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a newly formed motor rifle brigade will return to Yelnya, where there once used to be the 144th motor rifle division withdrawn from Germany.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.