Chapter Review: Russian military reform and lessons learned in Ukraine

Chapter Review: Russian military reform and lessons learned in Ukraine

In a chapter of the Jamestown Foundation’s upcoming book on the Russian military, Roger McDermott argues that the ongoing process of military reform in Russia is closely informed by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. While the Kremlin still denies its direct involvement, McDermott argues that publicly available information is sufficient to decipher the lessons that Russia’s Armed Forces have learned in Donbass.

In his chapter for the upcoming book Russian Military Strategy and Doctrine from the Jamestown Foundation, senior fellow and in-house expert on post-Soviet space security Roger McDermott takes on a daunting task – trying to understand the lessons from a war that officially does not exist. Ever since the beginning of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine in early 2014, Moscow has consistently denied any involvement on the ground, although observers have clearly identified several moments where the Ukrainian government forces suddenly suffered very heavy losses that could only be explained by Russian interventions. According to McDermott, these and other episodes from the war in Donbass have served as rich sources of new information that Russian defense authorities used to make adjustments in a number of areas ranging from ground forces organization to combat equipment procurement.

While the author describes deciphering these lessons as a lot like looking at the shadows on the wall, he provides a very insightful analysis of motivations behind military reform in Russia that began in late 2000s and how its direction appears to be informed by new information from the battleground. In the past decade, the Russian military has been involved in three armed conflicts and McDermott argues that each of these provided certain and tractable insights.

In particular, he notices that the vague terms describing the direction of military reform become much more focused after the Five Day War with Georgia exposed some weak points of Russian army. According to the author, this conflict served as a trigger that justified declaring the shift from the principle of “mass mobilization” to “permanent readiness” and improving organizational structure through reducing the number of command tiers.

As for the war in the Donbass, McDermott shows that Russian military officials put an even larger emphasis on the development of command structure that could enable low-scale combat units operate in a more autonomous way in the so called fragmented battlefield. This language appears to be consistent with the idea of hybrid war that has become a buzzword associated with the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In author’s view, one of the lessons that Russian military has drawn from Donbass is that relying on proxy forces is costly due to agency problem, as they often pursue their own goals in the anarchic environment on the ground. At the most critical times, Russian regular army had to step in, and the success of those moves seemingly reinforced the military authorities’ commitment to pursue the development of ground forces that focus on fast action under seamless command system.

The chapter by Roger McDermott provides a rich collection of details and would be an interesting read to those following the security situation along Russia’s borders. While the development of Russian military is still happening largely outside of the scope of most Western observers,  the author appears to be following the shadows on the wall closely enough and his insights are worthy of expert attention.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Yaroslav Makarov

Yaroslav Makarov has worked as a political and economics reporter for two leading Russian news agencies and spent five years as a foreign correspondent in Japan. Yaroslav is a candidate for a master's in international affairs at University of California, San Diego, and is a fellow at the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.