The ‘New Look’ Gets Old: Russian Military Reform from Georgia to Ukraine
Turner Ruggi is an undergraduate student reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian military weakness has been on full display to a global audience. Footage of Russian vehicles being stolen by farmers, or tanks picked off by artillery, was widespread in online news and even entertainment. To many viewers, the image of Russia as an intimidating military superpower was shattered by these embarrassing slip-ups. But these blunders were nothing new. In particular, embarrassing tales can be told about Russia’s failures in the 2008 invasion of Georgia as well. Tales such as Russian commanders borrowing journalists’ phones to communicate to their troops, or the hard-to-reach defence minister failing to authorise drone usage due to sheer incompetence.
The Georgia campaign was ultimately a Russian victory, but it was not as simple as the Russian military expected. The war was also a wake-up call for the Russian high command to reassess the dubious quality of their doctrine, equipment, and recruits. Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov (the same minister who failed to authorise drones) began the ‘New Look’ reforms in 2009 to pivot the military in an entirely new direction from earlier Russian and Soviet traditions. Serdyukov assessed that the military was fixated on a mass mobilisation strategy, suited for an earlier generation’s expectation of a great war between global superpowers. Serdyukov predicted that Russia’s future conflicts would not be vast fronts or grand campaigns and that the military should focus on projecting power nearby with small-scale and rapid fighting forces. According to military analyst Anton Lavrov, by following Serdyukov’s proposed reforms, the Russian forces would be rendered ‘perfectly shaped to protect its territory and project power nearby, but as the distance from the border increases, Russian military capability declines.’ Without getting lost in the New Look’s maze of details, Serdyukov’s reforms intended to direct the military towards quicker and smaller forces that were equipped with improved equipment, rather than relying on large numbers of troops alone. Russia’s bulky divisions would be split up into nimbler brigades and battalion tactical groups (BTGs) – each roughly a third of the original size – capable of speedy and flexible attacks. Quality over quantity would be the military’s new motto, as the New Look sought to increase the proportion of professional soldiers in their ranks rather than rely on untrained conscripts; communication equipment was upgraded too and reconnaissance drones were added to the new units.
The new-and-improved brigades got the chance to cut their teeth in 2014 with the seizure of Crimea and fighting in the Donbas. The mobility of these new forces was lauded as they swiftly took the Crimean Peninsula, but in Eastern Ukraine, the brigades’ weaknesses began to emerge as the smaller units simply had insufficient numbers of soldiers. Emphasising quality had come at the expense of quantity and new recruits were spread too thinly across the units. The Russian military was able to supplement their forces with local separatist troops which temporarily relieved the problem, but other failures became apparent as the units’ focus on speed rather than force and size failed to deliver military success during the bogged-down Donbas conflict.
With the brigades struggling in the face of Ukrainian resistance, and as tensions with the West rose following the 2014 Russia sanctions, Putin’s regime brought the option of frontline war back to the table. While the New Look reforms were largely left intact, the military reintroduced some bulkier divisions to complement the nimbler brigades and BTGs for mobility and flexibility.
Between 2014 and 2022, many of the reform’s modernisation and professionalisation efforts looked to be succeeding. The army began the 2022 assault with speed, attempting to knock out Kyiv within the first two weeks. Such mobile warfare was in the exact spirit of Serdyukov’s New Look, but once a hasty Russian victory failed to materialise, the military was forced backwards to more tenable positions. The New Look reforms and their focus on mobility had not been effective in either the post-2014 Donbas fighting or in the initial rapid assault on Ukraine. In both cases, the wear and attrition of large-scale fighting undermined the technology and speed advantage of Russia’s forces. The reforms also had glaring design weaknesses, such as the BTGs - even the fully equipped BTGs were not able to fight in lengthy and intense combat along an extended frontline, according to U.S. Army analysts Charles Bartles and Lester Grau. Additionally, much like in the post-2014 Donbas fighting, many BTGs were only partly staffed leaving advanced equipment underutilised. As a result, in late 2022 the BTGs were eradicated and the military returned to larger divisions of soldiers. Speed and high-quality equipment had failed in Ukraine, and the New Look reforms were crumbling.
Looking ahead, we can expect Russia to further embrace the counter-reforms and slide deeper into the pre-2009 mass mobilisation doctrine. However, the return to a quantity-intensive military style has problematic political consequences. Firstly, it relies on greater conscription. The risk of serious domestic resistance to the Putin regime is low and the blowback from expanding the draft may not be significant, but there is a larger, long-term issue: conscription will spur more young and educated people to emigrate, worsening Russia’s demographic crisis. There are further substantial economic harms to returning to mass mobilisation. Some analysts have suggested that mass mobilisation can only be sustained with greater state control over industry. Alexsandr Golts of the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies argues that ‘[o]nly industry arranged in a certain way can provide a mass mobilisation army with the huge amounts of weapons and military equipment it needs’ and that a more Soviet-style planned economy (directing industry away from consumers) is required for ramping up military production. As industry is redirected to the needs of the armed forces, the Russian economy will worsen and the nation will be isolated further. The State Duma has already authorised a law giving firms 'no right to refuse to conclude state contracts.' Putin’s effort to salvage his armed forces will have long-lasting repercussions on Russia’s economic prospects.
Serdyukov’s reforms and the subsequent counter-reforms have failed to revive the Russian military because their greatest weakness is not the shape of the divisions nor the number of recruits, but rather the chain of command. In the United States, military high command gives lower-ranking officers far greater responsibility for how to act. If an American general orders the capture of a town, commanders on the ground will assess the best means to achieve this objective and are given considerable freedom to carry out their mission. Meanwhile, if a Russian general orders the capture of a town they will also specify exactly how the siege must be accomplished. The ‘controlling’ attitude of the Russian high command is considerably less flexible and leaves responsibility to those who may not entirely understand the fighting’s complexities. A recent report from the Royal United Services Institute found that the Russian military culture reinforces failure unless orders are changed at a senior level. This critique is not new: When Serdyukov first implemented the New Look reforms, he explicitly sought a more decentralised command structure to complement the smaller and more flexible brigades he imagined. However, such a change was too radical for the Russian military establishment. As a result, Serdyukov’s reforms were lacking in bite.
Politics makes this command structure even messier. The division of authority between the Russian General Staff (the central command of the military) and the Ministry of Defence has always been blurred. The Putin autocracy has also introduced considerable palace intrigue to the high command as generals are shifted around with no obvious strategic logic. For example, in January 2023 General Gerasimov was given command of the war, replacing the experienced General Surovikin. According to Russian military expert Dara Massicot, ‘they have taken someone who is competent and replaced him with someone who is incompetent, but who has been there a long time and who has shown that he is loyal.’ The Wagner rebellion and Putin’s decision to lock up Surovikin reiterate how court intrigue is distracting the war effort. Political meddling was also a factor in the chaotic initial invasion as the war was planned by Putin and a small group of advisors, while many senior generals were not consulted and officers were not informed of battle plans until the last minute. In the build-up to the war, corruption had hollowed out the Russian military as officers frequently lied about reaching recruitment or modernisation targets to pocket the bonuses and steal supplies. These issues run deeper than any military reform can reach and require broader system change – which Putin will certainly not broach.
The Russian armed forces are in need of serious change, and fortunately for the Ukrainians such reform is nowhere in sight. Serdyukov’s New Look has been picked apart such that only the modernisation effort remains. The war against Ukraine will push Russia deeper into old-school military thinking, while corruption and political interference will exact a growing toll on the war effort. These weaknesses are entrenched in the military establishment and for the foreseeable future, Putin will continue to grapple with his army’s limitations.