The ABCs of Russian Military Power: A Primer for the New Administration

My latest article in TNI summarizing key aspects of Russian military power and the balance in Europe.

The current confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations, and increasing antagonism in the relationship, makes it difficult to separate structural changes in the European security environment from politically charged sources of conflict. Yet these changes have been profound, dating back to Russian military reforms launched in late 2008. They have serious implications for the new U.S. administration. The principal factors are Russia’s revival of the military as an instrument of national power, the unsettled war in Ukraine, and NATO’s changing posture to counter a perceived threat from Moscow’s machinations.

Seeking an improved, or perhaps simply more stable, relationship with Russia from a “position of strength” requires understanding the new military balance in Europe, the evolution of Russia’s military capabilities, and its evolving force posture. Independent of whether the proximate causes of hostility in U.S.-Russian relations are resolved, or there is a change in the broader atmospherics of the relationship, the United States must develop a strategy and policy for dealing with Russia, grounded not in optimism but in hard military realities. The previous administration suffered from a severe rhetoric-to-strategy gap, contesting Russia politically but losing strategically.

It would be safe to assume that distrust will continue to dominate NATO-Russia relations, and that even if interactions on the whole may improve—arguably, they cannot worsen—they may not produce concrete results in short order. A fact-based approach to the security situation in Europe should inform further changes in U.S. force structure and posture. Unfortunately, for the past two years discourse on this subject has been only marginally informed by reality, with policy advocacy and agendas driving analysis of the Russian military threat. Debate has often taken place either in a fact-free zone, or with new information overconsumed by a policy establishment long unaccustomed to dealing with Russia as a serious adversary. The United States has not been winning the geopolitical confrontation with Russia of late; nor has it come up with a vision for how to change the dynamics in this adversarial relationship.

Like its predecessor, the new administration will have to formulate its Russia policy in the aftermath of a crisis in European security; this is an opportunity either to make fresh mistakes, or to get things right. To succeed, the administration must base its strategy not on individual capabilities that Russia has, the individual concerns of proximate NATO members, or the designs of different constituencies within the U.S. policy establishment, but on a coherent understanding of the security dynamics in Europe and Russian military power.

Russia Has Been Busy

The Russian military that the United States faces in 2017 is not the poorly equipped and uncoordinated force that invaded Georgia in August of 2008. This is why the magnitude and potential impact of the current crisis is far greater than that inherited by the Obama administration in 2009. Following reforms launched in October 2008, and a modernization program in 2011 valued at $670 billion, the armed forces have become one of Russia’s most reliable instruments of national power. Russia disbanded the useless mass-mobilization army of the Soviet Union, consolidated what was worthwhile, and reconstituted a much smaller, but more capable force. The overall size of Russia’s armed forces continues to increase, numbering over nine hundred thousand today, while the state armament program continues to replace aging equipment throughout the force with new or modernized variants.

The reform process and a stable infusion of much-needed capital have restored war-fighting potential to the Russian military, though incomplete, and unevenly applied to the force. Moscow’s ability to sustain this spending is very much in question, faced with low oil prices, economic recession and Western sanctions. However, Russia has made the choice to defend defense spending and enact cuts elsewhere. Reductions will be made to the procurement program, but Moscow will maintain spending on nuclear modernization and long-range standoff weapons, trying to sustain the force at current levels In reality, loss of access to key components from Ukrainian and European defense industries created the most serious setbacks to Russian defense modernization (delays of about five to seven years in 2014).

Russia’s defense budget steadily climbed from to a peak of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Since then, it has been in relative decline, though likely to remain above 3.7 percent, well beyond the spending levels of America’s European allies. This level of expenditure is probably unsustainable for the Russian budget, inevitably forcing its leadership to choose between weapons procurement, operations and the quality of personnel. However, the inertia of the current modernization program will have lasting effects well into the 2020s.

Bottom line, Russia can sustain this military with judicious reductions, and even if the funding base collapses, the dramatic turnaround in its armed forces is not a temporary bounce that the United States must ride out. Russia’s General Staff has been focused on drilling the force with snap readiness checks, joint exercises, large movements and annual operational-strategic exercises. From its air force to the nuclear-powered submarines of its navy, the Russian military has quickly clawed back operational readiness not seen since the 1990s.

You can read the rest here.

Russia’s territorial defense battalions are finally here

Recently Russia’s MoD announced the formation of two territorial defense battalions as part of the series of exercises and readiness checks held August 25-31 across military districts.  As most know these checks are in preparation for the main show of this training year, Kavkaz-2016, and typically it is during the annual operational-strategic exercise when Russia’s military tries to muster the reserves.  The story of Russia’s reserve program, or lack thereof, is a rather interesting saga that I will discuss in this post.

This year, perhaps for the first time, the MoD announced that as part of the drills a territorial battalion of 500 reservists was formed as a naval infantry unit (likely with equipment from 810th naval infantry bde).  This battalion will practice basic elements of naval infantry and coastal defense, while in Novosibirsk the first motor rifle battalion of 400 reservists was assembled.  Both groups are civilians under contract as reservists. The first group was likely put together by the naval infantry brigade while the second group was organized by the Novosibirsk’s higher military command school.

August 29 TASS reported that a territorial defense regiment at full strength was formed in Stavropolskiy Kray.  This apparently is also a first alongside the battalions put together in Crimea and Novosibirsk.  The regiment’s equipment seems to have come from the 205th Separate Motorized Rifle Cossack Brigade in Budennovsk and it will participate in the annual exercise.  It’s unclear if this unit is part of the fledgling experimental reserve program (those who signed 3 year contracts) or from the general reserves mobilized regularly for operational-strategic exercises.

The Novosibirsk motor rifle unit (MoD website)

battalion 1

The appearance of these reservist based formations was announced as part of the ‘introduction’ of a new system to train and support reservists, or shall we say the system which has repeatedly been announced, and ordered multiple times, but refused to come into being.  Perhaps we are seeing the first inklings of Russia’s experimental reserve system coming alive?

The subject of reserves is more interesting than it may at first appear.  When Russia’s military underwent its tumultuous reform period from late 2008-2012 it setup a permanent standing army but without a reserve.  The reserve was a list of people on paper, but as I’ve commented from time to time: excel spreadsheets don’t fight.  You cannot summon civilians to a base full of equipment they’ve never seen, having not gone through basic training in years, and expect that mass to somehow become a fighting unit.  The mass mobilization army was slain, but the new standing army has been living without a functioning reserve.  The current reserve can work for basic territorial defense units, guarding a checkpoint, facility, but they cannot conduct combat operations.

This creates certain practical problems for our imagined high-end fights with NATO or any other conventional campaign requiring large numbers of troops.  How does Russia replace its losses in combat, and who defends Russia while its forces attack along a particular vector?  Territorial defense battalions are not intended to defend against a conventional force.  The Russian ground force is actually quite small if we consider the army, airborne VDV and naval infantry probably add up to north of ~300,000 troops for what is one eighth the world’s land mass.  That’s a lot of real estate to defend.

In order to supplement its maneuver units, Russia needs a reserve it can call up with some combat capability.  The self-evident manpower limitations offer practical explanations for why occupying large parts of Ukraine was never in the cards for the Russian military.  Taking over the Baltics, the contingency NATO officials have become fixated with of late, is also not as simple as it might seem in wargames.  Its not the invasion itself but the occupation part that always gets people – the U.S. has lots of experience in this department.

Why do I say Russia has no working reserve?  In his recent ruminations on the threat of hybrid warfare earlier this year, which for Russian leaders is shorthand for color revolutions and Western covert operations, Valery Gerasimov noted “The growth in hybrid threats dictates the urgency of increasing the effectiveness of territorial defense,” and “What is essential now is a scientific analysis of the forms and modes of employing multi-agency groupings, of the sequence of actions by the military and non-force constituent of territorial defense given the possible emergence of crisis situations in a matter of days and even hours.”  It seems the territorial defense concept is geared towards internal security, suppressing color revolutions and the like, rather than supporting the armed forces.  That’s great for managing domestic political stability etc, but it doesn’t quite solve the Army’s problem with respect to warfighting.

The naval infantry territorial defense battalion in Crimea (MoD website)

battalion 2.jpg

In the beginning…

Our story begins in May 7, 2012 when Vladimir Putin first ordered the creation of a national reserve for the armed forces, and the inauguration of a new system to train and mobilize reservists.  That order went into effect on January 1, 2013.  A subsequent order to sign up reservists and get this scheme going was signed on April 23, 2013.  According to the plan, prior to completing their military service soldiers would be offered a 3 year contract in the reserves, with a monthly payment ranging from 5,000-8,000 RUB per month.  The order stipulated that the pay should be attractive enough for soldiers to sign a reserve contract and the time of service could be renewed up to a certain age.

It is also worth noting also that in September 2011 the General Staff setup a department to lead the organization of territorial defense units across government agencies (its current head is Major-General Sergei Dudko), though its unclear if any territorial defense units were summoned between 2011-2016 so however was in charge of this section may have had an easy job.

Prior to this pilot program, in the early-mid 2000s, the practice of mustering reservists was a ‘check the box’ affair.  Perhaps the largest showing occurred during the Vostok-2010 exercise.  Those called up spent their time in camp without real refresh training or familiarization with new equipment.  One individual described it as an exercise that consisted largely of ten days attacking one’s own liver.  Back during the days of the the USSR reservists were looked down upon as lacking discipline or combat utility, referred to as ‘partisans’ by the officers who had to take them in during drilling cycles.

The Duma committee planned expenditures of 279.4 million in 2014, 288.3 mil in 2015 and 324.9 mil in 2016 for this initiative.  Let’s do the math on that: at the cheaper end in 2014 it would have bought you 4656 reservists, and at higher officer rates only 2910, so we can fix the range of reserves at somewhere safely below 4,500 i.e. less than two brigades worth. The new program’s budget came out of the MoD, which may have been its initial undoing.  However, Российская газета reported that even those paltry amounts were never allocated and the whole plan to muster reserves was shifted to 2016.  In short, nothing happened in 2013.

A great photo of one city’s government officials participating in reserve drills during the mid-2000s.  No doubt this is another aspect of the Russian military that has since changed.



We first see movement when Vladimir Putin signs an order on June 27, 2014 to implement the training and call-up plans for the reserve.  The crux of this order is essentially for the MoD to realize the previous orders.  According to this document, the reservists were to be assigned duties corresponding to their specialties, with readiness checks of the various command elements involved in the system – this means the officers that would form reserve units, the voenkomat that mobilizes them, and equipment storage bases to equip them.  In essence the order was for two types of checks, one for the system to call up reserves and one for the reservists themselves.  The idea was to energize the system ahead of the Vostok-2014 to be held that year.

In August 2014 Major-General Sergei Major-General Sergei Udin, head of mobilization command for the Western MD, explained that the number of reservists called up annually must increase due to the new equipment being fielded, which requires more training and certification.  For Vostok-2014 those called up were mostly lower ranking officers in the platoon/company commander range along with ensigns/sergeants.  According to him the selection of training sites was based on units that had entirely replaced or modernized their equipment.  The MoD approach was quite logical in terms of how they intended to carry out reserve drills.

The average time spent drilling was 15-25 days, and the pay ranged 450-600 RUB per day.  Various media reported the ages of those called up were 28-50, though the pay was listed differently as 8,000 for regulars and 20,000 for officers during their training.  The different types of checks to be conducted during this exercise were listed as: drills for the command staff in charge of the reserves, assembly for training as a readiness check or mustering to begin an actual exercise.  Given the reserve system was still largely nonexistent, 2014 probably saw mostly a check of the command staff assigned to taking in reservists along with some individuals called up to support various units.

Maybe in 2015?

Alexander Golts has followed this over the years and at the time he wrote that the military aspired to expand the 5,000 man program to 8,000 by 2015 if successful.  According to him, there was enough equipment in storage bases to arm perhaps 60 brigades (no doubt less now given how much equipment was given to DNR/LNR).  Lieutenant-General Vladimir Ostankov, suggested similar figures, but it seems the 5,000 strong reserve did not come to pass in 2014.

Based on the pay alone it was impossible to have that number of reservists with the funding allocated.  The deputy commander of the General Staff’s mobilization department, Yevgeni Burdinsky essentially said that the experiment to form 5,000 reservists would take place in 2015 and compared the concept to the system in Israel, albeit with a ‘different purpose.’  It’s unclear what that was supposed to mean, but its safe to say Russia does not have a reserve like Israel’s.

On February 5, 2015 Vladimir Putin signed another order stating that reservists would carry out drills not longer than two months, applicable to the MoD, MVD, various security structures and FSB.  Prior orders had yet to produce even an experimental reserve system.  Perhaps more interestingly, the FSB was listed alongside other government structures as though they have a reserve.  The timing itself was quite problematic.  Russian forces were headlong into a winter offensive in Ukraine engaged in what would become the battle of Debaltseve that month.  Unlike the obtuse political leadership, Russia’s MoD understood how the public might interpret a call up of reservists for drills given what was being shown on the news.  Hence the MoD supplemented the signed order with a statement emphasizing that this announcement had no connection to the ‘escalating situation in bordering regions of the Donbass.’

The official statement was a tacit acknowledgement of what most undoubtedly knew, Russian forces were fighting in Ukraine.  If the General Staff believed that the public was convinced otherwise, they would not feel the need to issue a clarification on why reservist drills were being ordered, explaining that it had nothing to do with the war Russia was not fighting.

By July 17, 2015 Vladimir Putin would sign yet another order, the purpose of which was to motivate the military to take his 2012 instructions seriously.  This document would once against tell the MoD to establish the reserve as part of the new/experimental system being introduced.  By implication, the Kremlin understood that the 5,000 pilot program never went anywhere and he was ordering the MoD to make it happen. The takeaway here is that Russia’s leader understands quite well when something has not materialized, but he cannot will it into being just by stamping documents with the presidential seal.  As anyone with defense experience knows, dealing with a military bureaucracy is sometimes like punching into a pillow.

Another photo of the Crimean territorial defense battalion (at least that is what TASS posted)

Crimean defense units.jpg

2016 – A great year to launch an experimental reserve program again

A snap exercise was called for June 14-22 in 2016 specifically to test the reserve system.  This event was organized for the command structures involved in calling up reservists, organizing them into units, and the various equipment storage bases designated to supply them.  This time Sergey Shoigu meant business when he ordered the exercise, looking to see whether the key components of the system (mobilization, command staff, equipment bases) could be readied to turn reservists into territorial defense battalions.  As in 2014, the intent was to prepare these elements for the main annual exercise.

It’s unclear what spurred the progress. The MoD either finally got the funding to realize these plans, or they got a talking to by Vladimir Putin about how 4 years in he expected to see a territorial battalion.  Aleksei Nikolski of Vedomosti did some good reporting on this call up, and Roger McDermott wrote a good summary of the snap exercise back in June for Jamestown.

Undoubtedly the idea is to show the senior leadership during Kavkaz-2016 that territorial defense battalions composed of reservists, which the Kremlin has ordered countless times now since 2012, have finally become a reality.  I have argued in several places that the absence of a reserve, an important bit of unfinished business from the military reforms, inherently limits Russia’s ability to sustain a large conventional conflict where it is on the offense.  After four years, the MoD seems to be getting after this problem.  Though the appearance of two battalions and a regiment is a watershed moment, its utility as a reserve for a force of over 300,000 is marginal.  Still we should note the increasing formation of territorial defense units as part of exercises as a growing trend.

Meanwhile the rest of the reserve is technically available for the basic tasks of being formed into territorial defense units.  They don’t need much and can fall in on older equipment.  However, Russia’s military has a long way to go in establishing the sort of manpower base for national defense that could free up the active duty force for large scale combat operations.  Having trained soldiers to replace combat losses in attrited brigades is another issue.  Without a capable reserve to backstop its armed forces, the Russian military will retain a degree of brittleness when it comes to large scale offensive operations.

As always comments or corrections are welcome. (don’t suffer in silence)



Chebarkul and Chukotka – a tale of two new divisions

In a previous post I had not discussed that alongside the three announced divisions around Ukraine, Russia’s General Staff also planned a fourth in Chelyabinsk oblast.  This division has at times been announced as part of “Russia’s response to NATO” though its location naturally tells us otherwise given it is right across the border from Kazakhstan.  First news of it came in late January 2016. Adding to the spread of divisions is the recent announcement on August 23rd from a Ministry of Defense meeting that there is another division in the works for 2018.  A press report from the recently held meeting revealed that the General Staff intends to form a coastal defense division on Chukotka.

I’ve compiled the history and background of these changes from a few news announcements, including posts from colleagues and other blogs on the subject, such as bmpd, eagle_rost, and one of the better takes out there written by Aleksei Ramm on

7th Armor Brigade’s T-72B tanks


The 7th Independent Armor Brigade in Chebarkul (Chelyabinsk oblast) will be converted into a division – this unit is part of the Central Military District. This brigade is one of the two remnants of the 15th Tank Division, which was moved back to Russia form Czechoslovakia in 1991.  Later in 2004 the division was disbanded, leaving two regiments that would become the core of a new division, the 34th, headquartered in Ekaterinburg.  During the 2009 reforms, which led to the consolidation, displacement or disbanding of numerous units across Russia, all divisions were turned into brigades.  Hence the 34th was broken into two brigades, the 28th Motor Rifle which stayed in Ekaterinburg, and the 7th Armor in Chebarkul.  The region hosts a sprawling military base not far from the border with Kazakhstan.

The division’s structure will include the following elements: 1 motor rifle regiment, 1 self-propelled artillery regiment, 1 air defense ‘division’, a reconnaissance and an engineering battalion, along with several supporting units of smaller size.  It was not officially stated, but we should venture an assumption that the tanks of the 7th will be included in a tank regiment as part of the new division.  Suffice it to say, this does not match a six regiment Soviet division, though it looks close to the 2nd or 4th half divisions which also have two regiments.  In Aleksei Ramm’s view, because this unit only has one motor rifle regiment and an air defense ‘division’ in place of a full regiment, it is simply an expanded combined arms brigade.  It’s chief accomplishment is a larger staff and a substantially larger artillery compliment than a normal brigade would have.  There is no timetable for completing this unit formation, but I suspect late 2017 is a good date to go by given the timetable for the other divisions announced.

A recap of why Russia is recreating divisions: The concept is to have an organization with the staff and logistics base that would allow brigades to send tactical battalion groups to the front, making the division a  management rung  below that of the combined arms army, i.e. Military District -> Combined Arms Army -> Division HQ-> regiment or battalion tactical group.  Brigades are too small to take in battalions from other brigades and command or support them.  Hence divisions may prove the most useful tell of where the Russian military expects the need for task organized formations.  Russia’s force structure remains in an experimental state, absorbing the experiences of the last two years, but its becoming clear that brigades remain the force generating component while divisions are the task organizing command and support structure for expected contingencies.

Turning to the far east – a new division on Chukotka is a bit of a surprise since it is about as remote piece of real estate for a base as one can find in Russia.  This will not be a combined arms division, but likely a coastal defense unit integrating various missile fires and artillery units under one command.  The principal motivation was the decision back in July 2015 to create a unified coastal defense system from Primorye to the Arctic.  It’s objective is to effect “sea control” (or in reality sea denial) over the littorals by Kuril Islands, the Bering Strait, and defend Russia’s ballistic missile submarines stationed in the Pacific Fleet.  Of note, two of Russia’s new Borei-class SSBNs have arrived to start replacing the rather ancient Delta IIIs stationed there.

Abandoned military base at Gydim.  Photo from basov chukoka.


According to the announcement the Pacific fleet had conducted a survey from April to June of this year of two Kuril islands for suitability to host garrisons, namely Matua and Paramushir.  It’s unclear how that statement connects to the formation of the division in Chukotka, except that it will likely extend coastal defense from the Kurils all the way to the Bering Strait.  Russia has already invested heavily in reinforcing the A2/AD systems on the Kuril Islands since that chain forms the outer boundary of the SSBN bastion in the Pacific.

Another photo of abandoned ‘Gydim’ an unofficial name of the military town by Anadyr where once nuclear warheads were stored, presumably in summer time, when it is more ‘cheerful’ (my implication is not that Gydim will be reactivated, or Anadyr will once more help host the division, but simply to speak to the efficacy of establishing bases in these remote regions).  Photo from Alexander Belenkiy’s blog.


Some history offered by bmpd blog on Russian military presence in Chukotka: under Stalin in 1947-53 Chukotka hosted the 14th Army, but this unit was disbanded promptly after his death.  Subsequently in the 1980s the 99th motor rifle division was based here, although it was only manned at cadre levels.  That unit was eventually disbanded in 1994.  A Russian military base in Gydim has become a ghost town, like many other Soviet towns and bases sprawling across the country’s less inhabitable regions.  It is an attraction for photo adventurers who are drawn to abandoned buildings and Soviet military infrastructure.  Photos of what was left of Russian military presence on Chukotka are illustrative of how expensive, and arguably wasteful, establishing a sizable contingent there would be.

Although it may have a stronger rationale than the string of bases in the Arctic, this plan seems to entail burying substantial money into the snow.  Those stationed on Chukotka will be able to reflect positively only on the fact that they were not stationed on Novaya Zemlya.  More than likely this new coastal defense division will also be presented as ‘Russia’s answer to NATO’ and in Western press be characterized as militarization of the Far East.  In reality it will further integrate various artillery and missile units in the region, and perhaps extend the A2/AD layer north of the Kuril island chain towards the Bering strait.

Recommended: Aleksei Ramm’s piece here, BMPD piece on the division in Chebarkul and Chukotka,  also eagle rost. Russian defense policy is always a good read.


New Russian Divisions and other units shifting to Ukraine’s borders – second look with updates

Bill Gertz’s article alleging that there were “40,000” troops massing on Ukraine’s borders inspired me to take another look at where the three planned divisions, and other unit movements stand right now.  There is quite a bit of activity and leadership announcements as part of the Russian shift to what Shoigu calls the “southwestern strategic direction.”  Essentially, a containment ring is being built circumscribing Ukraine, including large unit formations in permanent garrisons to serve as a quick reaction force in the event of a conventional war.

Some plans dating back to 2014 have already been realized, most are in progress, and several announcements are only now getting under way with completion timelines set for late 2017.  I’m underlining dates because certain people misread the May post in this blog, and I suspect other blogs on this topic, and then said that all these announced units were already in position – they are not.

At the moment Russia does not have 40,000 troops massing on Ukraine’s borders, but principally Russia’s General Staff seems to have Ukraine in mind.  The changes in force posture are designed to deal with medium-long term scenarios rather than the current conflict.  This is a large force that can effect conventional deterrence by denial, and if need be compellence, in a future crisis with Ukraine.

The reason for moving the 20th Army HQ back, resurrecting the 1st Tank Army, and creating a host of new units on Ukraine’s borders is fairly straightforward.  During the chaotic reforms 2009-2011 numerous units were consolidated or cut from the Western MD.  Others were moved further south or east.  In 2014 Russia had to improvise a combined staff of 20th and 58th Armies to put together two task forces on Ukraine’s borders.  That may have worked in February-April 2014, but its far from optimal, and simply will not do in a contingency where Russian forces need to intervene again.  Ukraine’s military is far larger in size and more capable relative to the hollowed out paper force that existed in spring of 2014.

Russian staff likely fears a ‘Croatia scenario’ whereby  Ukraine cordons off the separatist republics and then builds up an army large enough to wipe them out in a few years.  With three divisions, plus several brigades, organized under two combined arms armies (CAA) headquartered nearby, they figure it will deter future Ukrainian leaders from such adventurism.  It also places Ukraine in a geographic vice, running from Yelnya to Crimea.  It is not feasible that Ukraine will build an army capable of attacking Donbass and holding Russian units on so many fronts.  The units required to attempt an ATO 2.0 (now with a real army) would leave no defenders for other vectors of Russian attack.  Each division will be a self-sustaining strike force, ensuring that Kiev does not feel confident in the ability to retake the separatist regions through force.

A breakdown of the plans:

1.)  10th Armored Division (presumed) in Bogychar (Voronezh oblast) – When 20th Combined Arms Army moved from Mulino in Nizhegorod Oblast to Voronezh, so did 9th Motor Rifle Brigade from Dzerzhinsk to Bogychar.  This began in February 2015.  I wrote in May of this year that 1st Independent Armored Brigade will likely assume the legacy of 10th Armored Division, a move announced in July 2015.

10th Armor served in Easter Germany during the Cold War and returned in 1991.  In 2009 this division was turned into the 262nd Military Storage and Repair Base during the Serduykov period of consolidation and knocking down units in Western MD.  That base has a large stockpile and it looks like the 1st Armored Brigade will be needing it to become the 10th Armored Division.  All the divisions are likely to have a classic Soviet six regiment structure.  This unit will take into 2017  to form. So, this is a case of there and back again for the Russian army. Between 2009-2016 the process flow has been: 10th Div -> 262nd Base -> 1st Bde -> 10th Div.

Here  is a nice photo of the 262nd base in Bogychar.  It’s going to get busy with 9th Bde and a new division there.

262nd base bogychar

2.) 144th Motor Rifle Division in Yelnya (Smolensk oblast) – The plans for this unit were essentially announced back in 23 November 2014, and in September 2015 it was confirmed that a newly formed independent motor rifle brigade will return to Yelnya.  The 144th motor rifle division was once based here after being withdrawn from Estonia, disbanded in 1998, and converted into a military warehouse base.  A new unit will assume the legacy of the 144th and become the core of the announced division.

Early July of 2015 the MoD announced that this motor rifle division will be formed by second half of 2017 and be assigned to the 1st Tank Guards Army.  Second half of 2017 is optimistic since according to one paper the total military personnel expected by summer of 2017 is 6,000, of which 3,600 will be contract and officers.  It goes without saying that 6,000 is less than the 10,000 promised.  Not quite enough to fill six regiments of 3 motor rifle , 1 armor, 1 artillery, 1 air defense and the rest support units.  The expectation for 2016  is two battalions will arrive, and become two regiments in 2017, with plans to have an active tank field range by then.

The photo below is just north of Yelnya. It is a snapshot from, which I checked, but the actual image I borrowed from an Infonapalm post.

Yelnya new base forming

3.) 28th Motor Rifle Brigade in Klintsy (Bryansk Oblast), this unit is in the process of moving from Ekateriburg (Central MD) to the town of Klintsy, with lead elements arriving May 30, 2016.  A widely shared government tender, issued June 28th of this year, has shown the planned structure of the base, for what looks like a newly formed unit designated to be the 488th Motor Rifle Regiment.  This may well be the base of the division since typical Russian units are organized as brigade/battalion.  Perhaps the division itself will be headquartered further north in Yelnya, but with regiments as far south as Klintsy.  The work is slated for completion in Summer of 2017, so more than likely this unit will be stood up piecemeal over the coming year.


Which army gets what division? TASS news agency claimed that the Yelnya division will be assigned to the 1st Tank Army, but other sources suggested the unit in Klintsy, which forms the first regiment of this division,  will belong to 20th CAA.  This makes more sense, and it would be logical for the 10th Armored Division to go to 1st Tank Army, except for the fact that in the 1990s it was part  of the 20th CAA.  Back then the 20th was based in Voronezh and if Shoigu decides to ‘set right what Serduykov once set wrong’ then all must be put back in its place.

4.) 23rd Motor Rifle Brigade in Valuyki (Belgorod oblast) – This unit is moving from Samara in the Central MD as well, to a base planned to be completed by November 2016.  A government tender issued indicates that the construction is slated for 3,500 soldiers (size fits).  The brigade is composed of the following battalions: one armored, three motor rifle, two self-propelled artillery, one rocket artillery, two air defense and a host of supporting units.

This is the Valuyki base under construction.


Below is a satellite shot of the facility being built.

Vakuyki google earth image

5.) 150th Division near Novocherkassk (Rostov Oblast) –  This division was rumored to be based on the 33rd Independent Motor Rifle Brigade, but it is also said it will be formed anew without building off of an existing brigade.  This particular division will be named after the 150th Idritsk-Berlin Division, famous for raising the flag over the Reichstag in 1945.  The 33rd Bde belongs to the 49th Army in Southern MD, however the contract servicemen were moved from Maikop to Novocherkassk, so it resides in two locations at the same time.  According to the timetable, the housing for this division is being thrown up quickly using modular construction, but it too is not planned to be finished until sometime in 2017.  Whether or not the 33rd will be subsumed into this division is an outstanding question, my view is that inevitably Russia will have to consume that brigade if they are to come up with 10,000 soldiers to staff a six regiment division.

The thing is some news reports also suggested Millerovo as one of the locations for a part of this division, Novocherkassk and Millerovo are not that close to each other.  It is still unknown how spread out this division will be in Rostov oblast. This photo was widely circulated in April 2016 of a deputy minister inspecting housing construction for the division.  No timeline for when it will be ready, but given the photo’s date its safe to assume they’ve not materialized the division out of thin air between April and August.

Novocherkassk house inspection generals

This could be another shot of a base being built for the division, complete with soccer fields.

One of the bases in Rostov region.jpg

6.) Millerovo Airbase (Rostov Oblast) – The airbase has been around for years. Close to the Ukrainian border, and well positioned to provide air support to the ground units in the region. In December 2014 Millerovo saw the restoration of the 31st Fighter Regiment with Mig-29 variants.  Following October 2015 the unit is being upgraded to much more capable Su-30SM, a heavy multirole fighter.  The 31st has received 20 new Su-30SMs, which is no small feat given they’re in high demand across the air force and aerospace forces.  Today the base likely houses ~60 fighters, including 20 Su-30Sm, 32 Mig-29, and a mix of Su-27 variants.

During various times the base has hosted a fair bit of ground equipment.  There is a motorized battalion assigned to it but at times satellite footage shows it hosting a decent ground contingent.  I’ve also noticed what looks like a 3D low bandwidth surveillance radar planted there on google earth, a Nebo 55G6 (Tall Rack).  No doubt has a good look over Ukrainian skies, and decent visibility on ‘low visibility’ aircraft.

Millerovo March 2014 – fairly clear.

Millerovo wide shot March 2014

Millerovo August 2015 with a larger footprint being taken up by ground units.

Millerovo wide shot August 2015

Millerovo runway shot from March 2016 (Janes paid for AirBus sat footage)

Millerovo march 9 2016.jpg

7.) Rostov region bases – The region is packed with military bases, but a few in particular are quite vast, including staging bases for units arriving to the region and going on rotation.  Some call this Rostov One.  I’m unsure of where the title came from.

Large base/staging area between Golovinka and Vodino – this is about one third of it in the shot from google on October 2014.  The base is so large that it would take three images to do it justice.  This area was setup promptly during the start of conflict with Ukraine for self explainable reasons.  Nothing was here in late 2013 except green fields according to google earth.

staging base 3.jpg

Up close you will find a variety of units camped out there.  In this shot we have towed artillery, but there’s plenty of MLRS, and various armored vehicle types as well.

Up close of Rostov one

Persianovsky, northeast of Novocherkassk is one of many bases in the Rostov region, which hosts training fields, and numerous military equipment storage areas.  This facility has been mentioned in recent articles, erroneously, because a look on google earth shows its been here for years and has not substantially expanded.  I don’t quite understand why it is making headlines.

Persianovsky, Rostov.jpg

Conclusion: There has been a large force shift in the southwestern direction for Russia, and incidentally, nothing comparable to speak of in the Baltic region or Kaliningrad. Today most of these plans are progressing, although some announcements are only now being realized with construction tenders.  Most of the units are at least a year out from being stood up or completing their transfer to the region.  By the second half of 2017 many of the units should be in place, though likely not at full strength.  Russian leaders speak of these divisions frequently in the press, framing them as a  response to “NATO’s build up”, but its quite clear these plans long in motion before any of NATO’s recent initiatives and their purpose has little to nothing to do with the Alliance.

This is a network of garrisons designed to deter Ukraine from believing it could win a limited conventional war some years down the line.  The concept is centered around creating strike groups under the organizational framework of divisions.  Each formation is designed to handle an assault in their sector, taking in other units as necessary and supporting them in the fight.  With two CAAs, Russia intends to ring Ukraine sufficiently so as not to be concerned with the question of what a mid-long term high end fight might look like should a different leader arrive in Kiev and choose to retake the separatist regions by force.  The revival of these forces in Western and Southern MD is a permanent insurance policy for Moscow.

Special thanks to the other blogs that compile news and information, in particular for this blog: BMPD and Russian Defense Policy.  Some Ukrainian sources were helpful as well.


This article was published on War on the Rocks (June 23, 2016)

The question of how to best deter Russia looms large over the upcoming NATO Summit hosted in Warsaw.  If this week’s news is anything to go by, the annual NATO gathering promises to be an eventful one.  Germany’s Foreign Minister Steinmeier recently ridiculed the alliance’s BALTOPS exercise as “saber rattling,” while U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus defended the event.  The chief proposal for enhancing NATO deterrence on the table this year is the establishment of four multinational battalions to rotate through the Baltics, but NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Soltenberg said there was no “immediate threat against any NATO country from the East,” implying that despite being branded as a deterrent this is more about reassurance.  The past two weeks in the run up to the summit makes one wonder, what exactly are we doing here?

In my critical essay last month, I challenged the current thinking on NATO’s deterrence problems in the East, taking on prominent advocates for deploying U.S. forces in the Baltic in the quest of strengthening deterrence.  Part of that article took aim at RAND’s wargame and similar arguments from deterrence proponents like Elbridge Colby.  The goal of that article was to take one-sided policy advocacy, rarely the stuff of good decision-making, and turn it into a more substantive discussion.  In this essay, I circle back to the problem of fixing NATO deterrence and the policy implications, with a crystallized and hopefully better distilled approach to the argument.

When discussing NATO force structure, it is crucial to decide whether one can truly attain deterrence by denial. I argue that this is a fool’s errand.  The fear of a Russian fait accompli in the Baltic is simply the latest conventional wisdom, following on the foot heels of equally wrongheaded concerns that Russia would create a land bridge to Crimea in 2014 and 2015. In my view, improving deterrence by punishment is not just the smarter approach, but also the only feasible option NATO has available.

So where do we go from here?  At first glance these perspectives are diametrically opposed.  However, a closer reading of deterrence proponents’ arguments reveals to me that we are largely in agreement on the basics.  Proponents of bolstering, enhancing, or increasing the robustness of NATO’s deterrence in the Baltics are fixated on conventional deterrence by denial.  Their intent is in the right place, but their ideas for how to solve this problem are not.  In the process of defending their views, they concede all my principal points on the nature of the fight and its problems.  The difference is then in the analysis and consequently the policy recommendations.

The rest can be found at

Russia’s New Divisions in the West

On January 12th Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced the formation of three new divisions.  These are not a response to U.S. force deployments in Europe, NATO’s exercises, or the prospect of new multinational battalions in the Baltic states.  The thinking in Russia’s General Staff appears to be about a Ukrainian and Belorussian contingency, namely a second and more intense war with Ukraine or perhaps a color revolution in Belarus.  The map of where these new units will be formed is quite telling: Yelnya, Bogychar and Novocherkassk.  While NATO is busy discussing deterrence, reassurance, resolve, Russia has Ukraine on it’s mind and is implementing long discussed plans to permanently base units on Ukraine’s borders.

From Vedomosti:


What we know about the new divisions is that they be formed on the basis of existing brigades, likely not composed of new units but generated from forces already deployed in the Western Military District.  The divisions are promised to number 10,000 strong and were announced piecemeal between 2014-2016, formations to be based largely on garrisoned or newly formed independent brigades already in those regions.

1.) Bogychar, Voronezh Oblast.  This division will likely be formed on the basis of the 1st Independent Armored Brigade (not to be confused with 1st Tank Army), which will assume the legacy of the 10th Armor Division a unit that during the reforms was converted in 2009 into the 262nd military base.  The 9th independent motor rifle brigade may contribute units to this division because in February 2015 it shifted elements to Bogychar from Dzerzhinsk.  The plans for this division were first revealed in July 2015.  In September 2015 plans were also announced to build a military garrison in Belogorod for a yet undisclosed unit to be housed there, close to Ukraine’s northern border.

2.) Yelnya, Smolensk Oblast.  The plans for this division were announced back in November 2014.  In September 2015 it was said that a newly formed motor rifle brigade will return to Yelnya, where there once used to be the 144th motor rifle division withdrawn from Germany.  That unit was disbanded in 1998 and converted into a military warehouse base.  It’s possible the new unit will assume the legacy of the 144th and become the core of the announced division. Early July of 2015 the MoD announced that this motor rifle division will be formed by June of 2017 (optimistically) and be assigned to the 1st Tank Guards Army.  It’s structure will be a classic 6 regiment build, 3 motor rifle, 1 armor, 1 artillery, 1 air defense and the rest support units.

3.) Novocherkassk, Rostov Oblast.  This division is likely to be based on the 33rd Independent Motor Rifle Brigade shifted from Maikop to Rostov.  This particular division will be named after the 150th Idritsk-Berlin Division, famous for raising the flag over the Reichstag in 1945.


4th Kantemirovskaya Division training

The Return

The steady change in force posture 2013-2016 is an important overall development among Russian ground forces.  During the 2008-2012 Serdyukov military reforms, Russia reduced the number of armor and motor rifle battalions from 50 to 22 around Moscow in the Western Military District.  Most forces from Ukraine’s borders were almost completely withdrawn during the reforms, such as the 10th Armor Division that may be restored in part in Bogychar, Voronezh.

Since 2013 Russia has seen the partial return of disbanded or relocated units to the Western Military District largely based South West of Moscow near Belarus and Ukraine.  Additional brigades were created for the 20th Army, then the 1st Tank Army was formed, and following the war in Ukraine some units were brought north from the Southern Military District.  According to Sergei Shoigu’s announcement this year 30 military units have been brought back to the region, though their basing seems largely distant from NATO’s borders.  The recent history of the Western Military District can likely be divided into two periods 2009-2013, a time of demobilization and relocation of units away from Russia’s Western borders, and 2013-2016 the return of heavy ground forces in part driven by the conflict with Ukraine.

The most logical reason for bringing these units back is the Russian experience of having to put together Battalion Tactical Groups in early 2014 when deploying on Ukraine’s borders.  This was an improvised effort, combining the staff’s of 20th and 58th armies to plan out the deployments, which put together several powerful strike groups on Ukraine’s borders.  Despite their success, the process exposed two obvious problems for Russia’s Western MD.  First, Russia lacked permanently based units near Ukraine’s and Belarus’ borders, fully equipped with supporting elements allowing them to sustain a deployment.  The second was the absence of a larger formation that could take in battalions from other military districts and command them in the field, i.e. no divisional structure.  This made rotating units from Central MD and Eastern MD in the fight harder from a command perspective.  With three new divisions, Russia can now send battalion sized units to those commands, have them sort out logistics and support, or in a larger war serve as the center piece in a task organized strike group.

There and back again: divisions to brigades to divisions

What does this mean for the Russian army as a whole?  The return of divisions could be seen in line with the general walking back of Serdyukov’s reorganization, given the return of air regiments and divisions in the Air Force, back from air bases.  Similarly Shoigu restored the 4th Kantemirovskaya Armor Division and the 2nd Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division, although both are honorary division names brought back for their historical legacy.  In reality these are half divisions in the Western Military District formed around two regiments each, composing the 1st Tank Army (announced though yet to be created).  However, thinking that divisions are back in the Russian military and brigades are out is an incorrect assessment.

Russia is not sticking wholly with brigades or switching back to divisions, instead looking at a mixed force structure.  In some ways this may be reminiscent of the U.S. Marine Corps which has brigades and battalions, divisions and regiments all within one service.  A very ‘hybrid’ organization in the parlance of modern military discourse, i.e. an eclectic mix of formations and groupings.

One of the unanswered questions is whether these divisions will truly be based more on a Soviet division structure, composed of four combined arms regiments and a much larger combination of supporting units.  If so, it will take quite a bit of equipment and existing units to form them.  Alternatively, they are likely to look like the 4th and 2nd division, formed around two regiments and a host of supporting units.  These would be in effect expanded brigades, with division level command staff and larger supporting units (artillery, air-defense, etc.)

Thanks to a number of sources: BMPD, Vedomosti, Gazeta RU,, EagleRost, and others.



4000 NATO troops in the Baltics? Headlines vs reality.


If you read the article below, it would seem at first 4,000 troops are being added to those stationed in the Eastern Member Flank States (Poland + Balts)

How the news got 4000 from 4 battalions is a puzzle, since battalions are typically not 1000 strong or uniform in size from different countries/service/unit types.  They can range from 600-1000+ depending on the country and type of unit.  In reality it looks like NATO will not be sending 4 separate battalions, but likely forming multi-national battalions, perhaps together with local forces or a mix of European ones.  This would mean a military contingent with political significance, but substantially reduced military value.

With two European (German and French) battalions and two American battalions spread out between Poland and the Baltic states, the likely proposal is really for two solid American battalions to deploy to the Baltic states, perhaps as part of the newly added Armored Combat Brigade Team.  These will not be additional, but part of this third brigade already promised to deploy to Europe.  Meanwhile Germany and France are liable to send company sized elements, mixing in their units with those of others.

Supposedly the defense ministers have approved the proposal in concept, but the details will not be presented and voted on until the NATO summit in Warsaw later this year.  Hence the actual additional force set to deploy to Eastern Europe remains a question mark.  Meanwhile mixing-in and chunking up the forces with Poland makes this of little to no military significance from a Russian perspective.  Indeed it may be difficult for NATO allies themselves to discern what they’re actually getting.  The underlying intent may be to increase the presence of other NATO countries in the Baltic states, particularly those belonging to nuclear powers, but it is not clear how this is tied to any theory of deterrence vis-a-vis Russia.In discussions with Russian experts, it seems Moscow only cares about US forces in theater, finding little to no relevance in the forward deployment of German or French forces.

However, Moscow is concerned about American deployment creep, and the steady drumbeat in D.C. for more boots on the ground to bolster conventional deterrence.  With the $3.4 billion European Reassurance Initiative, the U.S. is now funding three combat brigade teams in Europe, a number which may see an increase.  Where U.S. forces are deployed geographically can have  an impact on Russian vulnerability considerations in Kaliningrad, or in the case of much larger recommendations such as RAND’s proposal for 7 brigades, St. Petersburg as well.