The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are organized into six services subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. The services are the 1) ground forces, 2) the naval forces, 3) the air forces, 4) the air defense forces, 5) the strategic rocket forces, and 6) the airborne troops. There were plans to reduce the number of armed services to three by combining the air forces, air defense forces, and strategic rocket forces into a single space force, but this change had not occurred. Another proposed change, aimed at improving cost and operational efficiency, would establish a regional command structure that would encompass ground, air, and naval forces in a particular region. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russian military branches: 1) Ground Troops (Sukhoputnyye Voyskia, SV); 2) Navy (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot, VMF); 3) Air Forces (Voyenno-Vozdushniye Sily, VVS); 4) Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnyye Voyska, VDV); 5) Missile Troops of Strategic Purpose (Raketnyye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya, RVSN) referred to commonly as Strategic Rocket Forces, and 6) Aerospace Defense Troops (Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony or Voyska VKO). Airborne Troops, Missile Troops and Aerospace Defense Troops are independent "combat arms," not subordinate to any of the three branches. Russian Ground Troops include the following combat arms: motorized-rifle troops, tank troops, missile and artillery troops, air defense of the Ground Troops (2014). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The Russian army has 5 tank divisions, 16 motorized rifle divisions, 4 airborne divisions, 5 machine gun and artillery divisions, 3 artillery divisions and 4 independent artillery brigades, 9 special forces brigades, 12 surface-to-surface missile brigades, 11 surface-to-air missile brigades, 5 antitank brigades, and 1 engineer brigade. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

The Russian navy is divided into four fleets: the Baltic, Black Sea, Northern, and Pacific, each with its own fleet air force, plus the Caspian Sea Flotilla. The naval infantry (marines), 9,500 strong, includes three independent brigades and three special forces brigades. **

The Russian air force is divided into two commands, the Long Range Aviation Command (57th Air Army) and the Military Transport Aviation Command (61st Air Army). The former command includes eight bomber regiments, the latter nine regiments. In addition, tactical aviation forces consist of five tactical and air defense armies totaling 49 air regiments. The strategic missile force is divided into three rocket armies. **

Russian Military Command Structure

The armed forces chain of command prescribed in the military doctrine clearly establishes central government control of the military. The president of the Russian Federation is the commander in chief. The Government (called a council of ministers or cabinet in other countries) is responsible for maintaining the armed forces at the appropriate level of readiness. Direct leadership of the armed forces is vested in the Ministry of Defense; the General Staff exercises operational control. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Executive authority over the military lies in the office of the president of the Russian Federation. The State Duma exercises legislative authority through the Government. The minister of defense exercises operational authority, and the General Staff implements instructions and orders. This structure, which has a superficial similarity to the division of power in the United States military establishment, does not imply military subordination to civilian authority in the Western sense, however. *

The Ministry of Defense is managed by a collegium of three first deputy ministers, six deputy ministers, and a chief military inspector, who together form the principal staff and advisory board of the minister of defense. The executive body of the Ministry of Defense is the General Staff. It is commanded by the chief of the General Staff. In keeping with the Soviet practice of permitting senior officers to hold civilian positions, in 1996 the chief of staff also was a first deputy minister of defense. *

Contrary to the United States tradition of military authority derived strictly from the civilian sector, Russian General Staff officers exercise command authority in their own right. In 1996 the General Staff included fifteen main directorates and an undetermined number of operating agencies. The staff is organized by functions, with each directorate and operating agency overseeing a functional area, generally indicated by the organization's title. *

The most secret of the General Staff directorates is the Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedochnoye upravleniye — GRU), which has been an important and closely guarded element of national security since its establishment in the 1920s. The GRU system delivers detailed information on the capabilities of Russia's most likely military adversaries to the General Staff and to political leaders. The organization is divided into five operational directorates, each covering a designated geographical area. The first four cover Europe, Asia, the Western Hemisphere and Britain, and the Middle East and Africa, respectively. In the Soviet era, the fifth directorate coordinated military intelligence activities, but in the 1990s that agency has been assigned to provide intelligence from the other former Soviet republics. Headquartered in Moscow, the GRU has an estimated 2,500 personnel, including area and technical specialists and field offices abroad. Each military district and fleet also has its own intelligence directorate. *

Evolution of the Russian Military Command Structure

The historical tradition of military command is considerably different in Russia. The tsars were educated as officers, and they regularly wore military uniforms and carried military rank. Stalin always wore a military uniform, and he assumed the title generalissimo. Even General Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev (in office 1964-82) appointed himself general of the army, and he encouraged portraits of himself in full uniform. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

By tradition dating back to the tsars, the minister of defense normally is a uniformed officer. The State Duma also seats a large number of deputies who are active-duty military officers — another tradition that began in the Russian imperial era. These combinations of military and civilian authority ensure that military concerns are considered at the highest levels of the Russian government. They also demonstrate that strict subordination of the military to civilian authority in the Western sense is neither a tradition nor a concern in Russia. *

The minister of defense is the nominal commander of all the armed forces, serving under the president of the Russian Federation. In this capacity, the minister exercises day-to-day authority over the armed forces. President Yeltsin appointed General of the Army Pavel Grachev to the post in May 1992. Grachev's decision to side with Yeltsin in the president's October 1993 confrontation with parliament deprived a rebellious State Duma of an opportunity to overturn the president's authority. At least partly for that reason, Yeltsin retained his defense minister despite intense criticism of Grachev's management of the Chechnya campaign and the Russian military establishment in general. Finally, victory in the first round of the 1996 presidential election spurred Yeltsin to dismiss Grachev; General Igor' Rodionov, who had commanded troops in the controversial occupation of Tbilisi in 1989 but had a reputation as a soldier of integrity who was sympathetic to reform, was appointed minister of defense in July 1996.

Ground Forces of the Russian Military

The Russian army has 5 tank divisions, 16 motorized rifle divisions, 4 airborne divisions, 5 machine gun and artillery divisions, 3 artillery divisions and 4 independent artillery brigades, 9 special forces brigades, 12 surface-to-surface missile brigades, 11 surface-to-air missile brigades, 5 antitank brigades, and 1 engineer brigade. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Russian Ground Troops include the following combat arms: motorized-rifle troops, tank troops, missile and artillery troops, air defense of the Ground Troops The commander in chief of the ground forces has two first deputy commanders, three deputy commanders, and a Main Staff. The first deputies have general responsibilities, and the deputies have specified functional responsibility for armaments, aviation, and combat training, respectively. The executive agency for the commander in chief is the Main Staff of the Ground Forces.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Ground Forces of the Russian Federation in the mid 1990s were estimated to number approximately 670,000 officers and enlisted personnel. Of that number, about 170,000 were contract volunteer enlistees and warrant officers, and about 210,000 were conscripts. Presumably, the remaining 290,000 were commissioned officers. These figures indicate that 43 percent of ground forces personnel were officers, an extraordinarily high percentage that reflects the Soviet and Russian tradition of giving little authority to the enlisted ranks, as well as the vestiges of the much larger military cadre inherited from the Soviet army. Much of this bulge was made up of senior field-grade officers and generals who no longer were needed in a smaller military but who were too young to retire. In the mid-1990s, this situation was one of the most difficult personnel problems facing the ground forces command. *

The readiness condition of the ground forces is comparable to that of the other branches. In 1994 General Vladimir Semenov, commander in chief of the ground forces, admitted that the ground forces lacked the capacity to perform their assigned tasks. The council reported that more than a third of the helicopters cannot fly and that even emergency supplies (war stocks) had been partially consumed. General Semenov has reported that ground forces units are drastically understaffed; motorized rifle regiments, the heart of ground combat power, are said to be understaffed by 60 percent. Semenov has concluded that Russian ground combat units lack adequate personnel to participate in military actions and that full staffing of units would take a prohibitively long time. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Organization of the Russian Ground Force Districts

The ground forces are organized into eight military districts, one independent army, and two groups of forces. Although the districts are ground forces commands, they may include forces from the other services, in which case they also serve as regional commands. In February 1996, four of Russia's eight independent airborne brigades were placed under ground forces command, with one each going to the North Caucasus, Siberian, Transbaikal, and Far Eastern districts. At the same time, two of five airborne divisions, stationed at Pskov and Novorossiysk, were assigned for special joint operations to the Northern and Siberian districts, respectively. These shifts, which outside observers interpreted as the end of plans to form a mobile force for rapid insertion in trouble areas, reflected a shortage of the airlift capacity needed to support independent operations by such troops, as well as a possible fear of coup activity in independent elite military units. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Altogether, in 1996 the ground forces included sixty-nine divisions: seventeen armored, forty-seven motorized infantry, and five airborne. Included in their armaments were 19,000 main battle tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces, 600 surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear capability, and about 2,600 attack and transport helicopters. *

Among the specially designated units, the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Moldova (also known as the Group of Russian Forces in the Dnestr Region) is part of the ground forces, but operationally the group is directly subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. This command arrangement probably derives more from political than military concerns. The second force group, the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus, stationed in Armenia and Georgia, is operationally subordinate to the ground forces command. The Northwest Group of Forces is an administrative title given to ground forces headquarters in Kaliningrad, whose troops are under the command of the 11th Independent Army. That army, in turn, is operationally subordinate to the ground forces. *

Russian Ground Force Weapons

In 2005 the army had 22,800 main battle tanks; 150 light tanks; 2,000 armored reconnaissance vehicles; 15,090 armored infantry fighting vehicles; 9,900 armored personnel carriers; 30,045 artillery pieces, including 6,010 self-propelled pieces, 6,100 mortars, and 4,350 multiple rocket launchers; 200 nuclear-capable surface-to-surface missiles; and 2,465 surface-to-air missiles. [Source: Library of Congress, 2006]

Notable Russian weapons include T-90 tanks, which shoot laser-guided missiles and have a new system that protects tanks from missile and grenade attacks. The Uralvagonzavod T-90 is the descendant of the T-55 Communist-era tank. The Russian military is capable of delivering tanks to battlefields by dropping them out of the back of transport planes with parachutes. Soldiers are carried in BTR-80 armored personnel carriers.

The T-90 main battle tank, the most modern tank in the army arsenal, went into low-level production in 1993, based on a prototype designated as the T-88. The T-90 was developed by the Kartsev-Venediktov Design Bureau at the Vagonka Works in Nizhniy Tagil. Initially seen as an entirely new design, the production model is in fact based on the T-72BM, with some added features from the T-80 series. The T-90 features a new generation of armor on its hull and turret. Two variants, the T-90S and T-90E, have been identified as possible export models. Plans called for all earlier models to be replaced with T-90s by the end of 1997, subject to funding availability. By mid-1996 some 107 T-90s had gone into service in the Far Eastern Military District. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Russian Ground Force Districts

The eight military districts are the Northern, Moscow, Volga, North Caucasus, Ural, Siberian, Transbaikal, and Far Eastern. The Northern Military District is the successor to the Soviet-era Leningrad Military District, although the old name still was in use in 1995, and reports in 1996 indicated that it might be reinstated officially. The district includes the 6th Combined Arms Army, the 30th Army Corps, the 56th District Training Center, and several smaller units. One air army also is stationed in the district, but it appears to be subordinate to the Air Force High Command. The airborne division stationed at Pskov, formerly operationally subordinate to the Ministry of Defense, was reassigned for special combined duty in 1996. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Moscow Military District is an anomaly in the command structure because it includes the national capital. It has special significance because of its proximity to the western border with Belarus and Ukraine, traditionally the routes followed by invaders from the west. The district's official troop strength includes the 1st and 22d combined arms armies and the 20th Army Corps. However, CFE Treaty data indicate that operational control of these forces is vested in the Ministry of Defense rather than the ground forces or the district commanders. Other forces within the Moscow district include the Moscow Air Defense District, one airborne brigade, and one brigade of special forces (spetsnaz ) troops. The Moscow Air Defense District has boundaries coterminous with those of the Moscow Military District, but it is under the command of the air defense forces. The special forces brigade is directly subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. *

The Volga Military District, headquartered at Samara, is an interior district that includes the 2d Combined Arms Army, together with an airborne division that is operationally subordinate to the Ministry of Defense. The 2d Combined Arms Army is an understrength unit consisting of the 16th and 90th Tank Divisions. Also in the Volga district are the 27th Motorized Rifle Division and the 469th District Training Center, which are directly subordinate to the district commander. *

The North Caucasus Military District, headquartered at Rostov-na-Donu, faces the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It is defended by the 58th Combined Arms Army and the 8th and 67th Army Corps. However, these are not robust forces. The 8th Army Corps and the 58th Army each include only one motorized rifle division, and the 67th Army Corps has only reserve forces with no heavy equipment. The weakness of these units has helped motivate Russian proposals to renegotiate CFE Treaty limitations to allow additional forces along Russia's southern flank. *

The Ural Military District lies south of the Northern district and east of the Ural Mountains, with the Siberian district to its east. The Ural district, whose headquarters is at Yekaterinburg, includes two tank divisions and two motorized rifle divisions. The Siberian Military District lies in the center of Asiatic Russia, with its headquarters in Novosibirsk. Its ground forces are organized into one corps of four motorized rifle divisions and one artillery regiment. *

The Transbaikal Military District is headquartered in Chita. The district comprises three combined arms armies totaling four tank divisions and six motorized rifle divisions. One tank division and one motorized rifle division are headquartered at district training centers that are believed to be directly subordinate to the district headquarters. One artillery division and two machine gun-artillery divisions deployed on the Chinese border also have district training-center status. *

The Far Eastern Military District, headquartered in Khabarovsk, includes four combined arms armies and one army corps. Among them, those units have three tank divisions and thirteen motorized rifle divisions, of which one tank division and two motorized rifle divisions have headquarters that serve as district training centers. One artillery division and five machine gun-artillery divisions are directly subordinate to the district headquarters. *

Russian Airborne Troops

The airborne troops comprise five airborne divisions and eight air assault brigades. They were designated as a separate service in 1991, at which time the air assault brigades were reassigned from ground forces units and military districts to Airborne Troop Headquarters, with direct responsibility to the Ministry of Defense. The justification for this reorganization was that airborne troops could not respond as quickly to an emergency under ground forces command as they could as a separate command. Experts believe that the decision to reorganize came mainly in response to internal politics rather than military necessity; at that time, the Russian national leadership did not want airborne troops under the control of the General Staff or the ground forces. In early 1996, four of the eight independent airborne brigades and two of the five airborne divisions were placed under the command of their respective district commanders, and the remaining three divisions became part of the strategic reserve. The command adjustments constituted a return to the pre-1991 arrangement. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The reason given for the transfer of authority was that the military districts already controlled the helicopter, fixed-wing, and other resources needed to support the air assault brigades, and that historically air assault brigades were created to operate in an operational-tactical role attached to a high-level headquarters. They were never intended to be a strategic asset. In the case of the Novorossiysk Division engaged in Chechnya, a chain of command running back to Moscow allegedly proved unworkable. However, the reassignment of the airborne units brought interservice charges that the move was an attempt to rein in a service branch perceived as having a dangerous combination of independence and mobility. The chief of the General Staff, General Mikhail Kolesnikov, characterized the decision as purely operational. *

The mission of the airborne forces is to make possible a quick response to national emergencies. The airborne troops are considered an elite force because they are individually selected from volunteers based on physical fitness, intelligence, and loyalty. By traditional military standards, the airborne troops are not a powerful force. Each division is assigned about 6,000 lightly armed troops with lightly armored vehicles. Their value is that they have special training and have operational and strategic mobility provided by long-range aircraft. Their parachute assault capability means that they can be deployed anywhere within airlift range in a matter of hours without the need for an air base in friendly hands. However, resupply and support by heavy ground troop formations are necessary in a matter of days because the airborne troops lack the self-sustaining combat and logistical power of regular ground forces. *

All of the airborne divisions are based in European Russia. One division is based in the Northern Military District, two in the Moscow Military District, and one each in the Volga and North Caucasus districts. The division in the North Caucasus Military District has taken part in the Chechnya conflict. *

The eight airborne assault brigades are smaller than divisions, and they lack the armor and artillery assets that give conventional divisions ground mobility and firepower. Once the airborne brigades are on the ground, they can move no faster than walking speed. Their role is primarily focused on helicopter operations, but they also are trained for parachute assault from fixed-wing aircraft. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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