Military Reforms of the Russian Federation

At the end of the 20th Century Russia found its armed forces and defense industries in a state of chaos. Readiness and morale were very low, draft evasion and desertion were widespread, and weapons procurement had subsided significantly. Massive budget cuts and troop reductions had forced hundreds of thousands of officers out of the ranks into a depressed economy and probable unemployment. To make matters worse, internal and external conditions in the late 1990s prohibited Moscow from focusing exclusively on military reforms. The Chechen conflict continued to rage and drew in more and more Russian units. Meanwhile, the country had just begun to recover from an economic crisis and was financially limited in what actions it could take.

In the months leading up to his ascendancy to the Presidency, Vladimir Putin portrayed himself as an ardent nationalist determined to restore the country's pride in itself and the military, rejuvenate the economy, and return Russia to the status of a world power. The promise to strengthen and modernize the armed forces had been made before, but Putin vowed to implement reforms. Within Putin's first 7 months of office in 2000, the government introduced and adopted a new military doctrine, foreign policy concept, and national security concept. Although the documents continued to stress the country's main security threats were internal, they asserted that external military threats were growing, and called for greater military readiness and capability.

The General Staff of the Russian Federation prepared and released a report in 2000 that described the types of future conflicts they envisioned Russia would become engaged in. The first form of conflict was the traditional local, regional, or global conflict with regular armies that concerned interstate or international issues. The second, and many experts argued the more probable type of engagement, depicted a local, regional, or global conflict with irregular military formations, separatist movements, criminal groups, bandit formations, and/or terrorist insurgencies. The report explained that such conflicts were likely to be internal or within the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

In order to prepare for the threats of the 21st Century and revamp the military, which had been under funded throughout the 1990s and fallen behind, President Putin decided to reform the entire defense complex. These changes would impact the defense industry, the military-industrial complex, and the military itself. The country's defense and security systems were to be rebuilt and reformed. The business community was earmarked to be incorporated in the restructuring plans.

A new military triad was envisioned that focused on strategic forces (the traditional elements of strategic missile, navy, and aviation forces), conventional forces (all ground forces and non-strategic navy and air components), and special anti-terrorist forces. A cost-effective approach was proposed that consisted of new strategic commands, operational task forces, and joint logistics. The drafty system and educational level of recruits and personnel required an upgrade as well.

Command and Control

In an effort to improve the expenditures, organization, and mobility of Russia's armed forces, the military decided to transform the structure of its command and control principles. The major reforms include:

  • The existing six Military Districts and four fleets are to be transformed into three Regional Commands - West European (West), Central Asian (South), and Far Eastern (East) - based on integrated command and control of ground and naval forces located in the current Military Districts.
  • The commanding officer will be in charge of all services and military defense formations, with the exception of Strategic Nuclear Missile Forces. The commanding officer is to be responsible for territorial defense in cases of terrorist attacks and/or local or regional conflicts.
  • The Air Force is to merge with the Strategic Missile Forces and Space Forces.
  • Airborne troops are to be subordinated to the Main Ground Forces HQ.
  • A joint logistic and procurement system is to be established for all defense/security services.

The new system was designed to be tested in a series of phases in which the military could analyze its effectiveness. The changes would not be implemented until sometime between 2008 and 2010, according to Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov.

Professionalizing the Armed Forces

One of the most critical aspects of military reform concerned personnel. The pool of eligible draftees has continually shrunk since the mid-1990s, and the quality of draftees has declined considerably. Reports surfaced in 2004-2005 that an increased percentage of conscripts were found to by physically or mentally unfit for service and were discharged thereafter. The country is also expected to struggle in the next few years as its labor resources are reduced due to a negative birth rate.

As a result of these inefficiencies the government launched initiatives to professionalize the armed forces by replacing the draft with a contract service system. Enforced by President Putin, the Ministry of Defense spent 2001 and much of 2002 creating the parameters and guidelines for the conversion process. The new strategy would continue to call up conscripts for six months of training. At that point each conscript would have an option to conclude their service by completing basic military duties, or they could sign a contract to enter the professional force.

It was decided the system would be enforced piecemeal to select units as an experiment to gauge its efficiency. The first unit to convert to the system was the 76th Airborne Division in September 2002. Upon its success, the next phase of the conversion process began. It involved the conversion of the permanent readiness military units in the Ground Forces, Airborne Forces, Air Force, Navy, Space Force, and Strategic Missile Force. The second phase, which began in 2004, was due to be completed by 2011.

Conscripts who joined the professional force received much higher pay than those who chose to finish out their service. In addition, after three years of service they gained a number of benefits, including the right to a higher education financed by the government. President Putin announced that conscript service would be reduced from 18 months to one year after 2007, and that only contract soldiers would serve in conflict zones. The Border Guards and Interior Troops were schedules to be transformed into a professional force, and an intense effort was launched to professionalize Noncommissioned Officers (NCOs).

The new method offered a number of solutions to Russia's problems. It ensured a substantially large portion of the population had basic military training and could be mobilized in the event of war. In addition, the contract troops that continued their military service only required tactic training. As of November 2006 there were 1,134,000 servicemen in the armed forces of the Russian Federation. The target goal was to have 1,013,000 servicemen by 2011.

By the start of 2007, however, the Ministry of Defense had already encountered problems with filling the ranks of regiments that had transformed to the contract service. Conscripts complained that there were no financial incentives to join the service, and that they received irregular payments and lower salaries compared to those in the civilian sector. Lastly, the absence of professionally trained noncommissioned and junior officers, who are most responsible for the educational development, morale, and ethnic assimilation of servicemen, contributed to the deteriorating professionalism within the units.

In an attempt to enforce its policies and increase enlistment the Ministry of Defense took a number of steps in 2005-2006.

  • The MoD sought legislation to introduce stricter rules for application to those who fail to comply with the terms of contracts.
  • The Ministry supported the creation of military centers in civil universities and colleges for promotion of professional military service.
  • Contracted sergeants were introduced into the army as intermediate leaders between soldiers and commissioned officers. They're responsible for the training and education of conscripts, and are believed to be an effective tool to combat hazing and crime within the military ranks.
  • Proposed the suspension of nine types of deferment, a legal loophole that allows draftees to evade a draft call.
  • Special military training and education courses are to be reinstated in the secondary schools to upgrade physical fitness and the educational and professional levels of potential draftees.

Task Force

Operational Task Forces are to become an essential element of the future Russian military. Joint efforts and coordination among different forces and facets of the government will be essential toward combating enemy special forces, criminal elements, and airborne troops, and in protecting and defending communications, military installations, and vital economic and state facilities. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation defined the task force as a combat formation destined for internal use against internal and external threats.


Russia also looked to overhaul its logistical system to complement the rest of its military reforms. Its primary goals included assisting in the transformation of the command and control system of the military and the termination of duplicate command structures; the creation of a single procurement agency that could place orders for the military and other forces; the unification of the transportation, medical, and infrastructure support systems to stimulate a reduction in personnel; and the introduction of a new recruit system based on the territorial boundaries of the nation's administrative districts.

Nuclear Strategy

To counter the inefficiencies of its conventional military Russia has invested substantial amounts in its strategic nuclear forces from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. The nuclear forces are divided into a triad of strategic air, naval, and ground forces responsible for sustaining nuclear deterrence. Unlike their Soviet predecessors, however, the Russians have all but done away with the concept of nuclear parity. Instead, they have embraced the method of maintaining a sufficient force capable of penetrating an enemy's defense missile shields.

Russia planned to complete the modernization of its strategic nuclear deterrent components by 2015-2020. Until then, it will retain its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and airborne strategic missiles that can deliver a nuclear attack from land, sea, or air.

Counterterrorism and Intelligence

The Federal Antiterrorist Commission was established in 2002 as a permanent government body charged with the coordination of the security, militia, and border guard services of Russia. The Commission was responsible for creating antiterrorist strategy and tactics, developing and proposing antiterrorist legislation, and organizing the actions of all the ministries and government agencies involved in the prevention and management of terrorist attacks.

The Security Council approved the creation of unified headquarters for the Special Forces of Russia in March 2005. The new agency reported directly to the President, and provided him with the opportunity to deploy these forces as he wished, including internationally, without the consent of the Russian Parliament.

In February 2006 the National Antiterrorist Committee (NAC) was formed by a Presidential decree and subordinated to the Federal Security Service (FSB). The Committee focuses on organizing the efforts of the country's emergency services within each federal district.

2008 - Serdyukov's Reforms

On 14th October 2008, during the meeting of the Military Collegium of the RF Ministry of Defence (MD), the Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced the major parameters of the large scale reform of the RF AF structure. According to the published plans, by 2012 the RF AF should switch to brigade structure instead of division-regimental structure. These innovations were planned since the middle of 2007 (mainly as a consequence of combat operations in the Chechen Republic, where brigades were the main tactical units). Nevertheless, the main impulse for reform acceleration was the “Five Days War” in Caucasus, which demonstrated low efficiency of operational deployment of 58th army, which is organized on a division base.

As a formal explanation for the necessity of this kind of transformation, the officials from the Ministry of Defence used the argument that the divisionregimental structure was popular primarily in times of mass symmetric wars of high intensity during World War I and World War II. Their distinctive features were clear positioning of the opposing sides at different front and large scale military operations (fronts could extend for hundreds kilometres, which required large army groups).

According to Anatoly Serdyukov’s and his milieu opinion, large-scale conflicts of the 21st century tend to transform, firstly, becoming asymmetric (with different levels of technical advancement of sides), secondly, switching to low efficiency mode. Considering limited geographic space, this will complicate large operative units (divisions, corps, and armies) usage and also their quick deployment that often determines operation’s success. That is why the leadership of the Ministry of Defence proposed to make brigade a key tactical unit in the RF AF.

Apart from structural changes, the reform suggests personnel changes. According to the Minister of Defence statement, by the year 2012 the size of RF AF should be decreased to 1 million troops and the most substantial cut will be applied to the officer corps. Its size will be only 150 thousand officers instead of current 335 thousand. According to modernization plan, the share of officers in RF AF will be 15%. There are also plans to reduce the number of colonels, lieutenant-colonels and majors. At the same time, the number of lieutenants and senior lieutenants will rise from 50,000 to 60,000. Taking into account global practice, this initiative could be partially justified. There are standards in many armies for the required ratio of soldiers and officers, which they try to abide by. Moreover, similar standards are introduced for ratios of junior and senior officers’ positions.

According to “Serdyukov’s team” project, the so-called skeleton units should be eliminated in Russia in a few years. These are units, which usually have only officers on their roster and perform some supplementary activities: financing, warehousing etc. Taking into account intention of the Head of the Ministry of Defence (MD) to transfer these functions on “civilian tracks”, this initiative is quite understandable, yet it has also disgruntled not only high-rank, but also middle-rank officers.

Join the mailing list