Transforming the Russian Military: A Fresh Effort or More of the Same?

Led by Pavel K. Baev
Jan 2003 – May 2011

According to the application, approved by the Defence Ministry for funding in 2003, the main aim of the project was to evaluate the overall design and the specific direction of the new attempt at reforming the Russian Armed Forces and assess its possible impact on Russia’s internal stability and the content of its relations with the West, first of all with NATO. This aim involved in-depth research focused on three specific goals:

• the scale of accumulated problems in the military and the sufficiency of current efforts, including the question of financing, for advancing the project of modernization;
• the effects of the new reform attempt on Russia’s relations with NATO, in the context of its enlargement, and with the US, in the context of the global anti-terrorist campaign;
• the impact on reform implementation of the pressures stemming from Russia’s involvement in conflict management in the Caucasus (including the war in Chechnya) and the Caspian area.

Reforming the Russian military: The scale of problems, the need in political will and the amount of resources

The year 2003 has been by and large a disappointment from the point of view of transforming and modernizing the military organization. The intensive political debate around a series of proposals, implicitly driven by a major terrorist attack in Moscow in October 2002 (the ‘Nord-Ost’, or Dubrovka theatre hostage drama), had dried out by summer 2003. The ‘experiment’ with converting the 76th Pskov Airborne Division into a ‘professional’ unit produced mixed results and was essentially forgotten. By the end of the year, both the President and the Defence Minister had made firm statements about ‘concluding’ the reforms and beginning a ‘normal’ building and modernization of the Armed Forces.

This shift in rhetoric does not necessarily mean that the restructuring of the military organization and transforming its relations with the society are indeed over. It does, however, create a need in re-evaluating the whole trajectory of military reforms with a particular focus on the nature of relations between the political leadership and the ‘top brass’. In the framework of this project, such a re-evaluation was done in a chapter on ‘Reforming the Russian Military: History and Trajectory’ for the book Russian Military Reform and Russia’s New Security Environment, edited by Yuri Fedorov and Bertil Nygren (Stockholm: Swedish National Defence College, 2003). A particular challenge to the integrity of the military system arising from the trends of regionalism in the Russian Federation was addressed in a chapter on military aspects of regionalism for the book Russian Regions and Regionalism: Strength Through Weakness?, edited by Anne Aldis and Graeme Herd (London: Routledge, 2002).

Russia’s relations with enlarging NATO and counter-terrorist partnership-building with the US

The Year 2003 saw the escalation of trans-Atlantic tensions caused primarily by the US-led war in Iraq. Russia tried to exploit this rift by taking sides with France and Germany before the start of the campaign, but then undertook a series of efforts aimed at minimizing the damage to its partnership with the US in the context of the global war against terror. This manoeuvring was generally less successful that the Russian leadership had expected, thus undermining the significant result in rapprochement with the West achieved by President Putin in 2002.

The limits of Russia’s course on developing cooperative security ties with the West in general and with Europe in particular and the sustainability of its earlier drive towards broader and deeper engagement with NATO are examined in the article ‘Putin’s Western Choice: Too Good to Be True?’, European Security (vol. 12, no. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 1-16). The underlying ambition behind most of these efforts and manoeuvring was the desire to consolidate and build up Russia’s ‘Great Power’ status, with the particular emphasis on the military might. This pronounced tendency is analysed in the memo ‘Putin Reconstitutes Russia’s Great Power Status’, presented at the CSIS/PONARS policy conference in Washington in December 2003 (available at

Russian military as an instrument for conflict management and for waging Chechnya-type local wars

The lack of compatible military capabilities for conducting humanitarian interventions has become one of the key obstacles for Moscow in developing security cooperation with NATO. At the same time, the shortage in combat-worthy units hampers Russia’s ambitious plans for projecting power in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The war in Chechnya causes significant strains inside the Russian military system and requires resources that could have been spent on modernizing the armed forces. Russia’s sustained inability to invest in building up its war-fighting capabilities was analysed in the chapter ‘The Challenge of “Small Wars” for the Russian Military’ in the fundamental book Russian Military Reform 1992-2002, edited by Anne C. Aldis and Roger N. McDermott (London: Frank Cass, 2003)  and in the chapter ‘The Impact of “Small Wars” on the Trajectory of the Russian Military’ in the book Russian Military Reform and Russia’s New Security Environment, edited by Yuri Fedorov and Bertil Nygren (Stockholm: Swedish National Defence College, 2003). One particular angle of this problem is related to the involvement of the Russian armed forces in the counter-terrorist operations; it was examined in the article ‘Examining the “Terrorism-War” Dichotomy in the “Russia-Chechnya” Case’ published in Contemporary Security Policy (vol. 24, no. 2, August 2003, pp. 29-46).

Expertise-building and networking

One of the major goals of the research project was to contribute to the development of expertise in Norway on current Russian security problems. Besides publications, one of the key means for achieving this goal was lecturing, both in the military institutions (lectures at the Forsvarets høyskole and Kriegsskolen, consultations in the Forsvarets stabskole) and in public fora (the Atlantic Committee, University of Oslo). Another contribution was the supervision of the doctoral projects of Pinar Tank on ‘Turkey’s Military Elite on Crossroads: Paths to Desecuritization?’ (supported by the FD, to be completed in 2004) and Tor Bukkvoll on ‘Defining a Ukrainian foreign policy identity: Business interests and geopolitics in the formulation of Ukrainian foreign policy’ (based at the FFI, to be completed in 2004), and the consulting role for Sven Gunnar Simonsen’s post-doc project on ‘Military Intervention and Post-Conflict Nation-Building’ (supported by the FD).

An important element of the project was extensive cooperation with other Norwegian and Nordic research institutes, first of all with the Centre for Russian Studies at NUPI. One part of this cooperation was the contribution ‘The Russian Military: Too Many Wars, Too Little Politics’ for NUPI Report The Russian Federation – Ten Years of Statehood: What Now?, edited by Jakob Godzimirsky (2003). Another part was the participation in the Nordic Network for Security Studies (NNSS) workshop on ‘Dimensions of Russian Security Policy’ which is aimed at producing an edited volume in 2004. Yet another part was participation in the conference ‘The Black Sea as Boundary or Bridge?’ jointly organized by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Swedish Institute for International Affairs (UI) (Stockholm, 28 November 2003).

The project also involved extensive international networking, including a range of military institutions. Among key partners in 2003 were the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington (policy conference in December 2003); the US Army George Marshall European Center for Security Studies (a lecture and two seminars in February 2003); the US National Defense University (a faculty seminar in December 2003); and the US Army Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (presentation at a conference, October 2003).

Many interviews with Norwegian and international media were performed in the course of the project in 2003; the interviews with The Economist (6 September) and with Le Monde (10 February) could be mentioned separately. An article on the changing nature of the Chechen war ‘Putin the Pacifist?’ was published in the electronic journal Russia and Eurasia Review (Jamestown Foundation, 1 April)

The research project was successful in delivering on its aims; it sought to combine solid academic studies and more policy-oriented research to produce a range of publications (both peer-reviewed and current analysis). Those could make a basis for a book project. It was also successful in developing expertise and networks that would support further studies, but has not raised extra funds. Several doctoral projects linked to the project are now coming into the final stages; however, new MA students need to be brought to PRIO. The project had good visibility, including in international media, but it needs more op-eds. At the same time, significant new developments in Russia’s military posture (including, for instance, the strategic exercises in February 2004, unprecedented in scale) generate a need to continue research in this area.

The application for support of a follow-up project ‘Could the Russian military be a partner to NATO in counter-terrorist operations’ (led by Pavel Baev) has been submitted to the Forsvarsdepartementet. Besides the general goals, outlines in this application, it appears possible to indicate a range of possible research targets that could be addressed in 2004: 

• To follow the key general trends in transformation of the Russian military through participation in a project led by Dmitri Trenin (Carnegie Moscow Center) and Steven Miller (Harvard University), aimed at an edited volume with contributions from such experts as Roy Allison, Alexei Arbatov, Rose Goetemoller, and Aleksandr Golts.
• To attempt an evaluation of possible shifts in Russia’s military structures in a ten years perspective through participation in a project based at the Swedish Defence Research Establishment (FOI) with participation of such experts as Mark Galeotti, Jacob Kipp, Vitaly Shlykov.
• To examine Russia’s power projection capabilities in the Caspian area through participation in a project on security in the South Caucasus organized by NATO Defense College in the Partnership for Peace framework (in cooperation with the Finnish Ministry of Defence, seminar in Helsinki, mid-May 2004).
• To continue to follow the course of the Chechen war through participation in a project led by Richard Sakwa (Kent University) aimed at an edited volume with participation of such experts as Emil Pain, Nikolai Petrov, Valery Tishkov, and Thomas de Wall.




Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Baev, Pavel K. (2003) Examining the "Terrorism-War" Dichotomy in the "Russia-Chechnya" Case, Contemporary Security Policy 24(2): 29–46.

Related pages