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Russia's military is allergic to the deep reforms it needs

Michael Peck   

Russia's military is allergic to the deep reforms it needs
  • Can the Russian military can be reformed to better achieve Putin's revanchist aims?
  • Yes, but the drastic changes will not be easy, an expert on Russia's military says.

Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine war, one thing seems certain: the Russian military needs drastic changes.

A country recently thought to be a top military power, with the jets, tanks and warships to match, has been forced to slog it out in conventional battle with a country a fifth its size and has suffered an estimated 500,000 casualties without victory in sight after two years. What few innovations the Kremlin has made, such as using convicts as suicide infantry, are dubious and ad hoc at best.

The question is whether the Russian military can actually change in the near-future, which would impact the current war in Ukraine and the wider grasp for conquest under Russian President Vladimir Putin. Armies tend to be conservative institutions that resist change, particularly in Russia's armed forces that date back to Tsarist and Soviet times and are rife with corruption and abuse. Yet Russia's enemies can't complacently assume that Moscow's military will always be stuck in a rut, warns a US expert.

"The Russian military is capable of reform, especially of a structural nature," wrote researcher Katherine Kjellström Elgin in a report for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington, D.C. "That does not mean, however, that reform will be easy. Indeed, Russia's tendency to seek top-down structural reforms matched with enduring characteristics of the Russian military suggest that a transformation of the Russian military will be difficult."

"The Russian military is unlikely to substantially reform in the short- to medium-term," predicted Elgin, who believes "it is unlikely that its future force will be drastically different in character from the Russian military that exists today."

It's not that Russia can't adapt to failure. Reforms occurred after the Crimean War of 1853-1856, yet the Soviet military was able to adapt quickly enough to transform the disaster of 1941 — when Nazi German troops reached the outskirts of Moscow — into the triumph of 1945. Today, Russia has displayed skill in waging drone and electronic warfare in Ukraine.

But these are small innovations compared to the agile, NATO-style army that some Western experts claimed Russia had created before the Ukraine war Putin ordered in 2022. "Instead, the early stages of the Russian invasion exposed low morale, brittle logistics, overly centralized command and control, deficiencies in equipment, rampant corruption, and an overreliance on esoteric doctrine, revealing that the reform efforts that began in 2008 had failed to fully deliver on many of their core objectives," Elgin pointed out.

Historically, when the Russian military does change, it tends to be top-down reforms such as reorganizing military districts or modernizing equipment, rather than low-level tactics, Elgin wrote. Even when leaders order reforms, change is blocked by "military culture that does not encourage authority, a lack of talented and empowered middle management, inaccurate information, and a lack of flexibility to adjust course."

The system also encourages pleasing superiors and "conveying the appearance of success may be more important than truly making progress." To be fair, such complaints about style over substance are not unheard of in the US or other militaries. But this problem is especially acute in Russia's highest echelons, where apparatchiks stifle the feedback and criticism needed to identify what's hampering its systems and operations, including the Ukraine war.

This doesn't rule out the unlikely possibility that Russia can change the overall culture of its military. However, according to Elgin, this can only happen if two conditions are met: high-level and sustained political support and adequate resources are made available.

Given that observers so misjudged Russian military capabilities prior to the Ukraine war, how can the West accurately determine whether reforms are occurring? One sign is whether top Russian leaders only make an occasional speech about military improvement, or whether they continually address the issue.

Another is the grievances and recommendations voiced by younger officers fresh from the battlefields of Ukraine and which officers are being promoted or ignored. And despite Russia's authoritarian crackdown on dissent, voices outside the military are a good indicator. "These voices could emerge from military blogs, the intelligence services, or private military companies," Elgin wrote.

However, it is also important to study not just Russian officers, but also how ordinary soldiers are trained, Elgin told Business Insider. "What are they teaching in military schools? How are troops being trained on a daily basis? In other words, how are reforms being rolled out not just at the top levels, but how are they affecting the experience of every service member?"

Reform doesn't necessarily translate into battlefield performance. Despite reforms instituted after the Crimean War, the Russian army still suffered from command control and other flaws in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. "It is possible to successfully achieve the goals you set out in a reform program, but to reform in ways that do not result in success on the battlefield," Elgin said.

Any reforms today might only create a military with a new look but old problems. "It may have new equipment, new formations, and potentially new doctrine," said Elgin. "but its enduring weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and tendencies are likely to remain the same. And this is something that NATO, Ukraine, and others can prepare for and take advantage of."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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