The Russian Army in transition
Kindly translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia
As an heir to the Soviet Army, the Russian army has been oversized from the beginning. It attempted to free itself progressively from this heritage by a reduction in size (a process which was accelerated by the economic crisis of the 1990s), through increased professionalization and also through modernization. Modernization involved a dismantling of the specifically military sector of the industry and rebuilding different relations between the “military” sector and the “civilian” sector, but also the consolidation of the military sector into a reduced number of enterprises. The conflicts in which it found itself engaged, be it inside Russia, such as in Chechnya, or outside (such as in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia) make it possible to follow the long and painful process of its progress towards a professionalized and modernized army. But it is undeniable that this process has borne fruit. In this regard, it is important to go back on the operations of the Summer of 2008 against Georgia. These operations allow one to understand the results of the process of modernization of the Army, as well as the particular climate in which we have been finding ourselves for several years.
The Soviet inheritance.
The Soviet military system had been in a crisis for numerous reasons. First of all, it was undergoing a crisis in its operational doctrine. The latter was based on the idea that by means of the production of new concepts of operation, through doctrinal innovation, it was possible at once to render inoperative the technological superiority of the Western forces and to render useless weapons of mass destruction. As a matter of fact, between 1982 and 1989, there was a profound intellectual seething going on on the Soviet side. The second reason of the crisis resided in the radical maladjustment of its management procedures (priorities, compartmentalization) with the demands of the new technologies. The lag was increasing, not only because the economy had fewer and fewer resources to offer to the military, but most of all because, even in the defence sector, these resources were being used in a more and more inefficient way. In such a situation, it was inevitable that a crisis in the defence policy, or in the Military Doctrine, according to the meaning given this term by the Soviets, would be developing.
But in the same time that the factors of an « internal » crisis were unfolding, meaning, one situated at the heart of the legitimization apparatus of the military system, the latter was hit full blast by the impact of the social crisis which the USSR was going through. The contrary would have been surprising: a mass army, a conscription army, always reflects the qualities and the defects of the society it stems from. This social crisis took, in the 1980s, multiple aspects. They include the bad treatments inflicted by the “elders” (i.e. those finishing their military service) on the “newcomers,” what is called the Dedovshina and which occasioned tens and even hundreds of deaths every year. To which one must add the interethnic conflicts, or Gruppovshina, among the conscripts. This considerable violence among the armed forces was revealed to the public through numerous articles published after 1987/1988. It goes without saying that this situation had considerable negative effects on the image of the army in the population. The very bad living conditions of the draftees, of whom it is known that almost one third were then developing a primary infection during the first six months of their military service, also play an important role in the degradation of the image of the army. The end of the 1980s brought its lot of reports about drug use, alcoholism, corruption and nepotism within the military institution. It would be wrong to believe that these problems concerned only the draftees. With the exceptions of the generals, the officers, and particularly the youngest among them, were suffering from very difficult living conditions. The gap between their situation and the one of their superiors fed an antagonism of which numerous examples surfaced during the debate over military reform. The idea that a general reform of the military system was necessary imposed itself progressively between 1988 and 1991. Its aim was clearly to liquidate paradoxical militarism as a policy, as well as in its material and institutional consequences.
An impossible reform?
The birth of the Russian army in 1992 was not the result of the natural transformation of the Soviet armed forces. It needed a painful process before an institution tugged between different continuities, marked by political, economic and strategic ruptures, could begin to emerge. This birth is also, and even before anything else, the one of a new strategic perception. Russia in 1992 was not only a nation in quest of a State; it was also a country in need of redefining its space and the modes of management of the latter. The new strategic perception which put itself progressively in place among Russian authorities needed to include three categories of elements. In the first place, it needed for the Russian leaders to take into account the constraints born from the re-dimensioning of their country, and the crisis resulting from it. Russian leaders also needed to position themselves in regard to the countries born from the disintegration of the USSR. If this was a general problem, it took particular dimensions according to the geographic zones considered.
At the very moment that the political and military people in charge were beginning the process of redefining the spaces and the modes of sovereign action of Russia, the geopolitical environment of the country was rapidly evolving. The question of the relations with the United States, if it remained central in the political priorities, evolved profoundly during this period. In 1992, the relations with the United States are clearly marked by a will of the Russian authorities to maintain the country’s status as a « Great Power, » by means of good relations with Washington. The direct and indirect support given by the American rulers to those in charge in Russia at the time (official support given to the operations against the Parliament in 1993 and approval of the War in Chechnya in 1994) will bring about the creation of a political “empathy.” It translates within the military sector into fairly advanced technical and military cooperation in the domain of weapons of mass destruction. American and Western help in the dismantling of a part of the ex-Soviet nuclear forces is a case in point. The development of programs aiming at harmonizing doctrines and procedures of dissuasion, and to co-manage the risks of nuclear proliferation is another. A will to establish industrial and technical cooperation with American industries is then preeminent. Yet, the relations with the United States will begin deteriorating as early as the beginning of 1997.
Three stages must here be remembered. The first, certainly the least known to the public, is linked to the development of a Wahabite-type Islamist activism in Chechnya and in Dagestan. The Russian authorities, from the autumn of 1997, attribute to the United States a direct responsibility in a rise of tensions in the North Caucasus and accuse Washington to engage in double-dealing there. The second stage, much more publicized, is linked to the events in the Balkans and the operations in Kosovo. It happens that these operations took place a few months after the big financial crisis of 1998 which saw the political weight of the Russian liberals collapse and doubts take over the Russian elites as to the responsibility of the non-management of this crisis by the IMF. The spring of 1999 then sees for the first time a conflict expressing itself between Russia and the United-States and NATO. Relations between the two countries are degrading and will remain relatively bad until September 11, 2001. The September 11 attacks mark the beginning of the third phase. Russian authorities will attempt to use the psychological shock so created to establish a contact with the United States. The aim here was to offer a substantial help of Russia to the United States in the fight against Islamist terrorism in exchange for the recognition by the United States of the zone of priority interests of Russia, meaning, the North Caucasus and Ukraine. However, in the Summer 2002 already, Russian authorities are becoming convinced of the failure of this attempt. They consider that the American authorities are uncontrollable and unpredictable, constituting by this very fact a potential danger for Russia. The Russian opposition to the intervention in Iraq is therefore not a cause of the new cooling down of Russo-American relations but in reality the consequence of the latter. What would follow would demonstrate the soundness of the Russian position, who aims at maintaining stability in a zone which has been profoundly destabilized by the American intervention in Iraq in 2003. In a sense, the emergence of the organization known as the “Islamic State” is but the consequence of the destruction of the Iraqi state in 2003.
The renewal of the doctrine, the war in Chechnya and progress accomplished.
Several elements have weighed directly on the doctrinal reflections of the years 1992-2005.
The first has indisputably been the trauma caused by the 1st Chechnya War. A little bit more than one year after the battle of the Parliament in Moscow, Russian armed forces found themselves once more engaged in operations which, from a legal point of view, were internal operations. Their human cost was of course in no common measure with the one of the days of October 1993. The progress of operations validated neither the optimistic proclamations of the Ministry of Defence nor those, far more pessimistic, of some observers who expected a status-quo harking back to Afghanistan. Still, the operations of the first semester of 1995 stressed the political and military problems which were already present in the evolution leading to the decision to use direct force.
The operations of December 1994 to June 1995 highlighted a number of characteristics of the Russian armed forces. It is first of all evident that the deficiencies in matters of organization and planning, which were foreseeable and even mentioned in the Russian press, revealed themselves heavily, particularly during the initial phase of the conflict. The only exception that can be made in this domain concerns the efficiency of aerial transport. At the same time, the capacity to adapt to the situation, to take advantage of the means at disposal, to improvise on the basis of what is at hand was very high. This is not without reminding one of the functioning of the Soviet Army in 1942/1943. We must then note that the implementing of such behaviour of adaptation is largely dependent on the existence of a certain state of mind within the units. It is those who entered soonest into the logic of war, who displayed the most aggressiveness, who also took the greatest advantage possible of their means. In this sense, given a conflict which would be perceived as legitimate, one must not exaggerate the impact of organizational deficiencies that may be identified. In the same time, we must point out that adaptation and improvisation were possible thanks to the existence of important stocks of materiel some of which have at present run out.
The operations in Chechnya did not lead, as one might have believed end of 1994/begin of 1995, to some kind of military insurrection. It was probably due to the lack of a charismatic ruler, who could have played this role. The continuation of the fighting tended to isolate the protesters. The fighting units, in particular those which adapted best to the new situation, express their pride in having “won” the war. The latter gave rise to a new “war culture” within the units most engaged in the operations. These are the elements who carried the day in 1999 in a political context characterized by numerous manipulations. Yet a first consequence of the conflicts in Chechnya is to have weighed on military budgets and to have re-centred the perception of risks towards « low intensity » conflicts. From this point of view, the long-term assessment of this war has been positive, in that it has played the role of deficiencies of the army crude revealer and in that sense it has accelerated the process of reforms.
The second important element is the shifting of the relations with the United States, which we have already alluded to. The question of a regime of dissuasion comes back on the table already at the end of 1997. If the probability of a conflict with NATO or with a particular alliance dominated by the United States is not considered important, the possibility of such a conflict is no longer ruled out. Then, it becomes imperative for Russian authorities to maintain capabilities of dissuasion even against the United States, along with what this implies as a reinforcing and « hardening” of the strategic C3I. We then witness a rebound in credits of R&D in this domain. The modernization of the strategic forces will constitute a priority for the Russian government. A modernization which is aiming at insuring the stability of the system of nuclear dissuasion and no longer, as in Soviet time, some nuclear “superiority” which is meaningless.
The Army and the war in South Ossetia.
The war in South Ossetia has raised as many comments about its progress than about its triggering. It can be qualified as a “dirty little war” not only because of the exactions which were committed, by the Georgian troops as well as by some of the irregular Ossetian troops, but especially because of its political consequences. Beyond military operations, the war of South Ossetia already carried within it a risk of the degradation of the international situation in no way commensurate with the real stakes of the conflict. From this point of view, it is clear that this episode announces 2014 and that it signals the beginning of a latent conflict between the United States and Russia. Put on the backburner for a while because of the grave financial crisis the United States went through in September 2008, this latent conflict reactivated itself starting in 2011 in Libya, and most of all in Syria. It has become today a major element in international relations.
The tactical context of operations must nevertheless be brought back to mind. The combat zone, essentially Tskhinvali and its surroundings, comprises the valley of the Great Liakhvi, a river flowing North-South from Tskhinvali to Gori, cities which are separated by some 25km, and the hills surrounding the valley. The terrain steepens rapidly and one must wait to get close to Gori to find a real plain. One finds itself in a region of hills, where the control of crests is decisive. Roads are often bad and the axes of manoeuvring are limited. This favours the use of Special Forces and paratroopers, whose training and physical condition make it possible to exploit the topography perfectly.
Indeed the Russian reaction started no later than the morning of August 8th, following the murderous bombardment of Tskhinvali by the forces of the Georgian government. While Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is about to shorten is stay in Beijing in order to return to Russia, President Medvedev calls up a reunion of the National Security Counsel. From the first hours of the morning, armoured and mechanized units of the 58th Army cross the tunnel of Roki and move South. It must be stressed that if the Georgian forces had blown up this tunnel, Russian troops could not have intervened with the same ease as they did. Russian planes begin to bomb the rear bases of the Georgian forces beginning at 10h30, mostly the ammunitions and fuel dumps of Kareli and Gori. Gradually, as they arrive on the theatre of operations, the Russian forces will be implicated in violent combat, in Tskhinvali itself and in the hills. The Russian mechanized forces will also receive the support of elements from the 76th Division of Paratroopers based at Pskov, which will be used as light infantry in the hills in order to retake the crests taken over by the Georgian forces during the night of the 7th to the 8th. More or other airborne forces will be deployed in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia during August 10th and 11th, among which the 98th paratrooper Division. The combination of Russian actions on land, in the air, at sea (with a limited landing operation of the troops in the South of Abkhazia), but also in the domain of electronic war, will bring about a collapse of the Georgian forces from the late morning of August 10th. Demoralized by the losses they sustained (which have moreover affected the most combative of the units), deprived of artillery support and subjected to constant aerial bombardments as well as to a murderous counter-battery shelling by the Russian artillery, isolated from their command through the collapse of the transmission system, Georgian troops will brutally withdraw to the South, sometimes trying to take over by force any vehicle on their way.
The lessons of 2008.
This war put in evidence the transitory situation of the Russian army in 2008. If it continues to use to a very great extent materiel dating back to the Soviet period, it has been able to progress beyond the doctrine of that period. It uses fully the electronic and informatics war in order to paralyze its adversary. Granted, the disparity of forces was immense. But the Russian victory in August 2008 indicated clearly indeed that the army was going through a transition as least as important than had done the rest of the country, and that it was engaged in a process which was to bring it to the state of a modern army. This process has pursued itself since. The rapidity of reaction which the Russian army is displaying presently on diverse terrains is witness to the fact that, beyond persisting problems at the highest level (corruption of some, doctrinal rigidity of others), a new generation of officers has emerged which has fully adapted itself to the changes in the art of warfare on the present period. Of course, the Russian army remains still deficient at the level of its equipment, but no more so than the French army, or even the American army. It benefits henceforth of a relative budgetary priority, which should allow for the acquisition of a limited number of modern weapons systems. Especially, it no longer aims at “supremacy” but seeks a local freedom of action which presently the United States no longer seem capable of really contesting.
Maybe in a deeper way, what happened then in 2008 was carrying within itself the ulterior degradation of relations with Russia. The reset aimed at during the first Obama presidency failed most of all because it was destined to consolidate the dominant position of the United States, when it had become clear that Russia would not longer tolerate such a position. The American administration believed that nice words could make go down a position which was, in its contents, inacceptable for the Russian rulers. It is confronted presently with the explicit revelation of this disagreement.