When Tsar Nicholas II abdicated his throne in 1917, he addressed neither the Russian people nor the Provisional Government, but rather the Chief of Staff of the Russian Army. This was because the Russian army was the last remaining arbiter of stability in the country which, as historian Richard Pipes noted, “…in Nicholas’s eyes the army command was the one remaining bearer of sovereignty.”
During Soviet times the military was as much a part of the communist party as it was an organ of the state, both ideologically primed to “ensure progress in the international class struggle…”
And now the Russian military stands as the vanguard of Russia’s new foreign policy. One that is led by an increasingly ideological Putin, whose vision of Russia and what it should be can be understood as a celebration of what Russia is, and what it is not—cosmopolitan and Western.
To be sure the pragmatic Putin is still there, he is just more heavily influence by his ideological Dr. Jekyll that is operating under a very different rational paradigm that we in the West would operate by. As NYU Professor Mark Galeotti and I wrote in Foreign Policy,
“Putin is not a lunatic or even a fanatic. Instead, just as there are believers who become pragmatists in office, he has made the unusual reverse journey. Putin has come to see his role and Russia’s destiny as great, unique, and inextricably connected. Even if this is merely an empire of, and in, his mind — with hazy boundaries and dubious intellectual underpinnings — this is the construct with which the rest of the world will have to deal, so long as Putin remains in the Kremlin.”
This ideological Putin is also a more forceful iteration that is increasingly comfortable using Russia’s military to massage, intimidate and even outright invade its neighbors to re-assert its dominance and to defend Putin’s conception of Russia’s exceptionalism, and most importantly, its sovereignty.
Yet this sovereignty is not just of Russia’s borders, it is also the Russian identity, free from the perversions and influence of the West. It is a celebration and a call to defend what makes Russia different and unique.
This protection of sovereignty has to be supported not just by ideology but by Russia’s military. And since 2008 its prowess has increased dramatically. It has increased not just its capabilities but its strategic thinking, and has been buoyed by a massive modernization program designed to create a modern military from the hulking shell that emerged from the carnivorous 1990’s and its long conflict in Chechnya. And much as Gorbachev tried to reform the USSR by turning guns into butter, Putin is increasingly turning butter into guns.
Russia now has the capability to field not just elite “little green men” that seized Crimea, but also large regular units that are both well organized and equipped to—increasingly—modern standards, with the ability to operate independently.
Yet despite these improvements, Russia’s military remains one of regional dominance and not global power projection. The ability to re-store its Navy as a blue water force is beyond the defense industry’s capabilities, the ability of Russia to successfully finance and complete its massive re-armament program—known as SAP 2020—is continually debated and revised (although many defense analysts in Moscow I spoke to agree that it will not be completed on time and adjustments will have to be made), and its efforts to transform from conscription to a professional, volunteer military with a competent NCO corps continue to have unimpressive results. Units continue to be perpetually understaffed—and equipped—and the transition from a Division to Brigade structure continues to undergo experiments and reforms, with many “elite” units regaining their Divisional structure (such as the Airborne troops VDV, and the elite praetorian units of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division “Tamanskaya” and the 4th Guards Tank Division “Kantemirovskaya” based around Moscow).
Additionally, some of the positive reforms under ousted Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov have since been rolled back due to political considerations. Actions such as downsizing the bloated officer corps and buying foreign armaments to force the Russian defense industry to increase its competitiveness and production standards (Serdyukov signed the deals for the now infamous French Mistral assault ships).
Even with all the difficulties still facing its military and the increasing economic constraints facing the financing of its modernization, there are units who are critical to defending Russia’s ideological and physical sovereignty. These units are the bearer of Russia’s sovereignty and Putin’s worldview.
Leading this defense are the elite Spetsnaz and GRU intelligence officers that, as NYU Professor Mark Galeotti noted, “The GRU has also shown the rest of the world how Russia expects to fight its future wars: with a mix of stealth, deniability, subversion, and surgical violence.” The confusing nature of low intensity conflicts and the pliability of truth mean that these soldiers and operatives are the ideal force for these conflicts. These are the men who are trained and equipped to navigate the shifting alliances, battle lines and publicly deniable spaces in furtherance of Russia’s political objectives.
The most important of these is the creation of a new Russian Special Operations command designed to operate entirely outside of Russia’s borders. This unit, named Senezh, is specially designed to operate at the highest levels of proficiency and under the most rigorous of circumstances. Senezh was conceived in response to the potential fallout and chaos in Central Asia resulting from the removal of NATO forces from Afghanistan and protecting Russian interests abroad during times of civil unrest. It is designed to be a manifestation of Russia’s regional hegemony and its ability to effectively project modern military force. And its first operation was a stunning success. Senezh was one of the first units and was used to seize the Crimean parliament building, one of the first public displays of the modern and professional Russian military that soon became so familiar.
Alongside the more elite Spetsnaz is the Russian Airborne Forces (VDV). The VDV soldiers are among some of the best trained and equipped soldiers in the military, and constituted a large portion of the well-equipped and trained “little green men” who invaded Crimea. They form the core of an emerging rapid reaction force structure available to be deployed rapidly to any conflict zone.
The forces recently celebrated their 84th birthday earlier this month, and a few days later ITAR-TASS reported that the force would double in strength from its current 35,000 to 75,000 along with being equipped with the latest armored vehicles at full strength. The 45th Independent Reconnaissance Regiment (Spetsnaz), one of the main units involved in the Crimean takeover and alleged to be in eastern Ukraine, is also reportedly to be increased to a Brigade. The Airborne Forces also have plans to be 100% kontraktniki, meaning staffed by professional soldiers and not conscripts.
These announcements are more than simple statements of modernization plans, but an acknowledgement that they are to play key roles in future “non-linear” wars such as in Ukraine and Crimea. Colonel-General Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the VDV, stated as much in a recent interview when he praised the professionalism of his troops in Crimea and contrasted it with allegations of civilian casualties by Ukrainian paratroopers (it also helps that he is rumored to personally know and friendly with Putin). As Roger McDermott of the Jamestown Foundation noted, “Shamanov’s influence in recent years, in addition to the various advances involved, will serve to ensure that the VDV will never be far from future Russian conflicts.”
Beyond these troops being the most professional and equipped units in the military, receiving priority for funding and staffing, is that they are the most polite. Shamanov stated that their goal was the creation of a force of “polite people.” The most striking thing about the Crimean operation was the professionalism and control of the troops in the face of journalists sticking cameras in their faces, and especially refraining from escalating the situation into outright violence. The understanding that the conflict was being waged as much in the public eye as at the end of the gun is as telling about their professionalism as it is about the Kremlin’s understanding of conflict in the modern age.
Whether Russia’s grandiose plans for its militaries modernization will be fulfilled is still up for debate, with progress seemingly tempered by reality, what is clear is that the Spetsnaz and VDV troopers will remain the key force projecting and protecting Putin’s idea of Russia, wherever that may lead.