Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu unveiled a new plan to restructure the Russian military away from the brigade model and back to its pre-2008 division structure. These details are being announced as the Russian military struggles to maintain momentum in Ukraine and as NATO membership for Finland and Sweden looms into 2023. Even though implementing such military reforms is not new in the history of the Soviet and Russian militaries, these new restructuring attempts seek to create a new army postured to safeguard Russian interests vis-à-vis NATO, closely mirroring Soviet threat perception of large-scale war.
Even though Russian proposals and their outcomes are often quite different, Western analysts will soon have to contest the feasibility of these reforms and how they will affect Russian force posture across Eastern Europe. The Russian Armed Forces will have to make drastic investments in human capital, both in manpower and training and in equipping these new formations. After massive losses in Ukraine, reaching these new goals can prove troublesome for the Kremlin.
Soviet and Russian Reforms
A brief history of Soviet and Russian military reforms, their aims, and their outcomes are essential when considering what comes next.
During the late Stalin era, the emphasis on Soviet military strength was on a massive ground force. After World War II, the Soviets envisioned a third World War that resembled World War II, albeit enhanced with nuclear weapons. The Soviet military experienced considerable changes in the late 1950s and 1960s, and between 1968 and 1987, the Soviet Ground Forces grew from 138 divisions to 220.
After the disaster in Chechnya in the 1990s, the Russian General Staff was compelled to create mixed units from all military districts to sustain a relatively small-scale conflict, highlighting a degraded force from its Soviet past. As early as 1992, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (MoD) began cutting Russian formations as the Russian economy collapsed. Even though military officials and policymakers aimed at restructuring the decaying Russian military, the 1990s mostly brought troop reductions and not genuine military reforms, and between 1992 and 2000 the Russian Ground Forces shrank from 1.4 million to 348,000. It was not until 2008, with the poor performance of the Russian Ground Forces in Georgia, that Anatoly Serdyukov, the Russian minister of defense, began massive cuts in the Russian Armed forces, moving from the division to brigade model and reducing the size of the officer corps by 57.7 percent. Serdyukov’s reforms, generally known as the New Look Reforms, likewise reduced the size of the Armed Forces by 278,500 personnel. At the time of the Russian attack on Georgia, the Russian military consisted of 80 percent legacy Soviet weapons. Serdyukov’s reforms aimed at reducing the size of the military to ensure proper investment in Russian State Armament Programs.
The special military operation (SMO) in Ukraine has not delivered the intended outcomes for the Kremlin. After a disastrous northern offensive to Kyiv from Belarus, Russia shifted its operational objectives in favor of an attack on Donbas in late March. In a clear shift in threat perception and to expand the overall combat capacity of the Russian armed forces, Putin unveiled a plan that called for a 30 percent increase in the military, which would increase the size of the Russian army from 1.15 million to 1.5 million, and an additional 300,000 Kontraktniki, or contract service members. Overall, Putin’s plan would increase the size of ground forces by 22 total divisions and include two new divisions in the Russian VDV (airborne forces), bringing the VDV to a force structure force equal to Soviet times. One of these VDV divisions, the 104th Guards Air Assault Division, has already been formed against the backdrop of the former 31st Guards Air Assault Brigade and is currently operating in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Lastly, five naval infantry divisions would be raised from five existing naval infantry brigades. According to Shoygu, two motorized rifle divisions will be formed in the occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The new plan also reestablishes the Moscow and Leningrad Military Districts, opposite NATO, from the current Western Military District, whose dismal failures during the SMO may have contributed to its downfall. Shoygu likewise highlighted the creation of an army corps in Karelia, opposite the Finnish border with Russia, and aviation support brigades and regiments who would support the Combined Arms Armies.
Russia’s proposal, although ambitious, must be compartmentalized for proper analysis. For example, if the new motorized rifle divisions that Shoygu mentioned mirror those in the existing Russian force structure, equipping the force will be challenging. Take the 2nd Guard Motorized Rifle Division in the Western Military District: this division has three regiments, encompassing two motorized rifles and one tank regiment. Given the current table of organization & equipment of Russian divisions, each motorized rifle division requires 264 BTR-80s or 82s, plus 124 T-72s, 80s, 90s. If this number were consistent with the announced divisions, it would make Russian requirements for new Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and tanks for the new ground troops at 2,640 IFVs and 1,240 tanks. The two VDV divisions would require 588 BMD-4Ms plus the additional artillery support that each regiment and division demands.
Replacing these losses will prove difficult for the Russian Armed Forces. According to Oryx, a Dutch open-source research organization that analyzes military losses during conflicts, Russia has lost 1,642 tanks, 1,958 infantry fighting vehicles, 291 armored personnel carriers, and 759 armored fighting vehicles—a figure difficult to replace, given that Russia has lost 47 percent of its best tank force since the start of the SMO. At the current level of maintenance, force degradation in Ukraine, and Russian production capacity, it will be difficult for Russia to equip the existing force and raise 17 new divisions. The only way the Russian MoD can supply these new divisions is by digging into storage; however, these are older model T-72s whose performance in the SMO has been abysmal and are in less-than-optimal operating conditions after years of neglect in Russian open storage facilities. The Russian military industry will have difficulty adjusting personnel and production rates and decreasing dependency on foreign parts, which Western sanctions will probably strain. Russian production manpower will also be an obstacle, as it faces a shortage of 400,000 people in its production line. Lastly, the MoD began modernizing 800 T-62 tanks, first seen in the early 1960s, for deployment to Ukraine—a clear indication of the growing shortfalls.
In keeping with the Russian military tradition of artillery use, Shoygu announced that Russia would create five new artillery divisions and five new heavy artillery brigades. This would enhance Russian artillery, as there are no artillery divisions in the Russian Armed Forces, and constitute a significant increase in firepower, adding to the notion of mass over precision as the common practice of the Russian military in Ukraine. Even though the Russian military does not have artillery divisions in its current force structure, a look at Soviet and early Russian artillery divisions may help predict how these new divisions may be manned and equipped. Take for instance the 34th Guards Artillery Division, formed in 1945 and disbanded in 2009. The division had a structure of 288 152MM guns per division. If Shoygu’s plan for five divisions mirrors a similar structure, the Russian Armed Forces would require 1,440 guns to fully equip these new formations, on top of backfilling losses to the existing figures currently fighting in Ukraine, whose artillery losses now stand at 475, according to Oryx. The heavy artillery brigades would likely deploy the 203MM 2S7 Pion howitzers and 240MM 2S4 Tyulpan heavy mortars to enhance the strategic direction of the maneuver unit. Currently, Russia maintains 68 2S7s or 2S7Ms, of which six have been destroyed in Ukraine, and 40-50 2S4 with 400 in storage, of which four have been destroyed in Ukraine. As of July 2022, the 94th Arsenal in Omsk maintained 110 2S7s. Some of these 2S7 are in poor readiness and may be more suitable for parts after years of maintenance issues and corruption cases. Adding these weapons to the proposed formations may seem numerically feasible, given the amount of equipment in storage. However, Russia must invest considerable resources to restore them properly. Even if the Russian military can man and equip these formations with older weapons like modernized T-72s and T-62s, they will have a sizeable qualitative disadvantage with other NATO members whose stocks include newer generation tank platforms, artillery, and multiple launched rocket systems (MLRS).
Properly training and manning military formations has placed the Russian military in precarious positions even before the breakout of the war when Russian units were consistently below their manning structure. Russia’s mobilization in September worked as intended in that the MoD added a substantial force to immediately stabilize the lines as the Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv collapsed Russian defenses in the region. With the 2nd Guards Motorized Rifle Division again as the model to follow, Russia would need 144,500 soldiers to man these new motorized rifle divisions; 11,000 new soldiers for the VDV; 5,000 for the artillery brigades; and 12,500 naval infantry (marines). Even though questions regarding proper training and officer billets in this new structure still loom, the manning portion of the proposal seems attainable, given that Russia’s twice-a-year draft, which calls up about 263,000 conscripts a year and allowing new conscripts to sign contracts from day one, can provide forces to man these new formations and reconstitute the existing force. Going back to a two-year compulsory service will likely improve manning issues within the Russian Armed Forces. Moreover, according to Russian open-sourced information, seven motorized rifle divisions will be raised from the seven existing brigades within the Southern and Western military districts and the Northern Fleet. Even though some of these brigades have been reconstituted multiple times after being destroyed in Ukraine, manning the divisions from the existing brigade personnel will ease the burden.