Dr. Andrew Liaropoulos
(RIEAS Senior Analyst)


The reform of the Russian military has been a priority for President Putin since he came into power. The latest military reform programme, adopted in 2003, set as its main objective the partial professionalisation of the armed forces over the period 2004-2008. In particular, the reform programme emphasizes the need for reductions in force size, a gradual decrease in the use of conscripts in favour of professional soldiers, the creation of a professional non-commissioned officer corps, drastic changes to officer training and education, and greater political oversight of military spending. (1)

The rational behind these reforms has been to transform Russia’s military into a flexible and modern force that will be able to deal successfully with the new security challenges, to participate in crisis management, peacekeeping and counter-terrorist operations. Indicative of this new rationale is the release of the ‘Urgent Tasks for the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation’, by the Ministry of Defence on October 2003. The so-called Ivanov Doctrine deemphasises the threat posed by NATO and highlights new threats and missions, like global terrorism and the need to deal with smaller scale conflicts. (2)

So far, the record on the military reform has not been that impressive. (3) The main reason for the slow pace of the reforms is that the Russian military is simply unwilling to reform. The military, due to its central role in Russian politics (see the role of the military in the August 1991 putch and the Chechnya conflict) enjoys an administrative and operational autonomy that is unprecedented in the West. As a result, the civil authorities have never really tried to exercise control over military policy-making. (4)

The reform plan that Putin and Ivanon put forward aims to downgrade the role of the General Staff and exercise some form of control on its performance. The legacy and prestige that the powerful Russian military has historically enjoyed among the Russians, its traditional autonomy (monopolizing knowledge over military affairs, no oversight of the military budget by civilian authorities) and certain political and structural characteristics, like favouring universal conscription and state controls over military-industrial enterprises, are all being challenged by the military reform. (5)

As a result, the Russian military has hindered the project to make the armed forces professional, since professional armed forces are challenging the concept of a national army (a mass army based on universal conscription). Most senior military officers trained during the Soviet era believe that an efficient army is a mass army recruited by universal conscription, and backed up by a large reserve.

Trained in concepts, which place emphasis on mass numbers, quantity and fire power, Russian officers tend to distrust projects aimed at creating a smaller, professional army far removed from their cultural referents. (6) After all, in a professional army, orientated primarily against new missions, they would not have appropriate knowledge or skill to educate, train or command the new forces. The project for an army intended to respond primarily to small-scale conflicts, to fight non-state actors and to counter non-military threats in cooperation with internal security and police forces, and to be integrated into international military deployments, has met strong resistance within the military elite. (7)

To sum up, the generals have shown little desire to implement reforms that would present, according to them a serious risk to national security, or, are potentially unfavourable to their corporate or personal positions. (8)

The attempts by the Kremlin to overcome the military’s opposition have been hindered by two more factors, a domestic and an international one. The domestic is the absence of pressure from Russian society. Due to the centrality of the military institution in the history of the Russian state, there has been no decisive impetus in favour of military reform from Russian society and political class, contrarily to what happened in Western countries.

Actually many Russians believe that a radical reform of the army would present a serious risk to national security. The international factor has to do with certain international developments - the integration of the Baltic States into NATO, the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the ABM Treaty and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - that have convinced the Russian generals that the traditional threat from the West is still alive. (9)

Nevertheless, the need for the Russian military to modernize and reform is imperative. Facts - like the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight against terrorism and to a certain degree the recognition from the military itself that it can no longer compete in the modern battlefield - speak for themselves.

Although it is hard to predict the pace of the reform in the coming years, present indications suggest that Vladimir Putin will continue to push the reform further. (10)

(1) For more details regarding the April 2003 Reform Plan see Dale R. Herspring, ‘Vladimir Putin and Military Reform in Russia’ European Security, 14, 1 (2005), pp.146-48.

(2) For an analysis of the Ivanov Doctrine see Matthew Bouldin, ‘The Ivanov Doctrine and Military Reform: Reasserting Security Stability in Russia’, Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 17, 4 (2004), pp.619-641.

(3) See Alexander Golts, ‘Military Reform in Russian and the Global War against Terrorism’, Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 17, 1 (2004), pp.29-41 and Isabelle Facon, The Modernization of the Russian Military: The Ambitions & Ambiguities of Vladimir Putin (Defence Academy of the UK, Conflict Studies Research Center, August 2005).

(4) Regarding the civil-military relations in Russia see David J. Betz and Valeriy G. Volkov, ‘The False Dawn of Russian Military Reform’, Conflict and Security, 4, 2 (2003), pp.48-50.

(5) Regarding the institutional and operational autonomy of the Russian military see Alexander Golts and Tonya L. Putman, ‘State Militarism and its Legacies. Why Military Reform has failed in Russia’, International Security, 29, 2 (2004), p.121-158.
(6) Facon, The Modernization of the Russian Military, p.3.

(7) ibid.

(8) Characteristic of the above is the failure to reform - professionalize the 76th Airborne Division. See Rob Thornton, ‘Military Organization and Change: The Professionalization of the 76th Airborne Division’, Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 17, 3 (2004), pp.449-474.

(9) Facon, The Modernization of the Russian Military, pp.10-11.

(10) Herspring, ‘Vladimir Putin and Military Reform in Russia’, p.152.