THE RUSSIAN ARMY
The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation include Strategic Rocket Forces, Ground Forces, Airborne Forces, Aerospace Forces, and the Navy. Russia also has a variety of paramilitary forces numbering almost half a million that can be used for operations within the borders of the Russian Federation, and occasionally outside its borders.
Before proceeding, it is useful to define exactly what the term armed forces means in contemporary Russia.
2) Paramilitary organizations should not be disregarded, and include the Ministry of Interior (MVD), the Ministry of Emergency Situations, FSB, border troops, Customs Service, and the National Guard, which was established in 2016 from special operations and riot control units of the MVD. The Main Directorate, formerly known as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Ministry of Defense, and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) may participate in operations abroad as well. Special operations units, often called by the Russian abbreviation Spetsnaz, are not a specific branch or service of the military or paramilitaries
but are units that can come from a variety of organizations, including the MVD, GRU, and SVR. As Bettina Renz pointed out, “Democratic
states do not, as a rule, maintain an equivalent range of such quasi-military organizations.”
3) The Dissolution of the Soviet Military Vladimir Putin famously remarked that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was indeed catastrophic for millions of people within the former Soviet Union.”
4) The upheaval was not just political, but also had significant social and economic impacts. To compound all this chaos, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) military split into brand new militaries among the fifteen newly formed countries. Even in the best of times, this would not have been an easy feat, and would have challenged even the most efficient staff. But this was during the worst of times. These new militaries, and especially the Russian military, would not only have to split up the Soviet military machine into new organizations, but they would have to do so while significantly reducing manning levels and budgets, and redeploying hundreds of thousands of troops from abroad.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, it had already endured some significant setbacks and the resultant blows to confidence. After a couple of decades of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev, and a series of shortlived leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated social, political, and economic reforms under glasnost and perestroika that would eventually unleash forces that led to the demise of the USSR. These reforms and the resultant upheaval took place against a backdrop that included the unpopular and stagnating war in Afghanistan, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and—in an insulting revelation of the dysfunction of the Soviet military—a 1987 penetration of Soviet airspace by a German teenager who landed a plane on Red Square.
Confidence certainly was not high in many parts of the Soviet and later Russian military. The tasks were daunting. In 1985, the Soviet military numbered 5.3 million personnel. Gorbachev’s reforms reduced that number to 4 million in the final year of the existence of the USSR, with 2.8 million of those personnel going into the Russian Federation’s military when it was legally formed in May of 1992.5 Not only did the military have to deal with reducing overall numbers of personnel, but it also had to recall and redeploy hundreds of thousands of troops and their families from the German Democratic Republic, Afghanistan, Mongolia, and other Eastern European countries of the Warsaw Pact. Many of these soldiers ended up without housing or bases.
These reductions and reshufflings might have been easier if there had been funding, but this all took place during times of great economic upheaval and distress. In addition, a single Soviet economy split into fifteen smaller national economies; and these economies all shifted from a centralized command system to a free market. Some of these economies collapsed, as inflation spiraled out of control, and defense funding suffered. The Soviet defense budget in 1988 was estimated to be more than $250 billion; only six years later, the Russian defense budget had fallen to $14 billion.7 Furthermore, the division of one military into fifteen was chaotic. For the most part, the newly independent states inherited whatever military units were stationed on their territory.
There were a couple of exceptions to this rule, however. All agreed to surrender nuclear weapons to the Russian military, and the Black Sea Fleet, stationed on the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, was split between Ukraine and Russia. While not based on needs or threats, this methodology of dividing the Soviet military at least gave a logical framework for determining who got which units and equipment. This was not the case with manpower. Military personnel had the choice of serving in the Russian military, the military of the republic of their ethnicity, or the military of the republic in which they were stationed.
As an example, an ethnic Kazakh serving in Moldova had the choice of serving in the Russian forces, returning to Kazakhstan to serve in their armed forces, or staying in place and serving in the newly created Moldovan armed forces. This is the stuff of nightmares for a human resource manager. Benign Neglect The nineties were a period of benign neglect for the Russian military. Defense funding continued to be low, and given the economic turmoil of the times, there was no alternative as the Russian economy simply could not generate enough resources for the military, even if there had been political will. Coinciding with the devolution of much of the Soviet military into the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, the Russian military was called upon repeatedly to intervene at home and abroad. In the center of Moscow in October 1993, Russian tanks shelled the Russian Federation’s Parliament building, known as the White House, as part of a constitutional crisis.
Russian forces of all types played roles to varying degrees in conflicts within the borders of the former Soviet Union: Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Tajikistan. The Russian military also deployed even further afield by sending contingents to Bosnia, and then Kosovo. The most revealing of Russia’s operations during the 1990s, however, was Chechnya. Chechnya, led by Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared its independence in November 1991, and lingered in a de facto autonomous status with minimal interference from the Russian Federation for three years. In November 1994, Russian-backed Chechen rebel forces attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow Dudayev’s separatist government with disastrous results: forty tanks lost and more than 300 personnel killed.
Russia made a second attempt to overthrow the separatist government with a coup de main the following month on New Year’s Eve. Cobbling together four columns from thirteen different regiments and brigades, the Russian military believed a quick strike on the Chechen capital of Grozny could successfully overthrow the Dudayev government. The initial attempt was catastrophic. The Russians lost more than 200 armored vehicles, 1,400 personnel were killed in action, another 4,000 wounded, and 500 missing. One of the columns lost 105 of its 120 armored vehicles.
An entire battalion of the 131st Motorized Rifle Brigade ceased to exist, and the 81st Motorized Rifle Regiment took fifty percent casualties. The Russians regrouped, and using more deliberate tactics, were finally able to gain control of Grozny. For the next two years the Russian forces waged a counterinsurgency in Chechnya. The seizure of the hospital in Budennovsk in June 1995 proved to be a turning point in Russian public opinion, however, and the rebel seizure of Grozny in August 1996 through a surprise attack proved to be the final straw. Yeltsin’s national security advisor, Aleksandr Lebed, negotiated a ceasefire that again resulted in de facto autonomy for Chechnya. Russia demonstrated an inability to project power within its own borders to assert control over all its territory.