequences were fatal: Kiev’s hands were free, and the east of Ukraine slid into a bloody civil war which was gaining momentum and drawing Russia in deeper and deeper.

If accomplished in April and May, the Russian military invasion would inevitably have led to a rapid disintegration of the Ukrainian state as we know it today and to the collapse of its armed forces. This would have made it possible to solve “the Ukrainian issue” in a drastic way by separating the Russian-speaking regions and turning the rest of Ukraine into a second-grade state that could not jeopardize Russia’s interests. 

Eventually, the civil war in Donbass forced Russia to step up assistance to the DPR and LPR rebels at first with arms and equipment supplies and then presumably with direct but limited participation in the hostilities by providing intelligence and artillery support and possibly engaging certain general-purpose and special units. This tactic culminated in the defeat of the already worn-out Ukrainian forces near Ilovaisk in late August. In July Russia began to build up its military presence on the Ukrainian border again, evidently with a view to curbing the Ukrainian army’s operation against the rebels.      

 But with no full-blown war occurring between Russia and Ukraine, it was impossible to put the army’s “new look” to a more rigorous test. However, one can say that the overall concept of the Russian military reform conceived in 2008 had proved correct and the Russian leadership had received a rather efficient permanent readiness military force capable of carrying our large-scale operations in the post-Soviet space without mobilization or additional buildup.

A major breakthrough was made in logistics. After the Georgian campaign, the Russian army for years was enhancing its strategic maneuver capabilities and practicing deployment over great distances, which proved highly instrumental during the Ukrainian crisis.     

However, the Ukrainian crisis showed once again that the Russian army’s weak spot was the dominating number of conscripts, the reduced length of military service (one year), and the lack of contract servicemen. Although Russia had declared the goal of creating a permanent readiness army, many military units and formations were not used in full in 2014 due to both the shortage of personnel in the majority of units and the cyclic nature of conscripts’ training. As a result, “permanent readiness” formations could send no more than two-thirds of their personnel to the operational area, leaving behind untrained soldiers drafted in the fall.    

Another serious issue is the reserve. No optimal reserve model has so far been worked out for the “new look.” Also, there are still no clear-cut mechanisms for deploying additional units and formations and replacing lost personnel at wartime. 

Ukraine’s military experience in Donbass appears to be quite interesting from this point of view. Although the Ukrainian army was restructured to a brigade-based force in the early 2000s, it remained a typical Soviet-era army until the conflict, complete with a large number of cadre units and formations to be manned with additional personnel during mobilization. This forced Ukraine to resort to classical “mobilization waves” which exposed all of the associated problems, such as broad discontent and protests, mass dodging and desertion, low morale and lax discipline among the mobilized, their poor training and the unwillingness of some of them to fight, especially in an internal conflict. The transition to contract service in 2013 did not solve the problems as the quality of contract servicemen remained low in the absence of funding and reserve personnel. These were the reasons for low combat capability of the mobilized units and formations.       

The limited number of peacetime units and formations in the Ukrainian army forced its command to start from scratch – amid the war by forming new territorial battalions, which, however, proved ineffective due to the low quality of personnel, lack of cohesion and training, and the shortage of weaponry and supply.  

One of the important lessons of the Ukrainian civil war was that manpower, materiel and reserves were used up quite fast, which is unusual even for a limited conflict. Mobilized Ukrainian units frayed very quickly while fighting relatively small rebel forces and started showing clear signs of exhaustion by the middle of August. Ukraine had quickly run out of the huge stockpiles of heavy weapons taken over after the breakup of the Soviet Union: all of the more or less fairly good hardware had been either sold or dismantled or needed long and costly repairs. There was also a severe shortage of spare parts and ammunition, while many of the available munitions were out of date, unsafe or damaged.

*  *  *

Contrary to the common delusion (both in the West and Russia) that a compact army with moderate reserves would be enough in peacetime, the reality demands that large stockpiles of hardware and materiel, comparable with Soviet-era ones, be preserved even for a small war. For all the cost of keeping such reserves, this would be much cheaper than frantically launching new production of weapons in the course of a war. 

The conflict in Ukraine also exposed the high vulnerability of military equipment to modern weapons. In fact, the losses of the Ukrainian armored vehicles (mainly tanks), aircraft and helicopters in a not so big a war are stunning. Using a relatively small number of air defense systems, the rebels could practically paralyze the Ukrainian Air Force’s combat activities. T-64 tanks torn to pieces became one of the gruesome symbols of the conflict in Donbass. And this requires a totally new approach to protecting critical military hardware.

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