The reputation of the Russian military is defined by images of Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian tanks and an inability to cross basic river systems. Particularly embarrassing is the Russian ability to get its senior leadership killed—or sacked. So far, Russia has reportedly lost at least nine generals on the battlefield and plenty more at home as President Vladimir Putin continues his purge of generals. High defense spending and an aggressive foreign policy haven’t healed the serious issues that have plagued Russian military culture since the fall of the Soviet Union.
By Austin Wright, a non-proliferation and strategic trade professional for FOREIGN POLICY
Before late February, Russia was seen as one of the military powerhouses of the world. With the world’s fifth-largest standing army, comprising 900,000 standing troops and 2 million reservists, and a defense budget of $65.9 billion, the might of the Russian military loomed over Eurasia and NATO at large.
Fast-forward to today, and the reputation of the Russian military is defined by images of Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian tanks and an inability to cross basic river systems. Apparently the Russian military has trouble swimming, which bodes well for Finland. The only thing it seems to be good at are massed artillery and war crimes. And particularly embarrassing is the Russian ability to get its senior leadership killed—or sacked. So far, Russia has reportedly lost at least nine generals on the battlefield and plenty more at home as President Vladimir Putin continues his purge of generals. High defense spending and an aggressive foreign policy haven’t healed the serious issues that have plagued Russian military culture since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The consolidation of power in the hands of a few high-ranking military officials and insulating the military from political oversight—except by the autocrat in charge—have long been hallmarks of the Russian state. When Boris Yeltsin emerged as president of Russia in 1991, his first move was to eliminate parliamentary oversight of the security services and consolidate his control over the defense and interior ministries as well as the KGB through the establishment of the Russian Ministry of Security and Internal Affairs.
Yeltsin’s desire for personal control at the expense of competence seeped into the rest of the government, a fact embodied by his Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. Grachev was widely regarded as an incompetent who owed his role to his relationship with Yeltsin. The military was key to centralized control for the Soviet Union, and knowledge of the generals’ corrupt activities was a tool Soviet leaders used to coerce loyalty. Yeltsin, despite setting up an anti-corruption department, did little, if anything, to punish generals who he knew embezzled and stole from the Russian state. Leverage, blackmail, and loyalty for purchase, a hallmark of the Soviet Union, was transferred into the managerial and leadership style of the new Russian leaders. Yeltsin’s selection of Grachev cemented for decades this pattern of military ineptness and nepotism that has undercut the Russian military and laid the groundwork for disaster first in Chechnya and then in Ukraine.
Corruption marred much of the new Russian state, but Grachev ensured the defense ministry remained locked in incompetence by not only delaying reform of the military system but also bluntly refusing to implement numerous changes out of fear of losing power and institutional privileges. Yeltsin’s successor, Putin, would install military officials with similar inclinations.
Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s defense minister from 2001 to 2007, publicly supported Putin’s ideological positions at the cost of military readiness. Ivanov worked to restore the image of Russia as a great power through preparation for large-scale conflict, despite tactical units becoming the defining organizational unit of modern conflict. He argued against parliamentary involvement in military affairs and was adamant about isolating policy processes from any independent oversight. It was the needs of Putin, not the military, that drove the complexion, leadership, and modernization of Russia’s defense services. Successive chiefs of general staff, the highest commanding military officers in Russia, compounded Ivanov’s follies by doing their best interpretation of Grachev. Chiefs of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin and Yuri Baluyevsky would follow a similar path where individual privileges trumped military capabilities. Ultimately, having failed to innovate and reenergize the Russian army, both were dismissed for military incompetence, a failure to support Putin’s attempts to consolidate power, and a general failure in the modernization of Russia’s military.
Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008 revealed the abundance of failures and structural flaws that developed as a result of failed reform. Success was achieved through Georgia’s own considerable failings—and the massive imbalance in size. The lackluster performance of Russian air power, an inability of the services to work together, logistical failures, failure to communicate intelligence and reconnaissance data in real time, and general disorganization of the armed forces reflected the damage inflicted by Russia’s military leaders. These failures were enough to spur the reforms of 2008, which aimed to create a military that was more effective, flexible, and scalable.
Anatoly Serdyukov, Putin’s second defense minister and leader of the reform efforts, approached the military through a lens of austerity and skepticism. His efforts led to an attempt to significantly reduce officer numbers by 2013, a reorganization of military units, and the creation of a financial control department within the Ministry of Defense to control the flow of finances to the General Staff. His distrust toward the military and the lack of general military knowledge alienated military groups and the military-industrial complex, both major allies of Putin, which fueled fear that military reforms would once again threaten the powers above. It also spelled his doom. Ultimately, the military counterintelligence directorate of the FSB built a criminal case against Serdyukov and ousted him in 2012.
Current Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu has attempted to balance cronyism and the need for reforms. While he has not yet reversed the structural changes introduced under Serdyukov, such as operational-strategic commands, brigade-based formations, and strategic rearmament plans, he continues to feverishly suppress independent criticism and assessment of military operations, and he has instilled Putin’s notion of top-level control of military officers.
This may be best reflected in Shoigu’s blessing of Valery Gerasimov to become chief of general staff in 2012. Putin’s newest military head embodied the leader’s desire for stable relations with the military-industrial complex and rearmament efforts. This appointment underscored not only the relationship between Shoigu and Gerasimov but also the general lack of autonomy that defines Russia’s military culture. Gerasimov commands the military and proposes changes in line with civilian demands, while Shoigu lobbies for resources and coordinates with other civilian branches but meticulously channels Putin’s strategic priorities into military guidelines. Therefore, any planned reforms must be validated by Putin himself.
While Gerasimov has advocated for a rigorous evidence-based approach toward Russia’s military buildup, combining strategic military forecasting with dynamic response and the importance of developing an overwhelming military superiority over any threat, both known and unknown, instead of preparing for a single type of warfare, he is ultimately at the behest of Putin’s wishes. So while these two, together, have brought a more refined sense to military leadership, the consolidation of power and control by Putin remains.
These reforms have led to the modernization of the Russian armed forces, but not to an operationally significant degree. Under Putin, the military has become more subjugated to the Kremlin, not less, even in light of his demands for change. The lack of parliamentary oversight and the politicization of military objectives have created an environment where Putin operates with “skewed information that generally overstates the status of armed forces,” according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Russia’s experience in Ukraine is a prime example. From commanders of rifle battalions and tank divisions to the head of electronic warfare units, the Russian leadership has lost a whole range of top-level leaders. The Russian military command has shown an unwillingness to delegate authority to junior officers. This system means not only that generals tend to appear more in combat and therefore are vulnerable to attack but also that junior officers lack the experience to command battlefield operations when called upon. These losses are further exacerbated by the shortage of officers to take their place—caused, in part, by Serdyukov’s misguided reform efforts.
Those who escape death on the battlefield may meet a less dramatic fate back home. The efficiency of the military is dependent on the defense minister’s relationship with Putin and their ability to navigate the autocratic nepotism of the Russian state. As such, it is uncommon for any senior military official to publicly contradict Putin, let alone criticize him. The most glaring example in recent times is Putin’s public humiliation of his intelligence chief. This means the generals are unusually vulnerable to backlash from Putin himself, resulting in a string of firings and rearrangements at home.
The West and, perhaps more importantly, Russia’s neighbors must take into consideration the nightmare that is Russia’s military leadership. Regardless of this environment, Russia will continue to engage in provocative regional military operations. Learning how to deter them requires Russia’s potential targets to learn how the Russian military works—and where its weaknesses will be next time.