December 27, 2022 Special Dispatch No. 10394

Having Presided Over Russia's Military Setbacks, Putin And Shoigu Assume The Role Of Military Reformers

December 27, 2022
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 10394

On December 20, 2022 the Russian Ministry Board convened with President Vladimir Putin in attendance. Putin told Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that the ministry had carte blanche: "We have no funding restrictions. The country, the government give everything that the army asks for, everything. I hope that the answer will be properly formulated and the corresponding results will be achieved,”. At the meeting, Putin instructed the ministry to correct the mistakes of mobilization and provide for the needs of the participants of the  SVO down to the smallest detail.[1]

This was the curtain raiser to Shoigu's detailed presentation outlining the growth of army strength to 1.5 million, the creation of new military districts, beefed up air units and more. All this reflects the lessons learned from the invasion of Ukraine and changes in the international environment. An article appearing in Vzglyad, the conservative business daily that MEMRI produces below, discusses some of the important changes proposed by Shoigu and which Putin has endorsed. called the reforms "Putin's Military Sensation: the Defense Ministry Board Changes the Army.[2]

For a Western observer a picture of Putin addressing the board flanked by Shoigu and Chief-of-Staff Valery Gerasimov announcing the reforms is somewhat incongruous. The trio has been in place for some time (Shoigu since 2012) and has presided over what can be charitably summarized as Russia's lackluster performance in Ukraine, Now the people who were complacent about Russia's state of military readiness and were proud of using asymmetrical warfare that relied on superweapons to deter the West rather than engaging in an arms race similar to what had doomed the USSR, were performing a U-turn and pledging to spend what it took to revamp the army.

The first answer is that in authoritarian politics, leaders who reverse their positions are not called to account, Stalin was only posthumously berated for the initial German successes in the Second World War. Nikita Khrushchev went from nuclear hawk to an advocate of peaceful coexistence. Putin will get away with it because there is no organized opposition that can hold his feet to the fire.

The second answer is that Putin and Shoigu may believe that they have a plausible scapegoat in Shoigu's predecessor Anatoly Serdyukov even though he was dismissed over ten years ago. Serdyukov, whose background was in the furniture business was brought in to fix the Russian army in 2007. He believed that the armed forces should be refashioned to cope with the missions that it would realistically face such as interventions in post-Soviet neighbors, counterterrorism and antipiracy operations, and fighting insurgencies. It would definitely not be fighting a major land war in Europe.

Mr Serdyukov sought to turn the Russian army into a lean efficient fighting machine. He closed down units and halved the size of Russia's officer corps. The military structure would be based on brigades rather than ponderous divisions.[3]  Needless to say, Serdyukov did not endear himself to the army, which may have been behind his dismissal on corruption charges.

Now, with the unveiling of Shoigu's proposals they are being touted as a reversal of Serdyukov's ill-considered ideas.

Military historian Yuri Knutov was interviewed on the Shoigu proposals and took Serdyukov to task: Serdyukov-Makarov reform

 If I understand correctly, then we are returning to the very system that was before the reform of 2007-2012: regiment - division - army - front.

[Knutov] Yes, that is, we are returning to a scheme that was well-tested in the Soviet years and in other local conflicts, which we have always used, and successfully. She always justified herself and gave good results. We are abandoning the American scheme, which did not quite suit us, did not show its best side, at least in recent years.

Can we say that the authorities at the official level recognized that the Serdyukov- [Nikolai] Makarov reform is rubbish and it did not suit us and only ruined everything?

- I would not say that it is rubbish or not (laughs). For example, those reforms that were carried out under Serdyukov and Makarov turned out to be, say, more or less successful in peacetime. But in wartime conditions, they show their failure, actually contribute to a decrease in the combat readiness of the army and led to a number of crisis phenomena in the initial period of hostilities.

The President also said that we are abolishing the outsourcing system [favored by Serdyukov]...

- Yes, the issue of outsourcing is of fundamental importance, because the rear supply of the troops turned out to be at an extremely low level, there were problems with clothing, and even the provision of small arms and many others. In addition, food, drugs, medicines - there were also problems with this. And in general, you won’t see a field kitchen at the forefront due to the fact that, of course, it will be immediately smashed, but it should be located in the near rear. And when outsourcing is civilian specialists, they will not even prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for personnel in field kitchens for big money, and then deliver food directly to the trenches in special thermoses. This should be done by specialized rear units, the restoration of which is in question.[4]

Yuri Knutov (Source:

Military expert Alexander Khramchikhin emphasized that the transformations proposed by Sergei Shoigu are fundamentally changing the role of the Russian army, negating the essence of the Serdyukov-Makarov "reforms”.

"The concept of Serdyukov's 'reforms' implied that our army would participate in regional conflicts, fight terrorist groups, nothing more. And it was incredible stupidity, which was shown by the military operation in Ukraine. Another thing is that the Western countries were constructing their military in the same direction [as Serdyukov]. Consequently, they will also begin to make changes to their armed forces."

Khramchikhin also laced into Serdyukov's outsourcing policy:

"Steps will also be taken to overcome the notorious 'Serdyukov legacy' - the transformations in the armed forces carried out under the leadership of the former Minister of Defense. Shoigu admitted that in 2008-2012, military repairs were practically destroyed due to the transfer of this work to outsourcing. Now it's time to correct the mistakes. In 2023, three enterprises for the repair of military equipment should come into operation, and work will be launched to create army repair and refurbishing structures.[5]

If Serdyukov's reforms created bad blood in civil-military relations, their reversal together with the promise of lavish funding may help assuage the military establishment, which has been brooding due to criticism of its performance.

Below is Rafael Farukhtdinov's article describing the changes proposed by Shoigu: [6]

Putin at the Defense Ministry board, Shoigu is to his left and Gerasimov is on his right (Source:

President Vladimir Putin supported an initiative on part of the Defense Ministry to raise the conscription age from 18 to 21 and to increase the army manpower to 1.5 million people (as of now, there are about one million people serving in the Russian Armed Forces [RAF]). This news came as one of the results of this year’s final Defense Ministry board, which was held on Wednesday with the participation of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief.

The proposal to gradually increase the conscription age to 21 years and to raise the upper age limit for conscripts from 27 to 30 years was made by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. Additionally, the head of the Defense Ministry proposed to grant opportunity to a conscript to serve under military contract from the first day of service.

"To raise the conscription age to 21 years old is quite logical. I believe this idea was developed on the basis of the Defense Ministry’s analysis, as well as personal observations of the Russian command, "argued former Black Sea Fleet commander, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov.

Vladimir Komoyedov (Source:

"It’s obvious that young people of this age are better at learning the military expertise required to defend the country than 18-year-olds. Consequently, the average skill level of our conscripts will grow," believed the admiral.

The number of contract servicemen will almost double

As part of the RAF manpower increase to 1.5 million soldiers, it’s proposed to raise the proportion of contract servicemen to 695,000 men, said Shoigu. This is necessary to "meet the challenges of ensuring military security," stressed the minister. For comparison, according to data articulated by Shoigu last spring, 380,000 people were serving under the military contracts.

Already by the end of next year, the number of these professional servicemen should exceed half a million men (521,000). Let’s also recall that in August, the president signed a decree according to which, number of regular servicemen in the RAF should grow to 1.15 million men, starting from January 1, 2023.

"Regarding the reasons for increasing RAF manpower to almost 700,000 men (including contract servicemen), I can state one thing: there was no need to reduce it back then!" claimed Admiral Komoyedov, "We should have spotted the trend back in the 1990s, upon NATO’s first steps towards enlargement." Starting the new year, the RAF strength should reach its 2008 pre-reform level of 1.2 million men, which was the case before the massive cuts. The latter primarily affected the officer corps (whose numbers have been halved).

The experience of the SVO has demonstrated that Russia needs a larger and more professionally trained army in order to confront powerful military blocs (such as NATO), argued military expert, Aleksandr Bartosh.

Aleksandr Bartosh (Source:

"It will be realized through a substantial augmentation in the RAF's strength, combat capabilities and qualitative level," stressed the interlocutor. It’s also important, the experts noted, for the reformed army's core to be composed of people who have recently received or are receiving combat experience during the SVO in Ukraine.

The contract servicemen will in the long term replace the citizens who were drafted into the army under partial mobilization, said Shoigu (as reported by the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper. We add that, according to the president, 150,000 out of 300,000 mobilized men are currently in the SVO zone.

New challenges have called for reinstitution of metropolitan [military] districts

Apart from raising the conscription age by three years and the prospect of creating a million and a half strong army, another important innovation was to change the structure of the RAF itself. Among the response measures to NATO’s enlargement (via the accession of Finland and Sweden), two new inter-service strategic territorial formations, the Moscow and Leningrad military districts, will have to be created, said Shoigu.

It should be recalled that currently the military formations of the RAF are divided according to territorial principle into five districts: Western (with headquarters in St. Petersburg), Central (Yekaterinburg), Southern (Rostov-on-Don), Eastern (Khabarovsk) districts and, as a separate district - the Northern Fleet, or rather, its united strategic command. The Moscow and Leningrad Military District existed within the RAF structure until 2010.

"These districts existed in the Soviet army as well. The need for the Moscow Military District both then and now is attributed to a need to protect the Moscow industrial region," stressed Admiral Komoyedov.

The importance of the Leningrad Military District, which protects the "northern capital, "has grown in comparison with Soviet times, noted the interlocutor. As back then Sweden and Finland were maintaining a neutral status, but now they are becoming NATO’s northeastern flank.

"A partial return to the Soviet [military district] model is not bad, certainly. However, but let's face it, there were too many districts even back then! I believe that now our military and political leadership needs to evaluate the military capabilities of our enemy in the face of NATO, and reform the RAF, based on that knowledge. We went through this back in Soviet Times: there shouldn’t be more troops than needed," said Komoyedov.

The army will have dozens of new units and formations

Changes should affect not only the territorial organization of the army. In addition to the creation (or rather reestablishment) of two new military districts, Shoigu proposed to form ten new divisions: five artillery divisions, two airborne assault divisions and three motorized rifle divisions.

The seven existing motorized rifle brigades deployed in each of the today’s military districts should be reformatted into divisions, stated Shoigu. Five additional airborne assault divisions are to be added to the Russian Airborne Forces. Divisions are larger and more autonomous military formations than brigades.

One should also pay attention to the proposed locations for deploying the new formations. It’s being proposed to deploy two of the three motorized rifle divisions in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts (as reported by TASS). It’s also proposed to deploy an army corps in the Karelia region, bordering Finland. It seems that it will fall under the jurisdiction of the new Leningrad Military District.

Shoigu also advocated the formation of three more air division directorates, one fighter and eight bomber aviation regiments, and six brigades of army aviation within the Russian Aerospace Forces [hereafter – the VKS]. Five new artillery divisions of military districts and high-capacity artillery brigades are to reinforce artillery in strategic areas.

"One should also mention a decision to form five divisions of marines within the naval coastal forces on the basis of existing brigades," noted former Black Sea Fleet Commander, Komoyedov, "This experience of the two Chechen campaigns, other military operations, as well as of the SVO, attest to the fact that these specific troop categories demonstrate the greatest efficiency in modern combat conditions.”

"We have extensive maritime borders, as well as a vulnerable northern flank. Generally speaking, I believe the formation of five divisions of marines will be aimed at reinforcing Russia in the Arctic, as well as in the Baltic and Black Seas," stressed the military expert Bartosh.

"One needs to build up the fleet of helicopters both landing and attack vehicles (as well as those acting within the support forces) for these divisions to operate. By the way, Shoigu in his speech paid special attention to helicopters. Each combined-forces tank army has army aviation, and there are plans to support the continuous deployment of 80-100 vehicles in them,"noted Komoyedov.

[The expert referred] to the Defense Ministry’s proposal to modify the composition of large military formations. According to the plans voiced by Shoigu, each tank and combined arms grouping should have a mixed aviation division and an army aviation brigade equipped with the aforementioned 80-100 combat helicopters. "Helicopters have proven themselves during the SVO in Ukraine as a necessary and effective tool to fight enemy tanks and ground units," said Bartosh.

Meanwhile, according to the experts, reinforcing ground units with planes and helicopter crews poses two challenges. First, it requires training of an additional personnel for army aviation (in addition to already serving in the VKS specialists), using the existing air academies and, possibly, new training facilities. Second, it’s not yet clear what the governing structure of the reformed combined arms and tank armies will look like and how an interaction between pilots and "ground forces" should look like.


[1], December 21, 2022.

[2], December 21, 2022.

[3], November 10, 2012.

[4] December 24, 2022.

[5], December 26, 2022

[6], December 21, 2022.

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