Russia’s Military Leadership Reflects on 2017
As 2017 drew to a close, Russia’s political-military leadership staged various events and public discussions emphasizing some of the achievements of the year and outlining priorities for 2018. Few surprises came out of these reflections, with the overall defense priorities well established. Still, those meetings and President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the newly built Academy of the Strategic Rocket Forces in Balashikha, near Moscow, afforded opportunities to amplify the message that military modernization is progressing—as well as to remind various audiences of the potential dangers facing the Russian State. Indeed, progress was evident throughout the year in terms of the quantity and quality of the modernization, with the State Armaments Program to 2027 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV) being fine-tuned based on lessons from the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria (see EDM, April 25, 2017; December 12, 2017).
In pole position among the state defense priorities is the continued and long-term effort to modernize the nuclear triad. Putin’s visit to Balashikha, on December 22, reinforced this while tying it to the need for asymmetric capabilities to counter the United States’ ballistic missile defense. The Russian president characterized the defense strategy of the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as “aggressive” or “offensive” in relation to Russia. He expressed well-known objections to US missile defense as a potential threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrence capability, based on the possibility that components of the missile defense systems could be moved or enlarged in such a way as to undermine Moscow’s second-strike capacity. He further objected to alleged US plans to deploy a mobile ground-based cruise missile in 2018 with a range of up to 5,500 kilometers, which would violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty; Putin made no comment on Moscow’s own violations of this largely defunct Cold War agreement (Kommersant, December 23, 2017).
Putin also selected Balashikha as the venue for the annual defense ministry collegium. Its highlight was the address by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose speech offered few surprises but provided interesting details on Russian military development. Shoigu stated that the Russian Armed Forces gained invaluable combat experience in Syria. This has involved more than 48,000 military personnel, with 14,000 decorated for their service in the campaign. Eighty percent of the Aerospace Forces’ (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) operational and tactical crews benefited from combat experience in Syria and 90 percent of army aviation. The air grouping deployed in Syria conducted more than 34,000 sorties. Moreover, the Syrian intervention provided opportunity to extend combat experience well beyond the VKS. Moscow deployed high-precision strike systems in Syria, including X-101 and X-55 cruise missiles, and used both Tochka-U and Iskander-M operational-tactical missile systems. The Navy launched high-precision strikes from submarines and surface platforms, while on-the-ground operations against terrorists were conducted by Special Operations Forces. Air defense systems, such as the Pantsir-S1, destroyed 16 enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). And indeed, the Syria campaign enabled Russia’s Armed Forces to deploy and test a broad range of systems (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 23, 2017).
On the issue of implementing the GPV to 2020, Shoigu offered impressive statistics on the advances in modernizing the weapons and equipment in the military inventory. He noted that the share of “modern” arms and equipment in the Ground Forces and Navy has reached 59.5 percent. This rises to 79 percent in the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN); while the VKS has attained 73 percent, the Navy 53 percent and the Ground Forces figure was presented as 45 percent (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 23, 2017). Though Shoigu’s statistics are impressive, no doubt calibrated to shore up support for further modernization, there was a sense that his speech specifically showcased his own achievements since appointed as defense minister in November 2012. In particular, he highlighted the re-creation of seven divisions since 2012, with no reference to brigades or the reform carried out under his predecessor.
The priorities for Russia’s Armed Forces have already been defined but were adjusted based on lessons drawn from the conflicts in Syria and Donbas; the absence of acknowledgement of the latter warzone cannot conceal its importance to the defense ministry and the General Staff (Mil.ru, December 26, 2017). The restructuring of military infrastructure in Russia’s Western and Southern Joint Strategic Commands (Obedinonnye Strategicheskoe Komandovanie—OSK) obviously relates to the lessons from Donbas and highlights a long-term commitment to maintaining or escalating the conflict as required. Syria has offered greater and more diverse opportunity to train forces and experiment with approaches to warfare, boosting the demand for high-precision strike systems and UAVs. Donbas is driving the localized restructuring of the Ground Forces and the need for improvements in artillery and armor.
Such restructuring offers the Russian Armed Forces increased strike force and firepower operating along a broader “front.” Essentially, this is the argument in favor of divisions over brigades. In late December, Colonel General Oleg Salyukov, the commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces, noted that both divisions and brigades will be retained in the future for these reasons, but he made no mention of the continued reliance upon battalion tactical groups or explained the circumstances in which an entire division would be deployed (Mil.ru, December 25, 2017). According to the leadership of the Western OSK, modernization in this command in 2017 procured 40 aircraft and helicopters and 190 armored vehicles, as well as various air-defense assets and high-precision systems; the highlight of the training year was Zapad 2017, and internal assessments of this exercise will further refine procurement needs in the year ahead (Armstrade.org, December 26, 2017).
Shoigu announced that the military budget in 2018 will be 2.8 percent of GDP, or around $46 billion. This will facilitate the share of modern or new weapons and equipment in the Armed Forces to reach 61 percent and 82 percent in the RVSN. The Ground Forces will receive up to 3,500 units of new or modern weapons (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, December 23, 2017).
As already noted, many of these features of military development are unsurprising, and the official statements from the military leadership suggest confidence has been boosted by exploiting Russia’s involvement in Syria. At the same time, reports of damage inflicted on Russian air platforms at its airbase in Latakia on December 31 may incline the military to be more circumspect and convey to the political leadership the dangers of premature declarations of “victory” (Lenta.ru, January 5, 2018). The anti-US and anti-NATO rhetoric in Moscow remains high, but the strategic-operational exercise and highlight of the 2018 training year will be Vostok 2018, and its location, focusing upon the Eastern OSK, may provide a chance for all sides to soften their political tones.
Roger N. McDermott specializes in Russian and Central Asian defense and security issues and is a Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies, The Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, Senior International Research Fellow for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen. McDermott is on the editorial board of Central Asia and the Caucasus and the scientific board of the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies. He recently wrote The Reform of Russia’s Conventional Armed Forces: Problems, Challenges and Policy Implications (October 2011).
This article appeared originally at Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor.