The Buzz

The Kremlin’s New Divisions May Actually Reduce Russia’s Military Readiness

During a regular ministerial conference call, on May 4, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu clarified previously declared plans to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He noted, “The defense ministry is taking a number of measures to counteract the buildup of NATO forces in the immediate vicinity of Russian borders. Two new divisions will be set up in the Western Military District and one division in the Southern Military District until the end of the year” (TASS, May 4). It was reported earlier that a new motorized rifle unit would be set up near Rostov-on-Don and two more divisions in the Smolensk and Voronezh Regions.

Senior NATO officials reacted as expected. The new Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Curtis Scaparrotti, said: “In terms of their deployment, NATO has responded to their [Russian] aggressive actions on the eastern border… I’ll review […] our plans, their posture, and recommend my military advice, the posture, the exercises that we need to continue to deter and also be able to respond.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated the reasons for this approach: “We have seen the willingness of Russia to use its military force in Europe against an independent sovereign state—Ukraine—illegally annexing Crimea and destabilizing eastern Ukraine. And that is the reason why we have responded. It is a reaction to the behavior of a Russia which is more assertive and a Russia which has shown the will of using military force to change borders in Europe for the first time since the end of the Second World War” (, May 4).

(This story originally appeared the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Monitor)

Countermeasures to the Russian military buildup will certainly be among the main topics of discussion at the upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw. And yet, seemingly counterintuitively, the creation of new divisions in western Russia most likely will not strengthen, but may actually damage the overall combat capabilities of the Russian army. The ability for rapid deployment has been among the most important achievements of the Russian armed forces to date. This capacity was well demonstrated during operations in Crimea, Donbas and Syria. It took just a few days in February 2014 to deploy about 40,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. This was a major success: in comparison, in 1999, the military command was able to move troops only three weeks after Chechen rebels stormed Dagestan.

One of the major achievements of the military reforms carried out by former Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (2007–2012) was rapid deployment. He understood that the main weakness of the Russian army was the intended implementation of the concept of mass mobilization. In particular, the authorities planned to summon millions of reservists in case of a military threat. For this reason, about 80 percent of Russian military units were constituted as skeleton units—specifically designed to accept reservists and arm them. The mass mobilization concept required a lot of time to rebuild each unit in an emergency. Therefore, Russian military forces were generally unable to deliver a quick response. Furthermore, the viability of mass mobilization was itself a myth due to Russia’s demographic plunge. The number of reservists had declined with every passing year.

In this situation, Serdyukov decisively eliminated all skeleton units. As a result, the number of divisions, brigades and regiments in the Russian Ground Forces decreased from 1,890 to 172 (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, May 12, 2009). In the end, the military command had at its disposal several dozen formations able to deploy within a few hours of receiving their orders. President Vladimir Putin hurried to take advantage of this capability in Ukraine and in Syria. The Armed Forces have, thus, become the Kremlin’s main if not sole foreign policy tool. But growing ambitions soon came into conflict with actual capabilities as Russian leaders began to set new, larger-scale goals for the army. First and foremost is the military confrontation with NATO. But the number of Russian units is simply too small to plan any serious operation against a global adversary. Therefore the Ministry of Defense began to set up new divisions—and not just limited to the three divisions that Shoigu recently mentioned.