The Secrets of Serdyukov’s Blitzkrieg
No. 1 2010 January/March
Vitaly Shlykov

Member of the non-governmental Council on Foreign and Defense Policy; in the early 1990s, deputy chairman of the RF State Defense Committee.

Why It Took a Civilian Minister to Carry Out a Military Reform

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov sent a report to the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Armed Forces Dmitry Medvedev on December 1, 2009, in which he reported on progress in implementing the task, set before his ministry, of imparting a new, promising image to the Armed Forces. Two weeks earlier, on November 17, this issue was discussed by the Defense Ministry’s Board. After the discussion, Serdyukov made a statement to the Russian mass media. He said that 85 army brigades, as well as strategic and operational commands, had been established over the past year. A new combat readiness system had been built, which enables sending any battalion or brigade to a combat area within an hour after the alert was issued, together with all organic equipment, without calling up reservists and without waiting for the supply of ammunition, fuel, food, etc. from depots. The whole Army had become fully combat-ready.

Those who did not closely watch what was happening in the army over the last year can hardly take the minister’s words on trust. Merely a year ago, it was reported that combat-ready units accounted for only 17 percent of the Armed Forces and that even they required at least a day to become battle-ready. Vladimir Putin said in his address to the Federal Assembly in 2006: “In order to effectively repel the terrorists, we needed to put together a group of at least 65,000 men, but the combat-ready units in the entire army came to only 55,000 men, and they were scattered throughout the entire country. Our Armed Forces came to a total of 1,400,000 men but there were not enough men to fight.”

It was decided in principle to set up constant-readiness units, capable of quickly engaging in combat, after the First Chechen War. All the subsequent defense ministers, from Pavel Grachev to Sergei Ivanov, tried hard to implement this decision. Each of them reported on successes achieved; however, not more than 20 percent of all Russian troops were combat-ready by the summer of 2008. State Secretary and Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov, who cited this figure at an expert round-table meeting at the State University–Higher School of Economics (November 25-26, 2009), said that by that time it had become obvious that the existing structure and composition of the Armed Forces prevented further enhancement of their combat readiness.


On October 14, 2008, the Zvezda (“Star”) TV channel, run by the Russian Defense Ministry, carried an 11-minute speech by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to half a dozen little-known reporters from military news outlets. The speech was a bolt from the blue for an overwhelming majority of military personnel. The shock was caused by Serdyukov’s words about his ministry’s plans to reduce the number of army and naval officers from 355,000 to 150,000 within the next three years.

Then Serdyukov cited even more impressive figures concerning the planned reduction of the number of military units. In particular, the present 1,980 military units in the Ground Forces are planned to be reduced to 172, i.e. by more than 11 times. The 340 Air Force units are to be cut to 180, while the Navy will have 123 military units left of its present 240 units. Furthermore, the minister announced a truly draconian drawdown of the number of senior officers (from major to colonel). While the number of generals is to be reduced relatively insignificantly – from 1,107 to 886, the number of colonels will be slashed from 25,665 to only 9,114. An even greater reduction is in store for majors whose number will shrink from 99,550 to 25,000. In order not to shock the audience still further, Serdyukov passed over in silence the scale of the planned reduction in the number of lieutenant-colonels. Simple calculations show that they will be hit the hardest by the “optimization” – their number will decrease from 88,678 to 15,000, i.e. by almost six times. Captains were not “forgotten” either, whose number will be reduced from 90,000 to 40,000. In all, about 165,000 senior officers are planned to be discharged from service. Lieutenants and senior lieutenants are the only ones to gain from the reform, as their number is planned to be increased from the present 50,000 to 60,000.

Serdyukov compared the present rank hierarchy in the Russian Armed Forces to an egg, which is swelled in the middle, due to the disproportionately great number of senior officers. The minister promised to shape this “absurd” ratio between senior and junior officers into a “well-proportioned and well-aligned” pyramid. If implemented, this plan will leave only 10,000 generals and colonels at the top of the pyramid, while 100,000 junior officers (40,000 captains and 60,000 lieutenants) will form the pyramid’s base. In the middle of the pyramid, there will be 40,000 majors and lieutenant-colonels.

The ministry also plans to reduce its Moscow-based administrative staff by 2.5 times. As of September 11, 2008, it comprised 21,813 people (10,523 people in the headquarters and 11,290 in central military command structures). The reform will cut their total number to 8,500 (3,500 in the Defense Ministry and 5,000 in military command structures). Actually, however, the reduction will be even greater as it will also embrace Moscow-based military units (more than 30,000 people) that serve the headquarters.

The reduction plans announced by Serdyukov seem to be in sharp contrast with the policies pursued by his predecessors. The previous defense ministers spoke about the need to preserve the number of officers. Major reductions in the Russian Armed Forces in previous years (from 2.8 million people in 1992 to 1.1 million in 2008) involved, above all, the rank and file and, to a much smaller degree, officers. Moreover, all the former defense ministers complained about the shortage of officers. Indeed, of the one million officers that served in the Soviet Army in 1991, there were about 700,000 left in the Russian Armed Forces after the Soviet Union’s break-up. However, by the end of 1994, the Russian Army lacked 64,000 platoon and company commanders. This made 38 percent of the total demand for such commanders, estimated at 168,000 people.

To fill the shortage of junior officers, President Boris Yeltsin signed Executive Order 2113 on November 25, 1994, permitting the Defense Ministry every year to call up for two years reserve officers that had graduated from civilian institutions of higher education. Just as in the World War II years, a network of short-term training courses for junior lieutenants was opened in the country. Nevertheless, the shortage of officers kept growing, as officers resigned en masse. According to the Main Personnel Department of the Defense Ministry, 457,000 officers resigned between 1993 and 2002, of whom 337,000 (80 percent) did so without waiting until they were entitled to a long-service pension. Thirty percent of these were younger than 30. Every year, the military lost an average of 45,000 officers.

In a bid to stop the exodus of officers from the Armed Forces, the president, in his Executive Order 1237 of September 16, 1999, reduced the minimum length of service for promotion to the next rank – from three years to two years for lieutenants and senior lieutenants, from four years to three years for captains and majors, and from five years to four years for lieutenant-colonels. Yet, despite these measures and the increase in allocations for the military in the years of growing oil prices, the Armed Forces kept losing officers. For example, 38,500 officers resigned in 2002, of whom 30,000 resigned ahead of time.

In addition to raising salaries and reducing the minimum length of service for promotion, the Defense Ministry continued building up the training of lieutenants by military colleges. The latter produced 16,500 lieutenants in 2006 and 18,500 in the next year. Yet, this figure was decided to be increased to 20,000 a year. Reserve officers continued to be intensively trained at military departments of 223 civilian universities and institutes (50,000 lieutenants a year). A special executive order of President Yeltsin allowed the Armed Forces to call up 15,000 graduates from these institutes every year for a two-year military service.

The radical cuts announced by Serdyukov came as a bombshell to the military and society, especially as merely a month before the reform program was made public, on September 8, 2008, the Communist Party faction at the State Duma had demanded the defense minister’s resignation. The main charge against him was a claim that “the shortage of officers has reached 40,000 people” since Serdyukov took the post and that «there is no speaking about the Army’s combat effectiveness in such circumstances.”

In fact, the attempts by Serdyukov’s critics to portray him as a ruthless persecutor of officers, while his predecessors had allegedly tried to preserve them and to interest them in military service, are quite hypocritical. Actually, the previous defense ministers had discharged or forced out of the Armed Forces several times more officers than Serdyukov is only planning to reduce. Indeed, Pavel Grachev, Igor Sergeyev and Sergei Ivanov never spoke about the need to reduce the officer corps. But, wittingly or unwittingly, they did much to get rid of as many officers as possible.

First, contract-based military service was introduced in Russia in 1993, which allowed officers to resign after five years after they graduated from a military educational institution, whereas in the Soviet Army an officer could resign only after 20 to 25 years of service.

Second, the list of legitimate reasons for an early resignation was markedly increased.

Third, various kinds of “incentives” were introduced to encourage officers to leave the force voluntarily. Combat training (exercises, air flights, and sailings) was actually terminated in many military units, which made the service largely senseless. Yet, the main motivation for resignations was the systematic non-payment of salaries, which began in the mid-1990s.

We have to recall this period as in the eyes of the military, society and the mass media the planned drawdown of the officer corps has overshadowed other, actually much more important items on Serdyukov’s program.

The most radical part of the reform is that the Armed Forces in the nearest future will consist only of constant-readiness units, that is, units fully manned and capable of going into action within an hour or two. The so-called “cadre divisions” and reduced-strength units will be eliminated.

At present, some military units in the Russian Armed Forces have 500 officers and a company of soldiers (100 people). This situation is due to the mobilization system that has been inherited intact from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army was built for long and large-scale warfare, where reserves were assigned the decisive role. For example, of 200 divisions of the Soviet Ground Forces, only about 50 divisions of the so-called “Category A” were fully manned and armed and were ready to go into action in a few hours after receiving the order. The next 50 divisions (“Category B”) needed several days to be fully manned with mobilized soldiers and officers. Another 50 divisions (“Category C”) required about two weeks to become combat-ready. Finally, the remaining 50 divisions (“Category D”) became fully operational within a month. A typical cadre division had about 1,000 personnel, mostly officers and warrant officers, and several thousand pieces of heavy military equipment, kept mothballed.

Despite significant reductions in their strength in previous years, Russia’s Ground Forces remained a complete, although markedly degraded, copy of the Soviet Army in organization. According to the Commander-in-Chief of the Ground Forces, General Vladimir Boldyrev [who was discharged from service due to age in January 2010 – Ed.], only six divisions were considered combat-ready in 2008.

Now there is nothing left of the Soviet organization. The reform is not limited only to the disbandment of cadre divisions and reduced-strength units. Armies, corps, divisions and regiments will be abolished, and there will be only full-strength brigades left. The Air Force and the Navy will be reorganized in the same way. In the Air Force, for example, armies, corps, divisions and regiments will be abolished and Air Force bases consisting of squadrons will be established in their place.

The reduction of the military by more than 200,000 officers and warrant officers increases the percentage of enlisted personnel. As of January 1, 2008, the Armed Forces, which had a total strength of 1,118,800 people, included 355,300 officers, 140,000 warrant officers, and 623,500 sergeants and soldiers. By 2012, the Armed Forces are planned to comprise 150,000 officers and 850,000 sergeants and soldiers, including about 180,000 contract soldiers.

The reform will also introduce changes to the chain of command. The former four-tier structure – Military District-Army-Division-Regiment – will be replaced with a new, three-tier structure – Military District (Strategic Command)-Operational Command-Brigade.

In his afore-mentioned speech on October 14, Serdyukov also announced plans for a radical reform of higher military education. In keeping with the Russian President’s decision of July 21, 2008, the number of military educational institutions is to be reduced from the present 65 (15 academies, 4 universities and 46 military colleges and institutes) to 10 by the year 2013. They will include three military educational and research centers for the Ground Forces, the Air Force and the Navy, six military academies and one military university. This radical reduction in the number of military educational institutions is due, above all, to the sharp fall in the demand for officers after the state has decided not to keep a huge mobilization reserve. In the Soviet Union, this reserve included 15 to 20 million people and required the training of numerous officers. Soviet military colleges and academies annually produced about 60,000 lieutenants. Now that the regular officer corps and the mobilization reserve will be slashed (according to the General Staff, the latter will not exceed 800,000 people), the demand for new officers has collapsed. As a result, less than 3,000 students were enrolled in military educational institutions in 2009, compared with 18,000 to 19,000 students in previous years.

Finally, 140,000 warrant officers were to be discharged from the force or offered sergeant positions before the end of 2009. In short, not a single element of the Army or the Navy has remained unaffected by the reductions and the reorganization.

The measures to impart a “new image” to the Armed Forces, once they were started, aroused severe criticism from the mass media and smoldering discontent among the military. However, merely a year after the reform began, one can say that its main objectives, outlined by Serdyukov, have been achieved.

All the three services of the Armed Forces – the Ground Forces, the Air Force and the Navy – have completely changed their organization and force lists. Armies, corps, divisions and regiments are gone and have been replaced with brigades and air bases. In the Ground Forces, 85 brigades were formed by December 1, 2009, the target date for the completion of the transition to the new organizational tables. All of them are 95 to 100 percent staffed and fully armed, while in previous years only 17 percent of military units were considered combat-ready, according to the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov. (For comparison: in 2008, the U.S. Army had 68 combat brigades and 187 combat support and service support brigades.)

The mobilization reserve of the Ground Forces has been reduced, as well. Instead of hundreds of reduced-strength military units, 60 depots are being established for storing military equipment. In cases of war or mobilization, new brigades staffed with reservists will be deployed on the basis of these bases.

On December 1, 2009, the former structure of military aviation also became history. In place of armies, corps and divisions 33 air bases of three categories have been established, the largest of which have 5 to 10 squadrons. The Air Force officer corps will be reduced from 68,000 to 38,000 people, and the number of flying personnel will be cut from 12,000 to 7,000. Thirteen military space defense brigades have been established.

The “Autumn 2009” military maneuvers (the “Ladoga-2009” and “West-2009” exercises) have shown that the creation of a new, tripartite control system – Military District-Strategic Command-Brigade – is nearing completion. The new system is intended to make strategic commands capable, in the event of war, of going into action within an hour or two after the order is issued without resupplying subordinate troops with personnel and equipment. In this case, not only troops of the given military district, which is a structure of the Ground Forces, but also troops of other military and security agencies, as well as military units of the Air Force and the Navy that administratively are subordinate to the command of their own services of the Armed Forces, are placed under the authority of these commands.

The reform significantly enhances the role of military districts. For example, engineer brigades which formerly were subordinate to the Chief of the Engineer Troops, as well as the arsenals of the Main Missile and Artillery Directorate come under the authority of district commanders.

The first substantial steps have been made to reform the military education system. The Military Educational and Research Center of the Navy, the first of the three such super-centers intended for three different services of the Armed Forces, was established on July 15, 2009. The center’s concept, approved by the defense minister on June 13, 2009, provides for its construction in Kronstadt on an area of 500 hectares. The number of students, teachers, researchers and support personnel at the new center will exceed 10,000 people. The construction of the center is planned to be completed in 2013.

For the first time in almost 100 years (since the Imperial Army was disbanded in 1917), Russia has begun the training of professional non-commissioned officers. In the Ground Forces, for example, candidates have been selected for admission to an NCO training center established at the Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School. The training term lasts 2 years and 10 months. The future NCOs sign a contract for the period of training and for five-year service in the Army after graduation. Cadets will be paid 15,000 rubles a month, and after they get an assignment in the Army upon graduation they are guaranteed a monthly pay of not less than 35,000 rubles.


Why was Anatoly Serdyukov able to achieve what his predecessors had failed to do? Since Soviet times, they had set before themselves the majority of the tasks that he has now fulfilled. In particular, a transition to brigade-based Armed Forces was provided for by a military reform plan signed by Dmitry Yazov on October 19, 1990. Pavel Grachev also planned to increase the number of brigades by six times by the year 1995 due to a threefold reduction in the number of divisions. Grachev, and later Igor Sergeyev and Sergei Ivanov, made decisions on the establishment of strategic commands but had never established any. Also, all the previous ministers were ardent advocates of increasing the number of combat-ready military units. Suffice it to recall the much-touted (and later quietly shelved) Federal Target Program for 2003-2007 which provided for the establishment of several dozen constant-readiness units with a total strength of 144,000 people, entirely staffed by contract soldiers.

Of course, Serdyukov’s personal qualities, above all his outstanding managerial skills, have played a major role in his success. Within a short period of time, he gained insight into the field that was new to him, made decisions that he deemed necessary and, without wasting time on experiments that his predecessors liked so much, achieved the fulfillment of his decisions.

Yet, the main factor in the record-fast radical renovation of the Armed Forces is of objective nature and is not directly linked with the minister’s personal qualities. This factor is that Anatoly Serdyukov is the first truly civilian defense minister of Russia. Let me explain my conclusion which may be unexpected for most readers.

In 1990, that is, before the Soviet Union’s break-up, the Moscow-based Progress Publishers published a book entitled The Army and Society and printed in 10,000 copies. I wrote a chapter for the book, named “Principles of Army Building – International Experience.” In it, I explained to the democratic public, which began to gain influence in the country then and which was fascinated by the idea of creating a “professional” Army patterned after the American model, that the principles of army building (conscription, voluntary service, etc.) were an insignificant issue compared with other obstacles to the reform of the Soviet Army. I wrote that the main obstacle was the absence of a full-fledged civilian defense minister in the country: “I am confident that unless civilians are appointed to all the key posts at the Soviet Ministry of Defense (except the posts of commanders of military units) and unless they are vested with real power, there will be no serious military reform in the Soviet Union.”

My conviction of the need for a strong civilian Ministry of Defense was not just a sign of the democratic fashion in the country in those years, which made people daydream about civilian control over the Army. I proceeded from pragmatic considerations. Over years of service in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces’ General Staff, I had studied in detail the armies of foreign countries and, naturally, their supreme bodies. In particular, the history of the establishment of the U.S. Department of Defense made me firmly believe that the absence of a civilian Ministry of Defense in the Soviet Union would bring no good for the country.


The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) was established in 1947 as a merger of the previously independent Department of War (renamed as the Department of the Army when it became part of DoD) and the Department of the Navy. The main purpose of the merger was not so much to strengthen civilian control over the military as stop interservice rivalry between the naval, land and air forces, which came to a head during World War II.

Each service had its own views on how the war should be waged and consistently implemented them. The Army, for example, believed that victory would be achieved by means of ground invasion into enemy territory. The Navy was convinced that a tight naval blockade would be enough. The Army Air Forces, formally a component of the U.S. Army then but actually an independent force, argued that the war could be won by heavy bombardment from the air.

None of them wanted to respect the interests of each other. For example, the AAF Command would not help the Navy fight enemy submarines and lay sea mines, although the effectiveness of such cooperation was evident. Harry Truman, the vice-president of the United States then, said that if the Army and the Navy had fought Germany as fiercely as they fought each other, the war would have ended much earlier. Demands for closer cooperation, sent to the commanders of the Armed Forces services by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, yielded no results, as a rule.

The establishment of a unified Department of Defense, however, did not reduce the interservice rivalry. Moreover, this rivalry even increased, especially during the first decade since the introduction of the post of Secretary of Defense. This was explained by the initial weakness of the Department (the first Secretary’s staff comprised only three civilian aides, since law prohibited military personnel from holding such posts) and the emergence of nuclear weapons and expensive means of their delivery. Both the Navy and the Air Force, which in 1947 became an independent military service, sought monopoly control over the Department and nuclear weapons in order to shape the entire military strategy alone.

The ruthlessness of methods used in the struggle for the right to be the main service of the Armed Forces and, therefore, win the lion’s share of the defense budget can be illustrated by the following example.

The Navy Command realized that the emergence in the Air Force of powerful bomber aviation with a virtually unlimited operational range and armed with nuclear weapons could reduce the Navy’s role to that of an ordinary carrier of troops and munitions to theaters of operations. Therefore, it sought to thwart the production of the B-36 intercontinental bomber capable of reaching any target in the Soviet Union’s territory. Simultaneously, it set out to make the Navy also capable of striking targets deep in Soviet territory. Availing itself of the previous Navy Secretary record of the first Defense Secretary of the United States, James Forrestal, who continued to support the Navy in every way, the Navy leadership won Congressional approval for the allocation of money for the construction of a series of 12 “supercarriers” capable of carrying heavy bombers with nuclear weapons.

The keel of the first aircraft carrier, named USS United States, was formally laid down on April 18, 1949. However, merely a week later, on April 23, the newly appointed Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, who replaced the dismissed Forrestal, canceled the construction. The grounds for the cancellation were accusations from the Air Force that the Navy had understated the cost of the supercarriers’ construction by more than three times in order to win the contract.

The Navy took the cancellation as an act of war from the Air Force and the Department of Defense. Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan immediately resigned in protest, while several Navy admirals publicly disagreed with the Secretary of Defense’s decision. This episode came to be known as “the Revolt of the Admirals.” Congressman James Van Zandt, who was a Naval Reserve officer, referring to an anonymous document, accused Secretary of Defense Johnson, Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Hoyt Vandenberg, and some other Air Force officers that the Air Force B-36 program was corrupt. He also argued that the B-36 had unacceptable technical flaws. By the way, this happened on May 25, the day of the funeral of James Forrestal, who had committed suicide three days earlier.

At Van Zandt’s request, the document was published in the Congressional Record, the official record of debates in the U.S. Congress, while the House Armed Services Committee began an investigation into the accusations. The Committee was headed by Carl Vinson, formerly the chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee. Later, an aircraft carrier was named for him, the USS Carl Vinson. Van Zandt had a seat on the Armed Services Committee, too.

The anonymous document contained 55 counts against the Air Force leadership. The most scandalous counts accused Symington of approving the procurement of the bomber, full of deficiencies, for a bribe offered by Floyd Odlum, CEO of Convair which designed the B-36, as well as for a promise to give Symington the post of Convair president in the future. Another count accused General Vandenberg of signing the contract because he had a love affair with Odlum’s wife, famous aviatrix Jackie Cochran. The same accusation was made against Symington as well.

The Congressional investigation dragged on until August 25, 1949, and ended in a complete rehabilitation of the Air Force Command. With the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Air Force Counterintelligence (in the U.S., each Armed Forces service has its own counterintelligence division), using illegal methods, found the typewriter on which the anonymous document was written. It turned out that the typewriter belonged to an assistant to the Under Secretary of the Navy. The assistant confessed that all the charges were false but, he insisted, the naval command knew nothing about the document. As a result, the assistant was dismissed, and the mass production of the B-36 was given the green light. In the subsequent ten 10 years, the Navy did not challenge the Air Force’s leading role in strategic armaments. Yet, it never stopped thinking of revenge, whose time came with the emergence of the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile.

There is nothing peculiarly American about the acute interservice rivalry. James Carroll, the author of the book House of War on the history of the Pentagon, writes that “Rivalry is built into the military ethos. Paratroopers believe they are the important element in the fighting force – they have to, in order to overcome a natural fear of jumping out of an airplane. Submariners and frogmen, fighter pilots and Marines, engineers and bombardiers – every fighting man, to be effective, must be convinced of the central significance of his role.” (James Carroll. House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power. New York, 2006, p.140). Keeping in check military commanders who pursue their own, often mutually incompatible, goals and coercing them into cooperation for the sake of national interests is an extremely difficult task. The current U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, once said that, since the Department of Defense was established, “getting the military services to work together was a recurring battle that had to be addressed time and again”. (Military Review, January – February 2008. Lecture at Kansas State University, November 26, 2007).


U.S. civilian defense secretaries have gradually learned to reduce the most obvious manifestations of egoism on the part of services. But Russian generals who made it to the post of Defense Minister could not be stopped from denying their rivals access to the defense budget and from reshaping the Armed Forces structure to meet their own preferences.

Pavel Grachev was the first to have fun. His main task, set by the president, was to reduce the Armed Forces as much as possible. Grachev came from the Airborne Troops, which had a relatively low strength, so he showed no mercy in cutting the other services. Over a mere four years, he reduced the strength of the Army and the Navy by 1,122,000 people. At the same time, he did his best to keep the Airborne Troops intact and even planned to make them into the main striking force of the Armed Forces.

Grachev proclaimed the goal of creating a Mobile Force as a new strategic unit that would include the Airborne Troops, marines, light units of the Ground Forces, part of military transport aviation, and other assets required for transporting, supporting and reinforcing troops. In order to enhance the role of the Airborne Troops, he created a heavy tank regiment within the Ulyanovsk-based 104th Airborne Division, although no country in the world has heavy tanks in its Airborne Forces.

On November 14, 1994, Boris Yeltsin told the Armed Forces top commanders that “the creation of the Mobile Force will soon be over.” However, the sending of troops into Chechnya three weeks later showed how things really stood with their mobility.

On June 17, 1996, Grachev was dismissed and replaced with General Igor Rodionov, who had directly opposite views. He openly said that the decisive deterrent to any aggression would be not strategic nuclear forces, not precision-guided weapons and the more so not mobile forces, but a “high defense consciousness of the people.” Given this consciousness, he assured, “we will defeat any aggressor with sticks.” Of course, he did not plan to fight with sticks but with tanks and infantry; therefore he flatly refused to reduce both. Instead, he enthusiastically began to smash the Airborne Forces. He announced that five airborne divisions and eight airborne brigades were an unaffordable luxury for Russia, as even the United States had only two such divisions. In one of his first executive orders, he ordered reducing the Airborne Forces and re-subordinating several airborne units to the commanders of military districts. The “formidable” airborne tank regiment was disbanded.

Rodionov’s decisions led to defiance by airborne officers. On October 15, 1996, the Military Council of the Airborne Forces expressed its disagreement with the minister’s executive order, which General Alexander Lebed, then Secretary of Russia’s Security Council, described as a “criminal order.” The Military Council met his words with shouts of approval and applause.

However, Rodionov failed to implement all his plans, as he was dismissed on May 22, 1997 – not because he wanted to sideline the Airborne Forces but because he demanded money for the military reform and was against large-scale troop reductions.

The vacant post was given to Igor Sergeyev, the former Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN). He opted not to repeat his predecessors’ mistakes, so did not ask for money for reforms and unquestioningly fulfilled President Yeltsin’s decree of July 16, 1997 on the reduction of the Armed Forces strength by 500,000 people within two years, bringing it to 1.2 million people by January 1, 1999.

The new minister began with the implementation of a long-standing idea of the RVSN Command – the incorporation of the Military Space Forces (VKS) and the Missile Space Defense Forces (RKO) into the RVSN. The General Staff had been studying proposals for merging these three services throughout the previous decade. These proposals had even been approved by the Academy of Military Sciences and had been repeatedly recommended by various commissions of the General Staff. However, they had never materialized due to resistance put up by the Command of the Air Defense Forces, which included the Missile Space Defense Forces, and the Command of the Military Space Forces, which had become an independent branch in 1982 (until then, they had been subordinate to the RVSN). Now that the RVSN had an insider as defense minister, it achieved its goal. Already in 1997, the RKO and the VKS were incorporated into the Strategic Rocket Forces.

Naturally, the minister justified the merger by the need to reduce the strength of the merged services and the cost of their maintenance. Vladimir Yakovlev, who replaced Sergeyev as RVSN Commander-in-Chief, said that the merger helped to cut the total strength of the RVSN, the RKO and the VKS by 85,000 people, and annual expenses on their maintenance, by 20 per cent.

However, the main burden of the 500,000 strength reduction fell on the shoulders of other Armed Forces services. The Ground Forces, traditionally the main and largest component of the Armed Forces both in the Soviet Union and Russia, suffered the most. They were not only radically reduced but virtually eliminated as an independent service. The Ground Forces Chief Command was abolished and replaced with a Main Directorate of the Ground Forces, subordinate to the General Staff, with reduced position categories and rights. The Ground Forces themselves were subordinated to the commanders of military districts under the pretext of giving the latter the status of strategic commands in strategic areas. The Air Defense Forces were another independent service that was eliminated. Part of it (the RKO) merged with the Strategic Rocket Forces, while other units were incorporated into the Air Force.

The boundaries of military districts were radically redrawn, as well. This was done also in the name of reducing the administrative staff. It was argued, for example, that the merger of the Siberian and Trans-Baikal military districts released 5,000 servicemen, including 1,000 officers. For the same purpose of “optimizing” the Armed Forces strength, the 54,000-strong Railroad Troops were withdrawn from the Armed Forces from August 1, 1997.

Sergeyev carried out all these reductions and reorganizations without any open resistance from the leadership of the services affected by them. However, the situation changed dramatically when he encroached on the prerogatives of the General Staff. In November 1998, the defense minister proposed to the president transforming the Armed Forces in 1999 into a three-service structure that would comprise the Ground Forces, the Air Force and the Navy, and simultaneously creating a Joint High Command of Strategic Deterrence Forces. The Joint High Command would also include the RVSN and the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense responsible for nuclear weapons. It would also have operational command over naval and airborne strategic nuclear forces, which were part of the Navy and the Air Force. The Commander-in-Chief of the Strategic Deterrence Forces would ex-officio be First Deputy Minister of Defense.

Formally, according to Sergeyev’s plan, the status of the Strategic Rocket Forces would decrease from an Armed Forces service to merely a branch. In fact, however, they would be the core of a new super-service in the person of the Joint High Command of Strategic Deterrence Forces, which would not be directly subordinate to the General Staff. Meanwhile, several decades before, the General Staff was placed in control over the use of strategic nuclear forces. Obviously, Sergeyev’s proposal was unacceptable to the General Staff. The Commanders-in-Chief of the Air Force and the Navy did not support it, either, as they would lose operational control over strategic nuclear components of their forces. Finally, this confrontation escalated into an open conflict, in which the parties attacked each other even through the media. The bitterness of mutual accusations and the use of methods that were below the belt made Russian military leaders no better than their U.S. counterparts of the late 1940s who fought for control over nuclear weapons and for a bigger slice of the budget pie.

As a result, Sergeyev suffered a defeat, and support was given to an alternative reform plan which the Chief of the General Staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, submitted over Sergeyev’s head to Russia’s Security Council, headed then by Sergei Ivanov. It was Ivanov who took the post of defense minister in March 2001 after Sergeyev was dismissed. Although Ivanov declared himself a civilian minister and pointedly gave up his rank of lieutenant-general of the Federal Security Service (FSB) – which did not prevent him from becoming a reserve colonel-general later – initially he acted like a typical military minister. He decided against creating civilian administrative structures, saying that “the military must hold an overwhelming majority of posts” in his ministry. And later he simply annulled most of his predecessor’s decisions.

Already on March 24, 2001, he reinstated the Main Directorate of the Ground Forces, abolished in 1998. The 2nd Directorate of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff, which had performed the functions of the Main Directorate of the Ground Forces, was incorporated into the reinstated Ground Forces Chief Command. The Military Space Forces and the Missile Space Defense Forces were withdrawn from the RVSN, while the latter were downgraded to an Armed Forces arm. In a bid to restore the former structures, Ivanov went further and further. On the same day, March 24, 2001, the president’s executive order created, for the second time, the Volga-Ural Military District. The Volga Military District and the Ural Military District were first merged back in 1989, but three years later, in 1992, Pavel Grachev restored their independence.

By taking sides with one military faction against another, Ivanov sowed seeds of discord among generals, which Anatoly Serdyukov now has to settle, in addition to addressing the difficult task of imparting a new image to the Armed Forces. Now the Ground Forces and the Airborne Troops are increasingly demanding a return of army (helicopter) aviation that Ivanov had taken away from the Army and given to the Air Force, which was contrary to international practices. The Air Force insists that everything that flies must be under one command.

Certainly, it is not an evil wizard who makes the military of one and the same country attack each other like fighting cocks but the inherent properties of the military profession, about which James Carroll wrote. They can be cooled down only by an arbiter in the person of a civilian minister, free from any clan or professional bias and relying on qualified staff and independent experts.

The dangers posed by the Russian tradition of appointing active or reserve military officers to the post of defense minister can be illustrated by the example of the ongoing negotiations on a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1). Now, when Russian negotiators are struggling with their U.S. counterparts for every warhead and launcher, few people remember that Anatoly Kvashnin, in the heat of his struggle with Igor Sergeyev, proposed slashing the Strategic Rocket Forces from 19 to 2(!) divisions. Had he become the defense minister, what would we be discussing with Barack Obama now? And what would have been left of the Armed Force, had it seen two or three more military ministers of defense?

Fortunately, the ruinous practice has been stopped. The depth of the recent changes will be best seen from the fact that Russia now has the first combat-ready peacetime army over almost 150 years (since the reforms of Minister of War Dmitry Milyutin in 1861-1881), that is, an army that can do without cadre divisions and reduced-strength units.


There is another, subjective reason that has enabled Anatoly Serdyukov to carry out his reforms within a very short period of time. He was the first to lift the taboo on the study and use of the foreign experience of military organization.

Serdyukov, an outsider without a purely military mindset, hardly had views of his own on how to reform the army. When he saw that generals had no answers to his questions and that the so-called reforms of the last 20 years were simply destroying the Armed Forces, he decided to use foreign experience, a method repeatedly proven in Russian history by military reformers. Three centuries ago, Peter the Great, who laid the foundations of one of the best and most victorious armies of the 18th century, when Russia was still a relatively poor and sparsely populated country (14 million people, compared with 20 million people in France), gave a formula as to how to resolve such situations: “If you do not know what to do, learn from others.” And not just copy a foreign army that you like but synthesize foreign experience, borrowing from it what is the best and what is best suited to your national conditions.

Of course, every country follows its own way in building its armed forces, taking account of its national specifics. As a result, modern armies of the world are very diverse. However, there are methods of military organization that have long become axiomatic, that have been adopted in all leading rule-of-law states and that do not require extensive predictive studies, experiments or the development of new doctrines. These methods can be introduced without additional discussions, because they have been accumulated and tested for decades and have no alternatives in terms of the normal functioning of combat-ready armies and navies in most diverse conditions.

It was such an approach that the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy proposed to the Ministry of Defense in 2004 in an extensive report entitled “Military Organization and Modernization of the Armed Forces of Russia.” The report included a list (drawn up by the author of this article, who headed the writing team) of half a dozen characteristics that were common to all armies of the world and that were absent in the Russian Armed Forces. In particular, the Council proposed a radical reduction of the officer corps, the abolition of warrant officers, the introduction of the institution of career sergeants and military police, as well as many other measures, some of which have already been implemented, and, of course, the creation of a full-scale civilian Ministry of Defense.

The General Staff rudely rejected the proposals then. It accused the Council of trying to push the army onto NATO’s tracks, and called the phrase from the report that “all CIS countries have long been studying foreign experience, and only Russia remains aloof” a provocation. The General Staff insisted that the report should in no case be sent to the president, although the Council did not plan to do that anyway.

Nevertheless, the Council showed restraint, holding that any dialogue with the military is useful. As a result, it prepared eight versions of the report, trying to take into account their points of view. Each new version made the report worse and worse. For example, the list of common features of foreign armies was moved from the beginning of the report to its very end. But the basic provisions were retained.

Naturally, neither my colleagues nor I claim the authorship of Serdyukov’s innovations. I even tend to believe that most of them were proposed by generals themselves, because all the innovations were dictated solely by common sense, which many generals do have. But what they often did not have in the past was ministers ready to heed sound advice. At first, Serdyukov probably did not realize the scale of the reforms he launched. But now the avalanche has started, and the first changes will inevitably be followed by others.

It is important, of course, not to confuse combat readiness – that is, the level of the army’s wartime strength – with its combat capabilities. At present, only ten percent of equipment in service with the Russian army is new and meets the best world standards. President Dmitry Medvedev has expressed his concerns to this effect as well. During his October 26, 2009 visit to Reutov, near Moscow, he said that “the structural reorganization of the Armed Forces will be complete in two months time” and added: “The next task is more complex – providing the Armed Forces with modern arms and equipment.” To fulfill this task, common sense alone will not be enough.