3 January 2016

Russia's Quiet Military Revolution, and What it Means for Europe

31 December 2015
What should Europe do to counter Russia's military strategy, which currently puts a premium on hybrid warfare and tactical nuclear weapons? Gustav Gressel’s recommendations include 1) planning and preparing to cope with more hybrid scenarios, and 2) crafting a coordinated position on nuclear deterrence.

By Gustav Gressel for European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
This article is an excerpt of a paper originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on 12 October 2015. The full paper can be accessed from our Digital Library.
Russia has surprised the West with its military capacity twice in succession. First, in Ukraine, the Russian armed forces overturned Western assumptions about their inefficiency with a swift and coordinated “hybrid war”, combining subversion and infiltration with troop deployment to gain an early military advantage. The effectiveness of Russia’s action unnerved Western planners, who scrambled to devise a response. Then, in Syria, Russia used military force outside the borders of the former Soviet Union for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Its forceful intervention in defence of President Bashar al-Assad made the United States look hesitant and indecisive, though the long-term impact of Russia’s gambit remains uncertain.

Russia’s new military boldness and adventurism has left Western observers puzzled, but it does not come out of nowhere: current Russian strategy is the culmination of a systematic military reform that has been insufficiently appreciated by the European Union and the US. An examination of this reform process will allow us to assess the current strengths and limitations of Russia’s military, and to understand how Russia’s leaders plan to use military force and how the West should respond.

The examination also reveals that, although Russia’s action in Syria is now in the spotlight, it is a sideshow to Russia’s military planning. The Syrian deployment does not draw on the core strengths of the armed forces, or on Moscow’s military vision. That vision is centred on the Eurasian landmass, and above all those areas surrounding Russia’s post-Cold War borders.

The current Russian leadership has never accepted the post-1989 European order, including the norms, rules, and conventions agreed by the last generation of Soviet leadership. The Kremlin does not seek incremental changes to the current order but aspires to create a totally new one, regarding post-Soviet borders as something to be revised – with military force, if necessary. As a group of leading Russian defence analysts remarked at the 2012 Valdai Discussion Club, an annual forum where Russian officials meet with experts: “The entire Belavezha Accords system of state and territorial structure, which took shape as a result of the 1991 national disaster (the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991), is illegitimate, random, unstable and therefore fraught with conflict”.[i]

Until 2014, Russia could not underpin this desire for a revision of the European order with force. Even now, it is not in a position of sheer numerical superiority, as it had been from the seventeenth century onwards. Russian military thinkers and planners have had to be creative to try to overcome the multiple disadvantages of the Russian military apparatus vis-à-vis its Western counterparts.

First and foremost, Russia has improved the professionalism, readiness, and effectiveness of its military personnel and armed forces. While in the past the Russian armed forces needed years or months to gear up for military confrontation, they now have the ability to react quickly and strike without warning. The rearmament programme is incomplete and will likely be delayed by the economic downturn and by Russia’s diplomatic isolation. Still, Russia is now a military power that could overwhelm any of its neighbours, if they were isolated from Western support. The Kremlin considers the threat of tactical nuclear weapons as an important strategic tool that could be used to isolate the post-Soviet space from Western support, although Russia has, until recently, been reluctant to openly play this card.

While Russian military action beyond the non-NATO post-Soviet periphery is not imminent, it cannot be ruled out. The situation today differs fundamentally from that of the Cold War – Russia now has the advantage of geographic proximity to the potential frontline, and can move fast and without warning, unlike Europe. To counter this, Europe must be united in its response, ensure credible deterrence, and prepare to respond to hybrid warfare. It will also need the support of the US.

Russia’s underrated military reforms

Russia has announced various defence reforms since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But, for nearly two decades, these were little more than paper tigers.[ii] The Russian military was not tested in any large-scale commitment of conventional forces, instead engaging in proxy wars in its immediate neighbourhood fought with irregular and special-operation forces. In the two wars in Chechnya, the performance of the Russian armed forces was far from satisfactory, but Russia shifted the war effort to local proxies and Interior Ministry troops, avoiding the need for the armed forces to change substantially. Lack of money and bureaucratic resistance meant that attempts to increase professionalism and combat-readiness in the Russian armed forces led nowhere. The bill of this negligence was to be paid in the Russian-Georgian war of 2008.

Russian tanks moved into Georgia in August 2008.[iii] The Kremlin denied that regime change in Tbilisi was on its agenda, but in fact Russian forces moved too slowly to achieve such a goal. While they succeeded in their strategic aim of humiliating Georgia and reinforcing Russian control of Georgia’s separatist regions, there were numerous tactical and operational problems. [iv] Russian forces were slow in mobilising and deploying to the theatre; troops from different divisions had to be synchronised before the invasion through manoeuvres in the Northern Caucasus, because Russian forces relied on mobilisation to fill the ranks and certain regiments were kept unmanned; and inexperienced and talkative conscripts proved to be a security problem. The Russian military had to rely on superior numbers instead of quality. Coordination between the arms of the Russian forces proved difficult. Tactical and operational planning was poor and inflexible, as was leadership. Situation awareness was poor, and led to many incidents of “friendly fire”. Russia failed to exploit the advantage of air superiority, and supply lines were overstretched.

Most strikingly, Georgia’s US-trained troops proved tougher than anticipated. Their leadership was more flexible; they acted as good combat teams; and they were much more motivated than the Russians, partly due to their superior individual equipment. Georgia had upgraded vintage Soviet equipment with Western night-vision and communication devices that made them more effective than their Russian counterparts, although Georgian troops lacked the heavy armour, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft equipment to defeat the Russian forces.

The poor performance of the Russian armed forces demonstrated the need for real defence reform. The Russian leadership realised that, if performance did not improve, they would find it difficult to use the military to intimidate or coerce larger neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, or Kazakhstan, should they embark on policies diverging from the Kremlin’s interests. The strength of the Georgian forces taught the Russian leadership that combat- and leadership-training, effective logistics, and higher levels of professionalism are much more important for the overall performance of military forces than high -tech equipment. In addition, it showed them that small incremental improvements on existing equipment would increase their performance considerably at a much lower cost than introducing all-new generations of weapons systems and combat vehicles.

The new round of Russian military reform started in late 2008, after the Georgian campaign was over. The armed forces had not undergone such a rapid transformation since the 1930s, and before that the 1870s. The authorities planned the “new look” reform in three phases, starting with the reforms that would take the longest to produce results.[v] First, increasing professionalism by overhauling the education of personnel and cutting the number of conscripts; second, improving combat-readiness with a streamlined command structure and additional training exercises; and third, rearming and updating equipment.

Western analysts’ focus on the rearmament stage of the reforms, which has not yet been completed, has caused them to overlook the success of the other two stages. These have already given Russia a more effective and combat-ready military, as demonstrated by its fast and coordinated intervention in Ukraine.

The first stage of the reform tackled the professionalism of the Russian armed forces – troops as well as leaders. The overall number of officers – both general staff and staff officers – was reduced dramatically (in line with the streamlining of the command-and-control structure), the warrant officers corps was dissolved, and professionally trained non-commissioned officers (NCO) were introduced. For the first time, the Russian army had a pyramid structure, with few decision -makers at the top and more officers servicing the troops. This freed resources for other reform projects, and reduced bureaucratic battles between rival offices. Officers’ wages increased fivefold over the period of the reform, and greater management skills and commitment were demanded from them in return. New housing and social welfare programmes added to the financial security and prestige of armed forces personnel.

Since the early 2000s, Russia had experimented with hiring more professional soldiers instead of conscripts, but now financial resources were available to increase their numbers on a large scale. This allowed the troops to use more high- tech equipment (conscripts serve too short a period to be effectively trained on complex weapons systems) and increased the combat-readiness of elite forces (paratroopers, naval infantry, and special forces).

The military education system was overhauled, reducing the number of military schools and higher education centres from 65 to 10, and introducing new curricula and career models. Many of the education and training reforms were modelled on the systems of Switzerland and Austria, whose ministries were happy to please their “strategic partners” in Moscow by granting them insights into their NCO and officer training programmes. The aim of Russian military planners was that the new generation of officers should be able to lead their troops in complex environments and quickly adapt to new situations by applying state-of-the-art (Western) leadership techniques. Last but not least, individual soldiers’ equipment and uniforms were modernised, increasing morale and confidence.

The second phase concentrated on increasing troop readiness, and improving organisation and logistics. Russia revamped the entire structure of its armed forces – from strategic commands down to new combat brigades. The aim was to increase readiness, deployability, and the ability to send large numbers of troops abroad on short notice.

The reforms reduced the discrepancy between the armed forces’ real strength and their strength on paper. During Soviet times, the army relied on mobilisation[vi]– calling up reservists – to achieve full combat strength. Each division was only staffed 50 to 75 percent (with two to three regiments not manned) and required reservists to fill all ranks. This procedure took time and was difficult to hide from the public, and hence would have been a clear indication to Russia’s neighbours that military action was imminent. Russia had not resorted to mobilisation since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, due to the fear of domestic dissent. As a result, before each deployment, battalions and regiments had to be assembled in-situ from different divisions according to the level of staffing and equipment that was available at the time. These “patchwork” units were not successful in the Russian-Georgian war, as the different units and officers had hardly trained together and barely knew each other. Hence, the reforms significantly reduced the overall strength of the Russian army on paper, cutting structures that relied on mobilisation and introducing high- readiness combat-brigades (40 “new look” brigades were formed from 23 old divisions – a nominal reduction of about 43 percent).

Then the command structure was streamlined. The military districts were transformed into joint forces commands, and their number was reduced. This cut the levels of hierarchy as the military districts now have access to all land, air, and naval forces in their zone. Unnecessary administrative commands were closed, especially in the army and air forces. Even more dramatic were the cuts and reorganisation in the logistics apparatus of the army, where extensive outsourcing and reduction of administrative personnel increased effectiveness.

To further boost troop readiness, manoeuvres and exercises were increased. Large -scale “snatch exercises” were conducted to ensure that Russia could react to a variety of contingencies in its immediate neighbourhood. Not surprisingly, the list of mobilised units and participants in the 2009 and 2013 high-readiness manoeuvres and the war in Ukraine do not differ much– the Russian armed forces generally rehearse what they intend to do. In theory, within 24 hours of alert all airborne units (VDV) should be deployed, and all Russian “new look” brigades ready to deploy. While such high readiness levels have not yet been achieved, one has to bear in mind that before the reforms some Russian divisions needed about a year of preparation before deploying to Chechnya. Smaller-scale battalion - and brigade- level exercises and live -fire exercises have also increased considerably since the mid- 2000s.[vii] These are used for tactical leadership training, to familiarise new commanders and units with each other, and to make higher-level commands aware of any shortcomings in the new units.

The results of the reforms are clearly visible. During the Russian-Ukrainian war, the Russian army kept between 40,000 and 150,000 men in full combat-ready formations across the Russian-Ukrainian border.[viii] In parallel, Russia conducted manoeuvres in other parts of the country, comprising up to 80,000 service personnel of all arms. Moreover, the troops stayed in the field in combat-ready conditions for months before being rotated. Not even during the second Chechen war had the number of permanent troops maintained in the field been so high or lasted such a long time. Before the reforms, combat-readiness plummeted immediately after deployment due to inefficient logistics. This is not the case now.


The West has underestimated the significance of Russia’s military reforms. Western – especially US – analysts have exclusively focused on the third phase of reform: the phasing in of new equipment. Numerous Russian and Western articles have stated that the Russian armed forces were still using legacy equipment from the Soviet Union and that its replacement was occurring more slowly than planned by the Kremlin. [ix] However, this is a misunderstanding of the nature of the reforms. The initial stages were not designed to create a new army in terms of equipment, but to ensure that existing equipment was ready to use, and to make the organisation that uses it more effective and professional. Indeed, to successfully intervene in Russia’s neighbourhood, Moscow does not necessarily need the latest cutting-edge defence technology. Rather, such interventions would have to be precisely targeted and quickly executed to pre-empt a proper Western reaction.

It was logical for Russian policymakers to postpone the equipment phase of the military reform until the first two phases of restructuring had yielded tangible results. It takes more time to educate officers, phase out or retrain generations of military leaders, and overhaul bureaucratic structures and logistics than to acquire new equipment. Moreover, Russian policymakers expected the conditions for its realisation to improve over time, in terms of both budget and technology. During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev there was hope that Russia’s military-industrial complex would benefit from modernisation partnerships with European countries, particularly Western Europe. Hence there was no reason to rush the rearmament phase of Russia’s military reforms. The military-industrial complex made use of the modernisation partnership, and closed some gaps in its arsenal – such as tactical drones – by import. It persuaded Israel to agree to a licence-build contract for a variety of tactical drones, in exchange for Russia cancelling the sale of the S-300 air-defence system to Iran.[x] Other foreign purchases improved the effectiveness of existing equipment, such as new radio equipment for the armed forces, computerised training and simulation facilities, command- and-control networks, and night-vision devices for tanks.

Other deals with foreign nations were designed to close gaps in production techniques and project-management skills in the Russian defence industry. The most famous of these deals was the proposed sale of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to Russia by French defence company DCNS.[xi] While the vessel itself is not the miracle weapon that Russian claimed, the deal allowed the Russians to learn how the West builds warships. By taking part in the construction of the two helicopter carriers, the Russian shipbuilding industry learned project-management techniques that will help the country to accelerate future shipbuilding programmes. Previously, Russian warships had been built using traditional methods – from keel up in the yard or dock. This is slow, and delivery problems with minor items can block the yard or dock, causing delays. Western nations instead build their boats in sections in different yards, and assemble the blocks later. This makes projects faster, cheaper, more flexible, and less prone to delays. Similar “partnerships” have been planned with Italian and German businesses to gain insights into Western production techniques and procedures for land vehicles, aircraft, defence electronics, and composite materials.

After Vladimir Putin announced the Russian rearmament plans in 2012, Russian defence spending increased from $70.2 billion in 2011 to $84.8 billion in 2013, and then $91.7 billion in 2014.[xii] However, the straining of European-Russian relations after Putin’s return to the presidency, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and collapsing energy prices have caused severe setbacks for Russian rearmament programmes.

European sanctions against Russia following the Ukraine crisis – especially the ban on the sale of arms and dual-use goods – did not cause many deals to collapse publicly, but it remains to be seen how far the defence industry’s projects have been delayed by the interruption of links to technical expertise and manufacturing facilities in the West. The incremental improvement of Russian legacy-systems will also be delayed.

But the biggest blow to the defence reforms was the failure of Russian economic modernisation policy in general. In 2015, the government further increased the proportion of GDP spent on defence in the face of rising inflation and falling GDP,[xiii] but there are doubts about whether this is sustainable.[xiv] China’s defence industry has benefited from the country’s overall economic and industrial modernisation. Russia, meanwhile, has failed to modernise at all. Its plan for economic modernisation was a bureaucratic, state -centric one that disregarded the fact that technological modernisation needs a private industrial sector. Technological modernisation of the defence sector alone worked during Stalin’s time, but not in the information age. The difference between the Chinese and Russian defence industries illustrates this problem.

Russia’s defence modernisation is far from complete. The introduction of new generations of aeroplanes, warships, and land systems began only recently. This modernisation effort will continue over the next decade, and many of the programmes will run into the 2020s or even the 2030s. The decision on the next phase of rearmament has already been postponed several times.[xv]

Although the low oil price, among other factors, may cause delays, most modernisation programmes should yield their first results by 2020. Whether by coincidence or design, Chinese military documents from the 2000s usually referred to 2020 as the year by which China would be ready to fight at least a regional war, and thereafter become a global military superpower. To militarily challenge Europe, Russia would need allies. Whatever the projected date for completing reforms, Russia knows that it is not yet time for a major military confrontation. However, its defence apparatus could still exploit situations that arise unexpectedly.

The notion that Russia is preparing to face off with the West and NATO is not just domestic politics and sabre-rattling. Russia cannot challenge the international order alone, but the Kremlin’s assertion that the West is in decline and the East on the rise implies its belief that the conditions for a military revision of the current world order will improve over time.[xvi] Sooner or later, Russia’s leaders believe, they will be presented with an opportunity to join a revisionist coalition. In the meantime, the Russian armed forces are capable enough to successfully defeat any of its immediate western neighbours, including the EU and NATO members that border the Russian Federation, if they are isolated. And, for the time being, this neighbourhood will remain the focus of Russian military strategy.

To continue reading please access the full paper from our Digital Library here.

[i] Mikhail Barabanov, Konstantin Makienko, and Ruslan Pukhov, “Military Reform: Toward the New Look of the Russian Army”, Valdai Discussion Club, Analytical Report, Moscow, July 2012, p. 9, available at http://vid-1.rian.ru/ig/valdai/Military_reform_eng. pdf (hereafter, Barabanov et al., “Military Reform”).

[ii] See Alexander M. Golts and Tonya L. Putnam, “State Militarism and Its Legacies: Why Military Reform Has Failed in Russia”, International Security, Volume 29, Issue 2, Fall 2004, p. 121–158; the article provides a useful description of social mobilisation and the cultivation of nationalism by the Russian Security Services, but defines “defence reform success” purely in Western terms. For the authors, it was unthinkable that the Russian military would succeed in the very same quest several years later.

[iii] For the causes and aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war, see Gustav C. Gressel, “Der Krieg am Kaukasus: Geschehenisse und Konsequenzen”, in Erich Reiter (ed.), Die Sezessionskonflikte in Georgien (Böhlau Verlag Wien: Köln, Weimar, 2009), p. 15–49.

[iv] The following assessment is in large part based on Eugene Kogan, “The Russian- Georgian Conflict: An Assessment”, in Erich Reiter (ed.), Die Sezessionskonflikte in Georgien (Böhlau Verlag Wien: Köln, Weimar, 2009), p. 63–70.

[v] The description of Russia’s military reforms is based – where not stated otherwise – on the following articles: Mikhail Barabanov, “Changing the Force and Moving Forward After Georgia”, in Colby Howard and Ruslan Pukhov (eds), Brothers Armed, Military Aspects of the Crisis in Ukraine (East View Press: Minneapolis, 2014), p. 91–123; Roger N. McDermott, “Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces: Reform and Nuclear Posture to 2020”, in Stephen J. Blank (ed.), Russian Nuclear Weapons: Past, Present, and Future, Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, 2011, p. 33–97; and Dmitry Boltenkov, Aleksey Gayday, Anton Karnaukhov, Anton Lavrov, and Vyacheslav Tseluiko, Russia’s New Army (Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies: Moscow, 2011), available at www.cast.ru/files/book/NewArmy_sm.pdf.

[vi] In Russian or Ukrainian, the term mobilisation – мобілізація – also refers to drafting new recruits, so it is necessary to take care in interpreting it.

[vii] Richard Weitz, Global Security Watch – Russia: A Reference Handbook (Greenwood: Santa Barbara, 2010), p. 168.

[viii] See Igor Sutyagin, “Russian Forces in Ukraine”, Royal United Services Institute Briefing Paper, March 2015, available at https://www.rusi.org/publications/other/ ref:O54FDBCF478D8B/.

[ix] Roger McDermott, “Black Holes, Vanishing Rubles and Corruption in the Russian Military”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, Volume 7, Issue 203, 9 November 2010, available at http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_ news]=37150&cHash=f63f3bbff1#.VY6tHryaClM.

[x] “Russia confirms cancellation of Iran’s S-300 deal”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 20 October 2010, p. 28; “Russia and Israel’s IAI agree UAV partnership”, Jane’s Defence Weekly, 20 October 2010, p. 31; to give a sense of the durability of such deals, Russia resumed the delivery of S-300 to Iran in 2015, and has used the drones extensively over Ukraine. See “Russia Confirms Sale of S-300 Missile Systems To Iran”, Agence France-Presse, 26 May 2015, available at http://www.defensenews.com/story/ defense/international/europe/2015/05/26/russia-confirms-sale-missile-systemsiran/ 27970269/; Christian Borys, “Ukrainian forces says two drones shot down over war zone are Russian”, the Guardian, 21 May 2015, available at http://www.theguardian. com/world/2015/may/21/ukraine-drones-shot-down-russian.

[xi] For a deeper analysis of the deal, see Roy Isbister and Yannick Quéau, “An ill wind – How the sale of Mistral warships to Russia is undermining EU arms transfer controls”, GRIP Briefing, November 2014, available at http://grip.org/sites/grip.org/files/RAPPORTS/2014/Rapport_2014-7%20(EN).pdf.

[xii] All figures in 2011 prices and exchange rates. Data from SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, available at http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/milex_database/milex-data-1988-2014.

[xiii] “Russian Defense Budget to Hit Record $81 Billion in 2015”, the Moscow Times, 16 October 2014, available at http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/russian-defense-budget-to-hit-record-81bln-in-2015/509536.html.

[xiv] The revised Russian budget, released in April 2015, would put defence spending at 9 percent of GDP. This sparked debate among defence analysts about whether such a high level of defence spending was sustainable. See Sergei Guriev, “Russia’s Indefensible Military Budget”, Project Syndicate, 14 May 2015, available at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/russia-military-spending-by-sergei-guriev-2015-05; or Hannes Adomeit, “Russlands Imperialer Irrweg”, Osteuropa, Volume 3/2015, p. 67–93, available at http://www.osteuropa.dgo-online.org/hefte/2015/3/russlands-imperialer-irrweg/.

[xv] “Russia to endorse new state armament program in late 2015”, Interfax, 27 September 2015, available at http://rbth.co.uk/news/2013/09/27/russia_to_endorse_new_state_armament_program_in_late_2015_30208.html.

[xvi] This line of thought is best explained in Vladimir Putin’s 2012 article, “Russia and the changing world”, Moskovskie novosti, 26 February 2012, available at http://sputniknews.com/analysis/20120227/171547818.html.

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Gustav Gressel joined ECFR’s Berlin office as a visiting fellow in the Wider Europe programme. Before joining ECFR he worked as a desk officer for international security policy and strategy in the Bureau for Security Policy at the Austrian Ministry of Defence from 2006 to 2014, and as a research fellow of the Commissioner for Strategic Studies in the Austrian MoD from 2003 to 2006. He was also a research fellow at the International Institute for Liberal Politics in Vienna. Before his academic career he served five years in the Austrian Armed Forces.

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