This month, the U.S. Army War College released Can Russia Reform: Economic, Political and Military Perspectives, an anthology published by the college's Strategic Studies Institute and edited by Stephen Blank, a professor at the college. Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and a long-time analyst of Russia's military and security forces, contributed a chapter on reforming the Russian Army. Corruption, poor leadership, outmoded policies, and Russia's impoverishment after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Galeotti suggests, has reduced the once-mighty Russian fighting force to an ineffective mob. In 2007, President Vladimir Putin moved Anatoly Serdyukov, then the government's chief tax collector, to the Defense Ministry, with a mandate to fix the army -- a task Serdyukov's numerous predecessors had failed to accomplish. Facing monumental bureaucratic obstacles, Serdyukov's struggle to reform the service has only begun. Whether he ultimately succeeds will have implications for Russia's neighbors, the future of nuclear arms control, and the assertiveness of Putin's foreign policy.
If only as a human rights issue, the case for reforming the Russian Army is clear. For decades, conscripts -- nearly always young men whose families can't afford to pay their way out of the draft -- have suffered brutal treatment under the culture of Dedovshchina, a Lord-of-the-Flies tradition under which more senior conscripts deliver regular beatings to the newest recruits for no apparent military purpose. According to Galeotti's research, 80 percent of Russia's soldiers reported being beaten, with 33 percent requiring hospitalization or a medical discharge as a result. Another 20 percent are discharged early due to poor diet or illness from poor sanitation and improper medical care. These are not conditions that support an effective modern army. Under public pressure to scale back the burden of conscription, the enlistment term was reduced from two years to one in 2009, but the result was basic infantrymen being tactically useful for only two months before being discharged.
The punitive raid against Georgia in August 2008, although successful at intimidating Tbilisi, revealed deep flaws in the Russian Army's leadership, command and control, and soldier training, especially compared to Western and emerging Chinese standards. The Georgian skirmish encouraged Serdyukov and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov to redouble their reform program. Their reforms have a striking resemblance to changes instituted in the West over the past several decades. They include the eventual end of conscription, an all-volunteer army with soldiers employed on long contracts, a professional non-commissioned officer corps, and a nearly 60 percent reduction in the bloated ranks of commissioned officers. Operationally, the army is downshifting from ponderous, inflexible divisions to smaller and more nimble brigades as the basic combat unit -- a shift the U.S. Army made about seven years ago. As U.S. planners have discovered, brigades are easier to deploy and support and give field commanders more options and flexibility. In order to further emphasize the concept of combat-ready quality in place of untrained and ill-equipped quantity, some in the Defense Ministry want to reduce the size of the army over the next ten years from a million soldiers to less than 500,000, which would roughly match the size of the U.S. Army.
In order to push through these reforms, Serdyukov and Makarov have had to go to war against deeply entrenched interests and traditions. Using a murder mystery's template of motive, opportunity, and means, Galeotti considered whether Kremlin leaders have the will and incentives to reform the army, whether they will have the resources, and whether they can overcome the institutional barriers that have stymied past reform efforts.