Category Archives: Civil-Military Relations

The Latest Arsenal Fire

Russia’s latest military arsenal tragedy is a new chapter in an unfinished book. What follows isn’t so much news as context you haven’t seen.

According to Interfaks-AVN, a woman died on October 10 from severe injuries received from the fire and explosions which began October 7 in Ryazan oblast. Another 15 victims are reportedly stable with serious burns, injuries, or chronic conditions aggravated by smoke inhalation.

A grass fire was inexplicably allowed to reach the ammo dumps at military unit 55443 near Zheltukhino in Skopinskiy region, and it ignited munitions in open storage. It’s unclear whether the Russian MOD’s Main Missile and Artillery Directorate (GRAU) or the Western MD is responsible for the unit at present. Neither wants to be for certain.

Interfaks-AVN indicated the arsenal (once maybe the GRAU’s 97th Arsenal) consists (or consisted) of 113 warehouses and bunkers with 75,000 tons of missiles, rockets, and artillery shells (a “large portion” of which were 152-mm high-explosive fragmentation).

Munitions from other Russian Army ammo dumps were being collected at Zheltukhino, according to Komsomolskaya pravda.

More than 2,300 people living near the depot were evacuated.

Four VTA Il-76 aircraft, and one Mi-26 and one Mi-8 helicopter were used against the fire as water tankers, TVZvezda reported. Izvestiya said five helos. In 36 fixed and 763 rotary-wing flights, they dropped 4,700 tons of water on the flames.

Izvestiya added that 650 servicemen and nearly 200 pieces of equipment — including 120 EOD personnel and 32 special vehicles (likely Uran-6 and Uran-14 robotic mine clearance vehicles) — were used to battle the fire.

Russian media reported the fire was localized on the evening of October 8 and controlled on October 10.

Kommersant reported the fire and explosions damaged 430 structures, public facilities, apartment buildings, and private homes. If not completely burned down, they have broken windows, partially collapsed roofs, and damaged walls. More than 500 families received 10,000 rubles in immediate emergency funds from the RF government.

Izvestiya relayed some (but not all) of the history of Russia’s recent arsenal fires.

A major fire and explosions rocked the 31st Arsenal and the city of Ulyanovsk in 2009.

A fire and explosions at Pugachevo, Udmurtia in 2011 caused the evacuation of 30,000 people and damaged 3,000 buildings. But Pugachevo (GRAU’s 102nd Arsenal) proved a persistent problem; new fires and explosions occurred there in 2013, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

There were other disasters in 2011 — at the 99th Arsenal in Bashkiria and in Ashuluk where six troops died and 12 were hurt. In 2012, there were two fires with explosions in Orenburg and one in Primorye.

Then soon-to-be ex-minister of defense Serdyukov exerted some serious control over Russian munitions storage and dismantlement. But this came too late and, along with his other problems, made him expendable to the Kremlin.

In early 2012, Deputy Defense Minister Dmitriy Bulgakov said the military planned to complete 35 modern arsenals, outfitted with hundreds of bunkers, before 2015 for 90 billion rubles. It also began explosive destruction of a large quantity of outdated munitions. Work on new ammo storage continued through 2018.

But the MOD hasn’t been able to catch up with the problem. It hasn’t offered a comprehensive assessment of the construction effort. So it’s safe to conclude it’s taking longer and accomplishing less than what’s needed.

A couple cases in point. On August 5, 2019, the ammo depot in Achinsk, Krasnoyarsk territory burned. About 16,000 people living within a 20-km radius had to be evacuated. One person died and 40 were injured.

On May 9, 2020, a grass fire ignited small caliber ammo at Pugachevo. The fire covered 15 hectares, but was put out without a disaster like previous incidents there.

Getting Weirder

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s “government hour” performance before the Federation Council (or Senate), the upper house of Russia’s national legislature, is interesting for several reasons.

Shoygu in the FC

But nothing is more interesting than Shoygu’s brief, unexpected paranoid tirade against RF citizens audacious enough to want to know what their military is doing.

Shoygu described the “information space” as a TVD in its own right. One in which the RF Armed Forces have suffered 25,000 computer infrastructure attacks from abroad in three years. “All attacks,” he reported, “are neutralized.” Of course.

The countries of the West, he said, are purveyors of “fake news” that Russia interfered in America’s elections, conducted hacker attacks, covered up combat losses, and the like.

But it gets weirder. Shoygu says:

In our country a pro-Western opposition battalion, regularly trained abroad, scoops it [“fake news”] up. Hiding behind media laws, its activists try to infiltrate military facilities, hunt down relatives and witnesses. They thrust themselves into hospitals where our wounded lie, into cemeteries, into wakes. They photograph entrances and exits of our closed bases and upload them on the Internet. You can imagine the account they would be brought to in the countries of the West.

This sphere requires further legislative regulation.

Whoa. Surprising even after 20 years of Putin and ever tightening manual control. Are the gates of those bases really state secrets? No, this is all perfectly legal and normal in a Western democracy. Truly bizarre.

Of course, Mr. Shoygu is intensely irritated by Bellingcat, CIT, etc. and their success in uncovering Russian deeds and misdeeds in Ukraine, Syria, or Libya. He certainly can’t accept that this is independent civic activism. Instead he believes their researchers and investigators are paid Western agents.

As Kommersant indicates, however, Russian journalists believe the Defense Minister’s words are really aimed at them. Shoygu doesn’t like them writing about Russian troops fighting and dying in Ukraine. He doesn’t care for their reporting on Russian SSO troops or mercs in Syria or Libya. Or GRU assassination squads in Europe.

Shoygu would like to squeeze military journalism down to nothing. So nothing untoward ever gets publicized. He’d be happy if the MOD’s official channels were the sole source of information on the Russian military.

Russian Union of Journalists chairman Vladimir Solovyev had this response:

One could understand the minister if someone, somewhere inadvertently exposed military secrets or related something the military department didn’t like. But on the other hand, according to the law on media, journalists have the right to fulfill their duty and write about what they believe is necessary in order to inform the public about situations including those connected with the military department.

It gets better:

[If] some people infiltrate, like Western agents, then this is the business of the FSB and counterintelligence, not the journalistic community. It’s understood that representatives of Western special services can come to us posing as journalists. It’s not a secret that representatives of our special services worked and work abroad posing as journalists. It happens.

Chairman of Putin’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights until last October, Mikhail Fedotov also reacted:

Our Constitution gives every citizen the right to freely search for, collect and distribute information. This doesn’t apply just to journalists. If we’re talking about limiting the right of journalists to search for information, then change the Constitution. It’s the second chapter, and I want to recall the words of President Putin about how this chapter has to operate in unchanged form for several decades longer. Because it affects everyone.

If Sergey Shoygu has complaints about journalists, there are many different authorities to sort them out. There are courts, there is the Public Collegium for Press Complaints. It’s always possible to go there.

Blessing the Bomb?

Blessing a Su-34 and its weapons in Volgodonsk

Blessing a Su-34 and its weapons in Volgodonsk

The debate over the propriety of Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) priests blessing Russian bombs and weapons of mass destruction (OMP) is heating up.

According to Interfaks, first deputy chief of the synod’s public relations and media department Aleksandr Shchipkov has expressed disagreement with a possible ban on the consecration of certain types of armaments.

Early this month Meduza reported the ROC’s Inter-Council Presence (an advisory body that helps draft church policy) suggested ending the practice of consecrating some conventional weapons and OMP. Its proposal will considered until at least June 1. The Presence argued that consecrating armaments doesn’t reflect the church’s traditions and should be “abolished from pastoral practice.”

The debate on blessing bombs apparently began last summer.

Interfaks reported that the proposed ban would stop the consecration of weapons which can kill “untold numbers of people” as well as “indiscriminate weapons and weapons of mass destruction.”

Priest consecrates mobile ICBM launchers

Priest consecrates mobile ICBM launchers

Shchipkov, however, said:

The essential motive of the document’s text really separates the soldier from his weapon, asserting, figuratively speaking, that it’s possible to bless the armor, but not the sword. But the Church can’t bless the man and his mission halfway . . . . Including the topic of banning the blessing of this or that type of weapon on the political agenda is an indirect blow to the people’s trust in the army and to the country’s sovereignty.

Responding to the biblical call to “turn the other cheek” against violence, Shchipkov said, “We have a right to turn our own cheek, but we are obligated to protect the cheek of those close to us.”

He claimed a ban on consecrating arms will be viewed as a sign of weakness by Russia’s enemies. (Seriously? Does he think blessing them makes the country stronger?)

Addressing nuclear weapons specifically, Shchipkov concluded:

It’s not necessary for us to repent an inclination toward the unjustified use of nuclear forces. It remains for us to say only that our policy of reasonable defense sufficiency lies in the mainstream of Christian principles.

We recall that military duty is highly valued in Orthodoxy. A weapon is sanctified by serving just and noble aims just as is any involuntary use of force. The subject of discussion should be the purposes of bearing and employing arms not blessing them. It’s important precisely who and how a weapon is used and with what intentions, but not specifically what he uses. Arms themselves don’t kill, but the people using them do, therefore it’s absurd to evaluate a weapon by the degree of its “morality.”

Wouldn’t want to spin into debating just war theory, etc. Suffice it to say it’s interesting that the Russians are discussing it. The argument’s been going on in the West since the dawn of the nuclear age.

Nevertheless, the image of Russian Orthodox priests sprinkling holy water on ICBM launchers isn’t a particularly good look for them, the Russian military, or the Kremlin. At least to Western eyes. But the average Ivan probably doesn’t worry about it too much.

Because of the ROC’s traditional subservience to the state, look for the church to go as Vladimir Putin indicates. That means more tanks will get sprinkled. 

“Chekist” Matovnikov

On January 22, President Putin appointed General-Lieutenant Aleksandr Matovnikov to be Deputy CINC of the Ground Troops. He had been Polpred in the North Caucasus Federal District since mid-2018 and Commander of Special Operations Forces (SSO) from 2015 to 2018. 

Matovnikov as general-major next to Putin

54-year-old Matovnikov was born in Moscow, the son of a career KGB officer from the 7th Directorate (Surveillance). His father was retired after destroying incriminating KGB documents when the ill-fated August 1991 putsch against Gorbachev collapsed.

In 1986, the younger Matovnikov graduated from the KGB Border Guards Higher Military-Political School in suburban Moscow. At his father’s request, he received a highly desirable posting to the 7th Directorate’s Alfa anti-terrorist group. He served in a motorized Alfa unit operating with Soviet Border Guards reportedly to interdict weapons and drugs smuggled from Afghanistan into Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

Matovnikov served on Gorbachev’s security detail in Washington in 1987 and 1988. He went on to become first deputy chief of the FSB’s Directorate A (Alfa).

He fought in both Chechen wars, including involvement in hostage rescues in Budennovsk in 1995, Dubrovka in 2002, and Beslan in 2004. In Chechnya, he got the nickname “Chekist” (“state security man”).

Matovnikov was in charge of Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov’s security. Kadyrov was assassinated in a 2004 bombing. Matovnikov reportedly got on good terms with Kadyrov’s son Ramzan, the republic’s strongman and possible hitman against those who impugn Mr. Putin.

In 2013, Matovnikov transferred from the FSB to the Ministry of Defense as Deputy Commander, SSO, then Commander in 2015.

In 2018, news outlet Rbc.ru wrote:

Like many Alfa men, Matovnikov then went into a new structure attached to the General Staff — the Special Operations Forces (SSO), which unlike conventional armed forces sub-units could act in covert military operations abroad without the approval of the Council of the Federation. At first Matovnikov became Deputy Commander of the SSO, then headed them after the departure of Aleksey Dyumin in December 2015 for the post of Deputy Defense Minister. Matovnikov built the SSO structure in the image and likeness of Alfa — the equipping and requirements on personnel were the same as for officers in the former service . . . .

Matovnikov, Dyumin, and the SSO were instrumental in Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and likely also in the invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Matovnikov received his Hero of the Russian Federation from Putin in 2017 for his time in Syria. He became a two-star general on February 22, 2018.

In mid-2018, RF President Putin selected Matovnikov to be his Plenipotentiary Representative in the North Caucasus Federal District.

Rbc.ru continues:

. . . in the past he participated in specops in Syria, Africa and Ukrainie, but also parallel to his service in the SSO he was attached to the president [Putin] for special assignments, noted a former colleague of Matovnikov. “In [Matovnikov’s] circle, they talk about him as one of the siloviki close to the President — he regularly met Vladimir Putin at Vnukovo Airport and enjoyed his personal trust. It’s possible they decided to try the combat officer in civilian service [as Polpred], in economic work with the aim of a federal political career as they did with Dyumin in his time,” one Alfa veteran told RBK (Aleksey Dyumin at the beginning of 2016 was appointed Governor of Tula oblast). A source close to the Polpred in the SKFO [North Caucasus Federal District] confirmed for RBK that Matovnikov was an officer attached to the president for special assignments.

Matovnikov in mufti sporting his Hero of the Russian Federation

After just 18 months as Polpred, Putin sent him back to the MOD as Deputy CINC of Ground Troops, replacing 63-year-old General-Colonel Aleksandr Lentsov, who became Adviser to the RF Defense Minister — a familiar sinecure one step closer to retirement.

Matovnikov is married with two young children as well as an adult daughter from his previous marriage.

What do we make of the Mr. Matovnikov?

He’s an older, paler reproduction of Dyumin with differences. He’s seven years older and, though cut from the same KGB cloth, he’s Alfa not FSB-FSO-SBP — or Presidential Security Service — like Dyumin, who was Putin’s personal bodyguard and assistant. Many were quick to claim Putin was grooming Dyumin as his successor.

In fact, Putin is probably having auditions for men like Matovnikov and Dyumin to see if they are fit for bigger things. They are loyal KGB types who share Putin’s mentality. This may say more about Putin.

As Brian Taylor has concluded in his insightful The Code of Putinism, since 2015-2016, Putin has been shifting away from old, long-time colleagues who supported Team Putin for many years toward younger, less independent security service veterans who answer to him only. He may be seeking men willing to protect his freedom and fortune and keep him as president-for-life effectively. They could prevent Putin from becoming a future Ceausescu or Qaddafi.

Dyumin was Deputy Minister of Defense for just weeks before moving to Tula where he’s been governor for about 3-1/2 years. Matovnikov’s stint as Polpred was brief for a region as complex as the North Caucasus. Perhaps his stay with the Ground Troops will be brief too before he moves to another fully political post.

The insertion of a former KGB man and SSO veteran into the Ground Troops makes one think Putin wants dramatic and decisive victories, not just plodding, predictable daily management of preparations for wars Russia isn’t likely to fight. As such, Matovnikov is probably pretty unwelcome where senior Russian Army officers have toiled their entire careers.

Toy Soldiers

Cadets at the Tula Suvorov Military School

Tula Suvorov Military School Cadets

In NVO, historian Stanislav Ivanov asks how much “cadetization” of Russia’s youth is justified? Even a good thing like military education for the young, he says, shouldn’t be taken to extremes.

A 2012 Duma roundtable concluded that cadet, Suvorov, and Nakhimov schools weren’t well-regulated legally, and lacked unified teaching plans, programs, and content, according to Ivanov who works as a researcher at IMEMO. Standard uniforms, diplomas, and professional qualification documents were absent except in the case of MOD-run Suvorov and Nakhimov schools.

There are, Ivanov writes, 31 educational institutions for boys and girls operating under MOD auspices, more than 3,500 other cadet-type organizations (cadet corps or cadet schools under different ministries, departments, and RF territorial components), 150 specially-named educational institutions, and 51,000 “cadet classes.” The latter are a cadet-type program run in a civilian school. Junior ROTC on steroids.

Ivanov notes that the concept of cadet education is supposed to be a unified, targeted process of indoctrination and learning in the historical tradition of Russian cadet corps. He continues:

But the time has come to bring order to the chaotic and fragmented system of cadet education, to bring it into some kind of standard and legalization in the relevant law.

As a 1964 Suvorov graduate, Ivanov says he wants to analyze the pros and cons of the accelerating large-scale “cadetization” and militarization of Russia’s young generation.

The first nine Suvorov Military Schools opened in 1943 as part of the answer to thousands of pre-school and school-age children left without parents or relatives during the Great Patriotic War. Soon there were 22, and students included not just orphans, but sons of military officers and CPSU officials. In 1975, however, they were reduced to just eight Suvorov schools and one Nakhimov school.

The military schools fulfilled their purpose, according to Ivanov. Many students became generals, thousands became senior officers, and still others occupied important state posts. They served in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria. Current General Staff Chief Valeriy Gerasimov graduated from the Kazan Suvorov Military School. The end of the Cold War, however, took away many reasons for conflict with the West. So Ivanov writes:

In these conditions, the process of such large-scale militarization of the childhood and adolescence of Russia’s young generation does not seem entirely understandable. In fact, the number of children, boys and girls dressed in military uniform compared with wartime and post-war times has already grown not dozens or hundreds, but a thousand times. Some have to live in closed military-training institutions, practically in barracks conditions. From my own experience, I know how it is separating children from their families, from their homeland, friends, comrades, national customs and traditions. All early limits on freedom of movement and personal life, barracks life and drill don’t contribute to the harmonious development of an individual. And there are serious doubts about the possibility of picking up hundreds of thousands of decent officers, warrant officers, civilian teachers and educators for such a number of cadets. Local authorities and chiefs of cadet schools don’t always correctly understand the specifics of the child’s worldview. So at the cadet induction ceremony in Zlatoust they showed young students techniques for dispersing mass protests in a demonstration provided by FSIN [Federal Prison Service] Spetsnaz. Officials called the performance “vivid and spectacular,” noting that it was conducted in the framework of the program on “patriotic indoctrination of civilian youth.”

Ivanov is referring to the video below.

As Novaya gazeta described, the exhibition was primarily for the “benefit” of the fifth grade “cadet class” in uniform at right.

There are, Ivanov continues, many important and necessary professions besides military or government service. And in addition to normal school programs, those who dream of a military career can study military history, visit military museums and firing ranges, or participate in military games, without being isolated from their families. It’s not obligatory to go around constantly in military uniform or live in a barracks. So many prosecutors, investigators, police, baliffs, and customs officials are wearing military uniforms today that it has lowered the uniform’s significance in Russian society to some degree. Obviously, veterans of war and military service don’t altogether accept the sight of juveniles bedecked with medals and badges received for participating in parades or other ceremonial events.

Ivanov concludes:

. . . the mass “cadetization” or militarization of Russia’s children today is not justified by anything and is rather temporary, the state is simply trying to simplify the indoctrination process. It seems officials have found in cadets a replacement for the Young Pioneers and Komsomol and suggest to society through the media and education system that enemies once again surround Russia and are preparing to conquer it from without. So they’ve dressed millions of little Russians in military uniforms and are trying to indoctrinate them in the spirit of devotion to the authorities.

If a law on cadet educational institutions were adopted, Ivanov says it should strictly limit them in number, regulate their programs, uniforms, and rules for wearing them. A more limited number of schools could even improve the quality of the students. Meanwhile, other “military-applied” activities could be upgraded so youth can participate without having to leave their families for the dorm or barracks of a cadet school.

A thought-provoking article. One wonders if some parents resort to cadet schools because of underfunding and poor conditions in civilian schools. Education, like health care, isn’t exactly a regime priority. Interesting too that Ivanov doesn’t even mention Putin’s 600,000-strong Yunarmiya including both cadets and many students not enrolled in cadet schools.

Shamanov Disputes Defense Spending

Shamanov addressing the Duma in 2018.PNG

Shamanov addressing the Duma in 2018

Former VDV commander General-Colonel Vladimir Shamanov’s Defense Committee has criticized the RF government in advance of the first Duma reading of the federal budget for 2020 (and plan for 2021-2022). The committee accused the government of steadfastly “ignoring the army’s needs” — pay for MOD civilians, military pensions, housing, and fuel specifically — in its spending proposals.

Russian media reported the committee’s complaints were spelled out in writing. The legislature will discuss the government budget on October 23.

Committee chairman Shamanov addressed the low wages of the MOD’s 900,000 civilian workers. 

Civilian workers of the MOD march for worthy pay in 2018.jpg

Civilian MOD workers march for “worthy” pay in 2018

As numerous as uniformed officers and soldiers, civilian defense employees are critical to Russia’s military but their pay only averages around 30,000 rubles ($470) per month against 46,000 rubles ($718) elsewhere in the economy, Gazeta.ru reported.

They received a three percent increase on October 1 but, coming so late in the year, it offset only a quarter of this year’s inflation (4%).

The Defense Committee claimed the current average military pension in 2020 will be 23,500 rubles ($368), and has declined 20 percent in recent years because it hasn’t always been adjusted for inflation, wrote Rossiyskaya gazeta.

[NB: Cumulative inflation for the period 2012-2018 in Russia was over 60 percent.]

The committee reminded the government that President Putin promised retirees in 2012 they would get inflation plus two percent to preserve their buying power. It asked for a 6.3 percent pension increase next year.

The MOD’s mortgage savings system for servicemen was lacking 92 billion rubles ($1.4 billion) at the start of this year, the committee said. The mortgage system depends on government contributions and won’t function without this financing.

The military budget also did not contain enough money for other servicemen and their families who depend on MOD rent subsidies.

According to Gazeta.ru, the committee proposed adding 145 billion rubles ($2.3 billion) to close the gaps in the provision of military housing in 2020. But the RF government did not include this funding in the budget bill.

The Defense Committee also reported the MOD owes 7 billion rubles ($110 million) for fuel this year, and the draft three-year budget contains money for only 1.57 million tons against the 2.1 million tons the military will need. Shamanov and company say the MOD will need an extra 20 billion rubles ($314 million) for this, according to Interfaks-AVN.

Speaking to Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer, conservative military commentator Konstantin Sivkov said:

It’s easy to find resources for these needs. Even if we don’t cut their pay, but just the bonuses of the top managers of state corporations, we’d find money for military pensions, and for medicine, and for housing subsidies. According to official data, they amounted to 67 billion rubles [$1 billion] for just the one year 2018.

Why Mr. Shamanov and his committee took on these particular issues isn’t clear. They didn’t tackle pay increases for active duty servicemen who are still several years behind the rate of inflation. They didn’t challenge spending on weapons systems, but then large parts of the defense budget are still secret.

They challenged the government (an easy target) rather than President Putin (a dangerous one). Shamanov and the majority of his committee are members of the party of Putin — United Russia.

Kind of a curious moment for the Russian legislature to offer some checks and balances to Russia’s executive branch.

Lonely Lama

Russian media covering the armed forces still have moments. Take Ulan-Ude’s Buryaad UnenHat tip to bmpd for covering dambiev who in turn covered this Buryat piece.

Lonely Lama

Buryaad Unen told the story of the Russian military’s only Buddhist “chaplain” — Bair Batomunkuyev. Bair Lama has served six years as “assistant to the commander for work with religious servicemen” (troop priest) in Kyakhta’s 37th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade.

He was a conscript repairing communications in a radar unit in Yakutia from 1988 to 1990. He wasn’t a very observant Buddhist as a youth although he went with his grandmother to pray at holy places and learned mantras from her.

While serving, he nearly froze to death in a snowstorm and is convinced he survived by thinking of his grandmother and repeating prayers she taught him. A search party rescued him.

He finished his military time and went to study at the Buddhist monastery in Ivolginsk, not far from Ulan-Ude. His grandmother was very happy.

In 2003-2004, Bair Lama answered a request from Kyakhta’s border guards detachment for “spiritual support.” In 2012, the MR brigade offered him a position.

He has met other “priests” working in his capacity, mainly Russian Orthodox of course. According to him, there are three Muslims serving as “assistant commanders for work with religious believers” but only one Buddhist. There are, he says, many Buddhist servicemen and they serve well. Buryat-tankers regularly win prizes in the annual Tank Biathalon, according to Bair.

Bair Lama says the situation in his formation is normal and orderly. He reports directly to the brigade commander, but also to the chief of the section for work with religious servicemen in the Eastern MD staff.

The interviewer asks Bair if the army contradicts his religious convictions given Buddhism’s principles of non-violence and compassion for all living things. He responds:

“The security of my family and relatives, our peoples and state is in the balance. As Napoleon Bonaparte said: ‘A people not wishing to feed its own army will soon have to feed a foreign one.'”

“Absolute pacifism is not characteristic of Buddhism for a follower of Buddha’s Teaching will not remain a passive and passionless bystander of evil and violence, but actively opposes it with compassion for all living things. One of the manifestations of this principle closest to us in time is the participation of Buddhists in the Great Patriotic War. Not just lay Buddhists but even ordained monk-lamas who’d received a Buddhist education without reservation took up weapons and went to war. By the same token, Buddhist Teaching doesn’t impose restrictions on carrying out military service in peacetime. The weapon in itself is not terrible and the nature of the action (peaceful or wrathful by necessity) is not important, but the motivation (compassion toward living things), the essence (goodness) and the purpose of the action (the good of living things).”

How many Russian Federation citizens are Buddhist? Hard to say. Maybe as few as 700,000 or as many as 1.5 million. The Kremlin may not even have an accurate estimate.

The largest concentrations are in Buryatia, Tuva, and Kalmykia. Their combined populations are about 1.5 million. Obviously not all their residents are Buddhists, and, similarly, not all Buddhists in the Russian Federation live those regions.

The number 700,000 is likely an underestimate; 1.5 million might be correct or just somewhat inflated.

Recall that former defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov started putting clergymen in MOD units to promote better order, discipline, and inter-ethnic accord. They were somewhat intended to replace deputy commanders for “socialization” work — old zampolits — that Serdyukov dismissed to shrink the officer corps.

The first Russian Orthodox priests became “assistant commanders for work with religious believers” in 2010. In 2017, the ROC reported there were 176 priests attached to military units with another 45 in the pipeline.

But only three mullahs? One lama? No rabbis?

From the outset the Russian MOD said clergy would be appointed, probably to brigades and divisions, on a proportional basis. That presupposed (probably unreasonably) comprehensive knowledge of the beliefs of Russian Federation soldiers as a group.

The numbers 3, 1, and 0 are clearly not proportional. In 2009, the MOD figured 90 percent of clergymen in the ranks would be Orthodox priests. But with 20 million Muslims living in the RF, Muslim troops are certainly underserved with just three mullahs in the ranks. The Eastern MD itself said 8 percent of its spring conscripts in 2016 were Muslim and 4 percent Buddhist.

But the MOD’s avoidance of mono-ethnic (and mono-religious) units and its extraterritoriality policy (not allowing draftees to serve in their home regions) have mixed conscripts from many areas and ensured that Russians (and Orthodox Christians) predominate in any military unit. Hence, if there’s any priest, he’s ROC.

Taking it further though, three mullahs and one lama tells us there may be, at least, three predominately Muslim units and one “Buddhist” (Buryat or Tuvan) unit in the RF Armed Forces.

Under Serdyukov, the MOD toyed with forming mono-ethnic units to end frequent conflict between Russian troops and soldiers from Dagestan. Perhaps some majority Muslim units were formed. Which ones are hard to say. But under Sergey Shoygu, the MOD definitely formed a majority Tuvan (likely majority Buddhist) formation — Kyzyl’s 55th Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade (Mountain), but it doesn’t have its own lama.

Bair Lama’s position tells us the 37th IMRB in Kyakhta is a majority Buryat, majority Buddhist formation. Kalmykia, though majority Buddhist, basically has no MOD units.

It seems safe to conclude the Russian MOD doesn’t have much intention to go further with mono-ethnic or mono-religious units, or to put more clergymen out among the troops except Orthodox priests.

His Greatest Achievement?

Putin chairing Military-Industrial Commission session in Rybinsk on April 25, 2017 (photo Kremlin.ru)

Putin chairing Military-Industrial Commission session in Rybinsk on April 25, 2017 (photo: Kremlin.ru)

In the most recent iteration of what is basically an annual poll, Levada asked respondents to select one answer to the following question:  “What would you call the main achievement of Vladimir Putin during his years in power?”

Some 17 percent of those polled picked “Increasing combat capability and reform of the armed forces.”  It was the top response in this year’s poll.

Below find the reaction to this response over time.

Putin's Greatest Achievement The Military.

Positive reaction to this choice scuffled along for years.  Just three percent of those polled picked it in the waning months of Anatoliy Serdyukov’s tenure as minister of defense.  It jumped, however, to 8 percent in August 2014, following the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.  It reached 14 percent a year after Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war.

External events greatly influence this particular Levada poll.

For instance, in early 2008, 21 percent of respondents said Putin’s greatest achievement was “Economic development of the country.”  Two years later, following the recession of 2008-2009, only 12 percent could agree with this.  And, seven years later, that number is still 12.

Even in mid-2009, 22 percent said Putin’s greatest trick was “Increasing the standard of living of citizens, growth of wages and pensions.”  That number now stands at 8 percent.

Unfortunately, some responses seem eternal.

Typically only 1 percent or less of those polled pick “Defense of democracy and political freedoms of citizens” or “Improving relations between people of different nationalities in Russia.”

In this iteration of the poll, 8 percent indicated that they don’t see any achievements and 4 percent found it hard to say.

The 17 percent response on the military is good news for Putin.  As for many regimes, it’s an easy place to score points with the average citizen.  Other arenas are more complicated.  But the Kremlin has successfully managed a turnaround in the perception of the armed forces.

The problem is events can erode high poll numbers.  For the Russian military, they could include things like a large-scale attack on Russian forces in Syria, widespread arrears in military pay, a submarine sinking, a huge ammo depot fire, or the death of soldiers in a collapsing barracks.  

In isolation, none is enough to dent a prevailing opinion strongly underwritten by the steady drumbeat of a Defense Ministry PR campaign.  But, over time, they accumulate and can change attitudes.  Like everything else, poll numbers that go up usually come down.

Promotions for Defenders’ Day

In early February, the MOD’s Main Personnel Directorate (GUK) Chief held a special conclave.

A featured guest was Chief of the State Service and Personnel Directorate of the RF President’s Administration, Anton Fedorov.  He and his subordinates maintain President Vladimir Putin’s nomenklatura of general and flag officer appointments in the RF Armed Forces.

Anton Fedorov

The GUK forwards names to fill general and admiral positions.  It recommends candidates for promotion to the “highest officer” (O-7 and above) ranks.  But Mr. Fedorov’s group ultimately vets people and frames decisions on lists that Putin issues.

Professional competence is verified by the GUK.  In the Kremlin, however, they are more concerned about reliability and loyalty to Putin.  No doubt the FSB provides input from its channels in the military, through its headquarters, to Fedorov in the PA.

At the recent GUK assemblage, Fedorov declared there are 730 general and admiral duty posts in the armed forces.  Thirty-eight are vacant, but 15 are in the process of being filled.

So let’s call it a general or admiral for every 1,370 Russian troops (a million authorized).  The U.S. number is 1 per 1,467 (886 for 1,300,000 active personnel).

Moscow reportedly had 1,100 in the “highest officer” ranks early in former defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov’s ill-fated tenure.  If memory serves, the number was reduced to 1,300-1,400 from 1,700-1,800 in the early 2000s while the Russian military was still authorized at significantly more than a million men.

Thus endeth the digression….

Below find a close look at the promotion list Putin signed out on the eve of Defenders’ Day 2017.  The updated list of 395 Russian generals and admirals is here.

The media made much of the promotion of officers connected to operations in Syria.

Chief of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate Sergey Rudskoy got his third star. Rudskoy is frequently the MOD’s spokesman on the situation in Syria.  His deputy, Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, who has been the Russian military representative in talks with the Syrian opposition, got his second star.

Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Aleksandr Zhuravlev became a general-colonel.  He served first as chief of staff for the Russian group of forces in Syria, then as commander in the second half of 2016.

Sergey Kobylash, commander of Russia’s LRA which has bombed Syrian territory, became a general-lieutenant.

Many promotees, however, are connected to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, or serve in the Southern MD and Black Sea Fleet.

One-star rank went to commanders or chiefs of the following:

  • 1st Composite Air Division
  • 30th Surface Ship Division
  • Crimean Naval Base
  • Black Sea Higher Naval School
  • 12th Reserve Command
  • 31st Air Defense Division

41st Combined Arms Army Commander Aleksey Zavizon, who reportedly led Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, became a two-star.

The head of the Russian contingent of ceasefire monitors in Donbas — Andrey Kozlov — became a general-major.

The General Staff’s representative in Normandy format negotiations Yaroslav Moskalik got his first star.

Other Promotions

NTsUO Chief Mikhail Mizintsev got his third star; one of his deputies got his first.

Shoygu got a star for his “special assignments” assistant who previously served with him in MChS.

Airborne Troops got a couple one-star promotions for Vladimir Shamanov’s old military assistant and the VDV’s personnel chief.

The chief and deputy chief of the Military Academy of Aerospace Defense were both promoted, to general-lieutenant and general-major respectively.  The academy just celebrated its 60th anniversary.

Other promotions to one-star rank included the commanders or chiefs of the following:

  • Ground Troops Main Staff
  • Navy Main Staff
  • 4th Combat Employment and Retraining Center, Aerospace Forces
  • 62nd Missile Division, RVSN
  • 90th Tank Division, Central MD

MOD Collegium on 2015

Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed a year-ending expanded meeting of the MOD Collegium.  Below are highlights from his speech, and from Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s.  Putin also met separately with Russia’s Military District (MD) commanders, but no transcript was made available.

Putin Addresses the Expanded Meeting (photo: Kremlin.ru)

Putin Addresses the Expanded Meeting (photo: Kremlin.ru)

According to Kremlin.ru, Putin told the Collegium that Russia’s intervention in Syria was prompted not by “incomprehensible abstract geopolitical interests,” nor by the “desire to train [military forces] and test new weapons systems,” although he called the latter “important.”  Rather Putin insisted Russian operations in Syria aim to stop the immediate threat ISIL terrorists pose to the Russian Federation.

Putin told his audience Russian assistance has enabled Damascus to take the offensive in several regions.  As far as other claims of success, the Supreme CINC said only:

“. . . the systematic employment of the forces of the VKS [Aerospace Forces] and Navy, and the use of the newest highly-accurate weapons systems has enabled us to deliver serious damage to the infrastructure of the terrorists, and therefore qualitatively change the situation in Syria.”

He vowed to protect Russian troops saying, “Any targets threatening the Russian grouping or our ground infrastructure will be destroyed immediately.”

Putin then turned to Russian Armed Forces developments and training.  He urged the military not to consider this year’s wartime preparation training by civilian authorities in 14 Russian Federation subjects to be a “secondary” mission.  He mentioned five (not surprising) points of emphasis about this year and next:

  • The updated five-year defense plan (2016-2020);
  • Rearmament and the effective use of the budget;
  • Strategic nuclear forces and aerospace defense;
  • Increasing the intensity of operational and tactical training;
  • Greater cooperation with allies, the CSTO in particular.

Again, he paused to note the need to eliminate shortcomings in territorial defense training in Russia’s regions.

Before turning the mic over to Shoygu, the president stated that the MOD has provided permanent or service housing to 146,000 servicemen over the last four years.

Defense Minister Shoygu outlined first the threat to Russia from an expanding NATO, then from ISIL.  He made the following significant points about 2015:

  • Russia’s armed forces are manned at 92 percent of their authorized level, including 352,000 contractees (i.e. more than the number of conscripts).
  • Six RS-24 Yars (SS-27 Mod 2) regiments were put into service.
  • The share of modern armaments in the RVSN is 51 percent.
  • Two Tu-160, three Tu-95MS, and five Tu-22M3 bombers were modernized.
  • SSBNs carry 56 percent modern weapons.
  • Overall, Russian strategic forces are 55 percent modern.
  • Eight new brigades of various types were formed in the Ground Troops.
  • The Ground Troops acquired 1,772 tanks and armored vehicles, 148 missile and artillery systems, 2,292 vehicles, and two brigade sets of Iskander-M.
  • Ground Troops’ arms and equipment are 35 percent modern.
  • The VKS acquired 243 aircraft of various types, 90 SAM and 208 radar systems.
  • The VKS are 52 percent modern.
  • The VKS operate 1,720 UAV systems against only 180 in 2011.
  • The Navy received two submarines and eight surface ships.
  • The Navy’s modern equipment constitutes 39 percent of its inventory.
  • The VDV’s modern arms are 41 percent of its total.
  • Overall, the armed forces now have 47 percent modern weapons and other equipment, surpassing the goal of 30 percent by 2015.
  • The in-service rate of equipment is 89 percent.
  • There were nine candidates for every seat in MOD VVUZy this year.

Shoygu’s annual report contained many other details summarizing the MOD’s activities this year.

In 2016, he expects the following:

  • Steps to strengthen groupings in the western, south-western, and Arctic strategic directions.
  • Five RVSN missile regiments will go on duty with modern missiles.
  • Two Tu-160 and seven Tu-95MS bombers will be modernized.
  • Two brigade sets each of Iskander-M and Tornado-S MLRS, and one of Buk-3M SAMs will reach the Ground Troops.
  • Six battalions will receive new tanks and BMPs.
  • VKS and Navy will get more than 200 new or modernized aircraft.
  • Five regiments will receive S-400 SAMs.
  • Three Voronezh-DM and Voronezh-M radars will enter service.
  • The Navy will get two submarines and seven surface ships.
  • The armed forces will conduct strategic CSX Kavkaz-2016.

The reader may wish to look back to this 2014 year-ender to make some year-on-year comparisons.

Turning to Putin’s meeting with his top regional commanders, we don’t know what was discussed, but it’s a good pic and a chance to update the lineup and face recce.

Putin's Meeting with MD Commanders (photo: Kremlin.ru)

Putin’s Meeting with MD Commanders (photo: Kremlin.ru)

From the extreme left around the table with Putin in the center, attendees included Unified Strategic Command North Commander Admiral Vladimir Korolev, Southern MD Commander General-Colonel Aleksandr Galkin, Eastern MD Commander General-Colonel Sergey Surovikin, Defense Minister Shoygu, Putin, General Staff Chief Army General Valeriy Gerasimov, Central MD Commander General-Colonel Vladimir Zarudnitskiy, and new Western MD Commander General-Colonel Andrey Kartapolov.