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In the Service of Russia

  • Last updated: 05 Jun. 2019 11:00

Russian Studies Series 5/19


by Gudrun Persson 1

In the Service of Russia

Review of N.E. Makarov Na sluzhbe Rossii, Kuchkovo pole, Moskva, 2017, 432 pp.

Russian Studies Series 5/19


by Gudrun Persson 1

In the Service of Russia

Review of N.E. Makarov Na sluzhbe Rossii, Kuchkovo pole, Moskva, 2017, 432 pp.

Military reforms in Russia have usually been introduced as a consequence of lost wars, revolutions, and at other times when the state is under pressure and must realize its military inadequacies compared to real or potential opponents. Military reforms are never introduced in times of stability and economic prosperity. Although this could be said about many countries, it is no less true about Russia. In his memoirs, Na sluzhbe RossiiIn the Service of Russia – Army General Nikolai Yegorovich Makarov (b. 1949) develops his thoughts on Russian military reforms and gives his view on the challenges that faced both the Soviet and then the Russian Armed Forces.

The book deserves close attention. With Anatoliy Serdyukov, Defence Minister from 2007-2012, Makarov is one of the architects of the “New Look” reforms in Russia, introduced when he was Chief of the General Staff, from 2008 to 2012. Introduced in the wake of the Georgian War 2008, these reforms have proven to be among the most fundamental undertaken in the Russian and Soviet armed forces, driving the transformation from a conventional mobilization army to a permanently combat-ready force. Financing of the reforms was secured with the approval of the State Armament Programme, and political support from the highest levels was wholehearted. Though it is his successor as CGS Valeriy Gerasimov who has become well known in the Euro-Atlantic community for supposedly “reinventing” the Russian armed forces, really it was during Makarov’s tenure that the Russian Armed Forces started to adapt to contemporary realities.

On the surface, the memoirs are conventionally structured. They begin with his childhood, describe his military career, and end in 2001, when he leads the military parade on Red Square in Moscow on Victory Day, 9 May. But the memoirs are much more than a self-serving, chronological account of his life, and more than a testimony to justify the reform, which caused much controversy at the time. In fact, Makarov approaches his memoirs with a critical mind, and intertwines his life description with new ideas and suggestions for improvement in reforming the Armed Forces. He outlines his thoughts on the need for further reforms, changes in the system of military education, and the improvement of military science and military thought. And he does so with a keen eye on the importance of learning from the past and from contemporary conflicts. In this way, Na sluzhbe Rossii gives valuable – albeit indirect – insights into some of the main thoughts behind the reform, as well as Russian military thinking more broadly.

Reforms at a time of rapid change

Reforming the Armed Forces in times of fundamental and rapid change – political, economic, social, and technical – is a challenge for any country. Much of the problem consists of finding an equilibrium in peacetime between adjusting to change and determining the actual value of innovations for war. There is a balance to be found between novelty and tradition, between jumping to conclusions and resisting change. The fact that the Armed Forces position is directly linked to the security of the state does not make the army’s situation an easy one. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that armies are often described as being marked by a curious contradiction. On the one hand, they are oriented toward the present and future in their efforts to make the most rational use of their means and to be as efficient as possible. On the other hand, they are often perceived by both insiders and outsiders as the carriers of traditional values, represented by ceremonies that should be preserved at all cost. This balancing act between future and past becomes more evident in times of rapid change. Makarov’s reform was executed quickly, and seemed to follow the observation ascribed to Count Sergei Witte, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Empire: “In Russia, you need to enact reforms quickly; otherwise they mostly do not work out and are obstructed”.

Makarov’s career is deeply rooted in the Soviet Armed Forces. Early on, he joined the Communist Party, since a career without a member card was unthinkable. He served first in East Germany in the 1970s, and then in a number of positions across Russia including in the Transbaikal Military District, Russian Joint Force Tajikistan, the Volga Military District, The Baltic Sea Fleet and Moscow and Siberian Military Districts. He was promoted Army General in 2005 and in 2007 Deputy Minister of Defence. 

His work is also closely connected with a period of rapid change. He was selected to attend the prestigious General Staff Academy in Moscow on 30 August 1991 – shortly after the coup attempt that would precipitate the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the Armed Forces of the newly created Russian Federation were facing enormous challenges: to complete the troop withdrawal from Eastern Europe and to create armed forces that would correspond to the new political and military situation. The Soviet Union had ended, the Soviet Armed Forces were disbanded, and Russia was the de jure successor state. It was a turbulent time, but Makarov, still in the Academy, thought about the future and NATO. During those years in the Academy’s textbooks, the Baltic states – traditionally – were assigned a role of buffer zones. Makarov persuaded his peers to be allowed to write his thesis about the consequences of potential NATO membership for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This work, he claims, served him well when he later became Chief of Staff of 11th Guards Army in Kaliningrad.

Makarov is deeply critical of the military-political leadership during the last years of the Soviet Union. According to him, they lost a golden opportunity to at least start a military reform that was urgently needed. When reform got under way in the 1990s, the only thing that was done was to cut the number of soldiers, without a cohesive idea. The then Chief of the General Staff concluded that “Our task is to survive.” Makarov is still baffled: “To this day I cannot understand it. /…/ An army is a military organism whose task is not to survive, but to be engaged in structured combat training.” Interestingly, he does not blame the West for the lack of reform. On the contrary, he states that the Russian Federation could have afforded a comprehensive military reform, and the West provided additional funds for it, but the Russian military leadership did not understand what was needed.

Furthermore, he deplores the locations of the so called military towns. These were the places that were built with the help of German money in connection with the troop withdrawal from East Germany (around 400,000 men). The small communities, Makarov writes, were well planned, the houses well built, but there were not any storage buildings for the military material. It simply stood in open air and rusted. And why, he asks, was it decided that the 16th Guards Tank Division should be dislocated in the marshy and wooded area close to a small town, Chaikovskii, in the area of Perm? An artificial plateau was cast in cement to provide for houses to be built, but the “island” was surrounded by “the wild taiga and endless swamps.” The distance to the headquarters of 2nd Guards Army was 700 kilometres. The heavy military material simply sunk, and the situation was “catastrophic”.

Based on this experience, and on the years when he served in the Transbaikal Military District in the mid-1980s, he concluded that bases to store military equipment in practice were more harmful than useful. No wonder that when he became CGS, Makarov initiated his reform by abolishing these bases for storage.

Nine steps of reform

If his predecessors had no comprehensive approach to reform, what does Makarov suggest? He provides a list of nine steps—incidentally a list that could be used in any reorganization not only within the defence sector, and not only in Russia.

  • A conceptual view of the problems to be solved
  • Create a group of like-minded colleagues
  • A clear vision of the end result
  • Detailed planning, calculations, and reasons
  • Control of all the steps and their connections
  • Ability to act quickly in case of disagreements and conflicts
  • Strong but just demands
  • Decisiveness, courage, and boldness in performance
  • Information support

The main features of the military reform were substantial changes in the system of command and control, the structure of forces, the military educational system, and the launching of a significant re-armament programme. The number of Armed Forces, including the number of officers, was reduced, as was the number of military districts. Joint Strategic Commands were created, and a brigade structure was formed. The details of the reform are not touched upon by Makarov, but rather he writes in general terms.

More details are revealed from his time in Kaliningrad during the late 1990s: he describes the reform there when the ground and air forces became subordinate to the Commander of the Baltic Fleet. The ground forces’ resistance to having a marine officer as Commander was profound. Makarov, himself an army officer, realized that a special solution was necessary for the defence of Kaliningrad, and finally the opposition was overcome – not least since Makarov had received the blessing of the then Minister of Defence, Igor Sergeev.

Makarov writes, cautiously, about his problems and competitors, for instance, about his conflict with then Chief of the General Staff, Anatolii Kvashnin (CGS from 1997 to 2004). At one point, Kvashnin tried to transfer Makarov from the Armed Forces to the Interior Troops. Furthermore, when Makarov served in Samara, he discovered extensive embezzlement of defence resources, and he was almost charged with the crime himself – a story that could easily be found in the Russian classics.

Learning from the past

In one of the most interesting parts of the memoirs, Makarov writes about the need to study military history and to learn from the past. He criticizes the Soviet military education system, which to him never followed with the times so that the experience from Afghanistan, and from other wars, were not studied. Instead, the education focused on the Great Patriotic War.

He re-introduces Alexander II’s War Minister, Dmitrii Miliutin (1816-1912). During his period as Minister (1861-1881), Miliutin systematically reformed the military education system, and introduced military districts and universal conscription. This is not a coincidence: Makarov clearly identifies with Miliutin’s view of meritocracy and competence, and underlines that nobody in his family had chosen the military path. Makarov’s memoirs contain an excerpt of Miliutin’s last article from 1912 (the year of his death), and Makarov claims that it could have been written today. In the article, Miliutin notes that war now (1912) breaks out suddenly and unpredictably in spite of international agreements, and he worries about the great technological gap between Russia and Europe. Miliutin also argues for the value of the “personal initiative” by officers and soldiers.

There are other parallels between Miliutin and Makarov: following the Crimean War, Miliutin reflected that the overriding concern of the highest military authorities seemed to be to ‘reduce, abolish, and disband’2, a view, as noted above, echoed by Makarov in the 1990s. They both had a war experience they could use to press the urgency for reform. Their approach to military education and military thought, journalism, new technology, and the belief in the Empire are all subjects where their interests meet. They also both benefited from direct political support, an essential element for the success of any military reform.

Learning from the present

As CGS, Makarov often expressed concern that Russian military thinking was years behind that of the leading states. In Na sluzhbe Rossii, he argues for the promotion of military thought and science, not least within the General Staff. He writes at length about the relationship between military theory and practice and the need for them to come closer. “Why, in military affairs, is there such a rift between the theoretical thoughts on future wars and the practical training of the forces?” he asks.

It is clear that Makarov has promoted the subject of military thought within the General Staff. Partly in recognition of this problem, a Military Scientific Council, led by Andrei Kokoshin, one of Russia’s most prominent military thinkers and formerly a secretary of the Russian Security Council, was created in 2011. Its task is to give advice on military-technical issues and defence policy. Yet another platform for applied military thinking was created in October 2012 – the Foundation for Advanced Studies.

Again, his inspiration can be found in Miliutin’s reform. The latter stressed the need to focus on military education for all, from commanders to soldiers. A balance had to be found between military discipline and the growing need for a personal initiative and unconventional actions. So when the current CGS, Valeriy Gerasimov, today speaks about Russia’s experience of the war in Syria showing the importance of commanders making non-standard decisions, employing military cunning and deception, and acting unexpectedly, it not only echoes of the past, but more importantly it shows that the current military leadership is standing on the shoulders of its predecessors.3

Makarov also reflects on the use of non-military means, and the essence of forecasting and prediction. He quotes, for instance, parts of an article by Major General I. N. Vorobev on the need to improve war gaming and predictions, unless the generals should continue to prepare for the last war.4 Many of these thoughts can later be found in speeches and articles by Gerasimov who, in this case, continues to build on the work initiated by Makarov.

To some extent, Makarov writes to save the essence of his reform. He promotes ideas about strategic planning and the need for a future closer cooperation between the Academy of the General Staff and the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. He means that both the military and civilian sides of society need to improve their knowledge about each other.

On the future of military reforms, Makarov writes that one has to be patient. Nothing happens quickly, and the results come after many years—and then the key to success is in exercises. “Without exercises (zaniatiia) there is no army,” he observes. Consequently, he was a major proponent of re-establishing strategic exercises, of which Zapad 1999 was the first.

Makarov is cautious about the future of the reform and underlines the need for a continued reform process. New features are not always applied, he notes. “Stereotypes, created during decades, a sloppiness of thought, a resistance to follow with the times and to learning from best practices in peacetime, still characterize, unfortunately, some of the generals, admirals and officers of the Armed Forces,” he points out, and ends with a plea to continue. “It’s hard, often unrewarding. But there is no other way…”.

Makarov has made an important contribution in developing Russian military thought. It is unfortunate that he ends the book in 2001. Hopefully, he will write a second volume covering the reforms during his time in office more directly and in greater detail. This said, those who seek to understand Russian military activity and culture today will reap considerable benefit from familiarising themselves with this book.

1(back) Dr. Gudrun Persson is director of the Russian Studies Programme at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, FOI, and associate professor at the Department of Slavic Studies, Stockholm University. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NATO Defense College or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

2(back) D. A. Miliutin, Vospominaniia 1856-1860 [Memoirs] L.G. Zakharova (eds.), Rosspen, Moskva, 2004, p.336.

3(back) Vystuplenie nachalnika Generalnogo Shtaba Vooruzhennykh Sil RF – pervogo zamestitelia Ministra oborony RF generala armii Valeriia Gerasimova na otkrytom zasedanii Kollegii Minoborony Rossii 7 noiabria 2017,

4(back) I. N. Vorobev, ”Voennaia futurologiia – osobaia forma voenno-nauchnogo predvideniia”, Voennaia mysl, No.2, 1996. pp.65-69.