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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War of Quantity vs. Quality

While NATO gets ready to approve a new wave of expansion at its summit in Prague, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is to announce a program of sweeping reforms to overhaul the Russian military.

At a Cabinet meeting Thursday, Ivanov is to present a draft program to end conscription in Russia. He is also expected to address the problems of inadequate military pay and the low prestige of the military profession in Russia, to report on efforts to re-arm the forces with modern weapons, to outline a new housing program for officers' families and so on.

It's clear that the ills of the Russian military are many. But will Ivanov offer plausible solutions?

Ivanov has announced that the military should be transformed into a "mobile, professional, effective force, equipped with the most modern, precision-guided weapons." He also announced that it should be a force of a million men.

In January 2001, there were 1.35 million men in Defense Ministry active service. Since then the force has been trimmed, according to Ivanov, to "a little more than" 1.1 million -- clearly a step in the right direction. Apparently, more cuts will follow to meet the stated 1 million target. But are these cuts sufficient? Will this decrease in quantity indeed bring the long awaited gain in quality?

In addition to the more than 1.1 million Defense Ministry service personnel, there are a million more soldiers in the country's various other armies: Interior Ministry troops, Border Guards, etc. Proposals to merge all these armies into one have been discussed in the Kremlin, but with no practical results.

The Kremlin announced this week that the Interior Ministry troops will be transformed into a National Guard -- a praetorian force that will add heavy armor to the existing more than 100,000-strong Presidential Security Service (Putin's bodyguards). This National Guard will "ensure the internal stability of Russia" -- or in plain language, protect the Kremlin from the regular army.

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In 1991 and 1993, it was not election results but the loyalty (or disloyalty) of the armed forces that determined Russia's future course. Afterwards a system of military checks and balances -- this multiplicity of armies -- was established to guarantee that the Kremlin could, as last resort, pit one force against another in order to survive.

This system of competing armies has helped to maintain political stability during a decade of great social upheaval. But in purely military terms it's a total disaster. These armies not only compete for scarce resources in peace time (with no one getting enough to be in good fighting shape), they continue the fray in war, in the face of the enemy in Chechnya.

Russia's military machine is divided roughly 50-50 between Defense Ministry forces and others. In Chechnya today there are some 40,000 Defense Ministry soldiers plus 40,000 from other armies. Well informed sources in the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry and FSB say that all attempts in the past three years to establish good coordination in Chechnya have failed -- the forces fail to operate as a cohesive unit and often fight one other for control of local oil wells that bring huge illegal profits.

Everyone in the ruling elite agrees that the military needs to be cut in size. But the many armies point the finger at one another to make the sacrifice. The result is that superficial cuts are made that still leave more than a million in the Defense Ministry (plus some 600,000 "civilian" employees, many of whom are soldiers in disguise) and a million in other armies -- not counting police paramilitary units and so on.

After all the "cuts," Russia still has a combined armed force that is much bigger personnel-wise than that of the United States, with a budget tens of times smaller. Such a force can never be mobile, professional, effective or well equipped.

The draft will not end in 2010 as announced, because Russia will never have enough money to enlist 2 million-plus volunteer soldiers.

NATO has been helping to cut overmanned former Warsaw Pact armies by three to four times in order to enhance their efficiency.

Russian diplomats say that the West has offered Moscow its know-how in post-Communist military reform -- only to be rejected on instructions from the Kremlin. Perhaps Russia has been so steadfast in refusing genuine close military cooperation with NATO merely to keep intact its feudal multi-army system?

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.