Category Archives: Ground Troops

Trouble Brigade

Under Sergey Shoygu, the Russian MOD has pretty much accomplished two things.

First, it has generally improved service conditions for the average officer and soldier.  More money is available for this purpose than at any time since 1992.  It is financing military construction on a broad front.

Second, it has conducted a concerted and successful campaign to suppress almost all negative information about the armed forces.  It has driven once vigorous Russian military journalism to its lowest ebb.  It’s no surprise since President Vladimir Putin has done the same to civilian journalism.

Still, a piece by Vladimir Vashchenko from 29 September is reminiscent of the best in Russian military journalism.


Welcome to Boguchar

Vashchenko writes (not for the first time) about v / ch 54046 — the 9th Independent Motorized Rifle Visla Red Banner Order of Suvorov Brigade.  The 9th IMRB for short.

Recall that the 9th IMRB — along with the rest of the 20th CAA — is relocating from Nizhegorod to Boguchar in Voronezh Oblast.  Boguchar wasn’t picked out of a hat.  It’s a strategic point on today’s map.  For Russia, it’s the frontline of the war in eastern Ukraine.


The 9th adds significant ground power to Russian forces near pro-Moscow Lugansk.

Vashchenko writes about the deaths of several of soldiers in the brigade over recent months.

On 24 September, a 35-year-old contractee killed himself.  He was an infantryman from the 2nd Battalion.  His suicide was precipitated primarily by family problems.

Earlier in September, another serviceman died after a fight with some locals, according to official reports, but a source tells Vashchenko he was run over by an officer driving under the influence.

In July, a junior sergeant was found dead.  He previously had a conflict with an officer and had already requested a transfer.  His death is under investigation by the GVP and GVSU.

In April, a conscript died just 23 days before his demob date.  With no evidence of a crime, his death isn’t being investigated.

Another conscript died in the spring of last year, but Vashchenko could unearth no details about what happened.

Vashchenko writes that social networks of mothers with conscript sons report Boguchar has a bad reputation as a formation where officers extort money from their young charges.

The author talked to several men who serve, or served, in the brigade.  Some came to him after reading his August story about Boguchar.

One told of sleeping two men to a couch because of the lack of proper bunks.  He also had to buy his own uniforms.  A friend in his unit had to pay to go to the infirmary about a problem with his knees.

An emotional ex-soldier told Vashchenko, “It’s a ‘hole,’ not a unit!”

Another claimed the brigade keeps two sets of medical records.  One for inspections indicating all soldiers are perfectly healthy, and a second set detailing their true maladies.

He told Vashchenko that anti-terrorist drills in the brigade were a joke.  Its perimeter was porous, and it never passed.  A man acting the part of suicide bomber walked around the brigade and could have “exploded” several times.

He said the brigade’s command made sure to intimidate the troops before inspections to ensure none would tell their guests about real conditions in the formation.

He said officers looked at soldiers like cattle, cattle that gave them money once a month.  Soldiers were abused if they didn’t pay “for the company’s needs” on time.  They even had to pay 500 rubles to receive their demob.

The command used certain soldiers to “supervise” others and keep them in line. One group were troops from the material support battalion.  They ran the brigade’s canteen which was really a mobile “trading post” for the financial benefit of unit commanders.

Vashchenko’s interlocutor says his service in Boguchar dissuaded him from signing up as a contractee.  He sums it up:

“I believe the army certainly has to be harsh, at times even cruel, just not like there.  You know under pain of death I wouldn’t go into battle or on reconnaissance with a single one of our officers.  And this given that I served after getting a higher education, but imagine what happens with kids of 18 who don’t yet have a strong psyche.  To me the army and conditions like Boguchar turn little boys not into real men but into scum and vermin that follow a one-way road — prison, alcoholism or drug addiction.”

Vashchenko also talked to Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees of Russia.  She traveled recently to Boguchar and called the situation “monstrous” with men living in tents and 4,000 personnel relying on a single water source.  But she hasn’t received complaints about abuses in the brigade.

A Different Take

On, Roman Skomorokhov offered a spirited refutation of Vashchenko’s article on the 9th IMRB.  He writes that he visited the brigade six weeks ago.  According to him, Vashchenko simply repeats lies and throws mud on the army.

Skomorokhov claims security is good, and it’s not possible for an intruder to wander around the base.  Conditions are not ideal, he admits, but it’s not like the 1990s.  Boguchar is a hardship post at the moment, but one that is vitally needed to defend Russia’s southwestern frontier.

Moreover, Skomorokhov says, those now living in tents will be housed in newly-built barracks before winter.

There are injuries and deaths (outside of combat or training) and crimes in every army.  So what’s different about the Russian case?

The difference is a pervasive effort to suppress reporting of such incidents, or explain them away if they do make it into the news. Considerably more energy is expended on this now than ten years ago.

The brigade wants to keep incidents in the brigade.  The military district wants to keep them in the district.  The MOD wants to keep them in the MOD.  The Kremlin wants to keep them from gaining traction in the foreign media.  Remember the case of Andrey Sychev

Russians don’t want anyone to think their armed forces are not as modern, not as lethal, not as scary, not as well-financed, or not as orderly as they present them.  And this Potemkin village mentality has served them well.

The problem is, when fooling the bosses or the outside world about what is really happening, one also fools oneself.  And one is found out eventually.  

Look at the Baltic Fleet.  Its entire command was purged in June for this reason.  The MOD announced that high-ranking fleet officers were dismissed for: 

“. . . not taking all essential measures to improve the housing conditions of personnel, the lack of concern about subordinates, and also misrepresentations of the real state of affairs in reports.”

The Kremlin is not stupid.  It has always had its own channels of information inside the Russian military.  What does it do with what it learns?  The Baltic Fleet case might have been nothing more than serving notice on the rest of the military to clean up its act.  

Tanks a Lot


GABTU Chief General-Lieutenant Shevchenko

Some data on Russia’s armor programs appearing in the media prior to Tank Troops’ Day (11 September) didn’t get too much notice.

RIA Novosti interviewed the chief of the MOD’s Main Automotive and Armor Directorate (GABTU), General-Lieutenant Aleksandr Shevchenko on 9 September.

General-Lieutenant Shevchenko noted that the MOD plans to “modernize” new Tigr armored vehicles, and not just by mounting a 30-mm gun.  They will, not surprisingly, go by the name Tigr-2.  But no other details.

Shevchenko confirmed Uralvagonzavod’s announcement that it has delivered more than 1,000 T-72B3 tanks.  He also indicated that the MOD will receive 300 improved T-72B3. The improved T-72B3, he says, will have a better engine and better defensive and targeting systems.

Some number of Russian T-90 tanks nearing the end of their service lives will be modernized under the “Proryv-3” program, according to the GABTU chief.  The resulting tank is supposed to be superior to the original T-90.

Regarding the Armata armored vehicle family, Shevchenko reported that the “experimental” lot of T-14 tanks will conclude initial field trials in 2016 and move into state testing.  This will be completed in 2017 and followed by formal state acceptance of the T-14.


T-14 tanks en route to Red Square (photo: RIA Novosti / Yevgeniy Biyatov)

Shevchenko added that the Armata BMP (T-15) and BREM, or armored recovery vehicle (T-16) also remain in preliminary testing and will finish state testing next year.

Similarly, the Kurganets family — BMP, BTR, and BREM — from Kurganmashzavod as well as the wheeled Bumerang BTR from Arzamasmashzavod are on the same schedule.


Kurganets BMP

Asked about the impact of Russia’s difficult economic situation and “corrections” in the GOZ on these programs, the GABTU chief said:

“Testing of ‘Armata,’ ‘Kurganets’ and ‘Bumerang’ is fully financed, and we will give it priority because they are the base for the future.”

Of course, paying for testing is one thing.  Ordering a production run is another.  The Russian Army will eventually have to make some choices between these new armored vehicles.  It won’t be able to afford all of them.

Shevchenko added that these vehicles are being tested in arctic, mountain, and desert conditions.  Other army systems (artillery, air defense, etc.) will be mounted on the same chassis.  Robotic armored vehicles are in the works.  He said the MOD doesn’t have a requirement for a wheeled tank.

Contractees in BTGs

General Staff Chief, Army General Valeriy Gerasimov held a press conference with Russian news agencies on 14 September.  The just-completed Kavkaz-2016 strategic exercise was the main, but not the only, topic.


Gerasimov’s Press Conference

Interfaks-AVN captured Gerasimov’s comments on one particular subject of interest.

Army General Gerasimov said:

“Contractees are substantially increasing the combat capability of sub-units and military units.  In our districts, including the Southern Military District, battalion tactical groups [BTGs], which are fully manned by contract service soldiers, have been created.  There are now 66 of such BTGs, at the end of 2016 there will be 96, next year 115, and the year after [2018] 125.”

Every BTG, Gerasimov noted for the media, has 700-800 men, and reinforced BTGs have 900.  As a rule, each Russian regiment and brigade has two BTGs, he said.

What is a BTG?

A BTG is a motorized rifle or tank battalion of 2-4 companies with attached ATGM, artillery, reconnaissance, engineer, and rear support platoons making a fairly self-sufficient ground combat unit.

These were some brief but significant comments from Gerasimov. What do they tell us?

BTGs are supposed to be completely manned and fully combat ready. Gerasimov didn’t say that regiments and brigades typically have at least a third maneuver battalion which may not be completely manned or combat ready.

To simplify our math, let’s say Russia’s Ground Troops today comprise 36 maneuver (motorized rifle and tank) brigades.  We’ll leave out the longstanding 2nd Motorized Rifle Division and 4th Tank Division, as well as the future 150th MRD.

Those 36 brigades equate to a nominal 108 (36 x 3) maneuver battalions.  If there are 66 BTGs now, then two-thirds of the 108 are organized in essentially ready-to-fight packages.

Ninety-six would get close to 100 percent BTGs by the end of this year.  But adding another 30 (66 + 30 = 96) in less than four months seems almost ridiculously difficult.

The 115 (96 + 19) and 125 (115 + 10) figures for 2017 and 2018 would be much easier.

Battalions composing current divisions (or new divisions and brigades in the process of forming up) certainly account for some number of BTGs above 108.

It’s unclear how many airborne (VDV) or naval infantry BTGs there might be. Gerasimov seemed to be talking strictly about Ground Troops.  Between them, VDV and naval infantry might have 30+ battalions already organized into BTGs, or candidates to become BTGs.  But we don’t know if or how they factor into Gerasimov’s current or future number of BTGs.

Gerasimov’s comments have value with regard to contract service.  Sixty-six BTGs at 800 men each account for 52,800 professional enlisted.  And 125 would be 100,000. Those numbers represent a fair portion of a Russian Army of 300,000 considering that there might be 60,000 officers, and there will always be conscripts.

Tough Times at UVZ

Maybe Russia’s economy is muddling through its downturn.  But for some major enterprises, the situation seems somewhat worse.  Tank and railcar maker Uralvagonzavod (UVZ) is a case in point.



In early August, RBK reported that Gazprombank is prepared to refinance UVZ’s 200-billion-ruble ($3 billion) debt.  The Russian government may kick in nearly 15 billion rubles ($230 million) of loan guarantees.

The 100-percent state-owned UVZ would use state guarantees to refinance part (most, all?) of 21 billion rubles ($325 million) in bank credits due this year.  Alfa-Bank, Sberbank, Gazprombank, and Svyaz-Bank are its primary creditors.

In June, Alfa-Bank went to court to have the tank producer declared bankrupt over 9 billion ($140 million) of a 16-billion-ruble debt.  The case was to be heard on 8 August, but UVZ needed to stop the bankruptcy case – by reaching agreement with Alfa-Bank – to receive the state loan guarantees.  With the guarantees, Gazprombank decided to refinance UVZ’s debts on 9 June.

Now Alfa-Bank denies it ever filed a bankruptcy suit against UVZ.  But a Minpromtorg official told RBK that the bank and tank maker reached “certain agreements,” and the former will soon lift its case against the latter.

According to RBK, UVZ reported record losses in 2015, mainly due to reduced sales of railcars and higher interest rates.  The corporation indicated that 58 percent of earnings came from military sales and 15 percent from civilian sales, with the balance from freight handling operations.

UVZ Deputy General Director Aleksey Zharich said the state cut the advance payment for its GOZ deliveries, forcing the company to turn to the banks.  It also needed to import equipment which doubled in price thanks to the weak ruble.

Overall, the Minpromtorg official said, “Indicators like these [for UVZ] haven’t been seen since the 1990s, the economic crisis has brought a fall in the volume of rail transport.”  But UVZ is hopeful for improved results in 2016.

The New York Times covered UVZ’s situation in February when it reported that the plant’s railcar workers had their wages cut by one-third while its military side was still “humming” on full pay.  One employee said then that workers on the civilian side had been showing up, getting paid, but actually doing little work for a year.  In June, RBK reported that UVZ furloughed 3,000 workers from railcar production.

What does UVZ’s situation mean for Russian defense?

In the short run, it means the T-14 Armata tank is likely to come out of UVZ slowly.  UVZ sent 20 tanks to the army for “troop testing” in the spring.  General Director Oleg Siyenko said in June that UVZ will deliver 100 tanks to the MOD in 2017 and 2018.  That’s a far cry from the 2,300 Armata tanks expected under GPV 2011-2020.

T-14 Armata

T-14 Armata

Meanwhile, Siyenko has been asking the Russian government for much larger loan guarantees – 60 billion rubles ($940 million) – to repay bank credits coming due in 2017 and 2018, according to RBK.  Some portion of this may be needed to retool the lines for serial Armata production.

It’s entirely possible UVZ might require a full-scale Kremlin-ordered bailout to be in position to produce Armata tanks by the hundreds.

New Division in Rostov-na-Donu

Rostov-na-Donu and the Western Direction

Rostov-na-Donu and the Western Direction

A Southern MD staff source told TASS on 24 March the Russian Army will establish a “full-blooded” motorized rifle division in the vicinity of Rostov-na-Donu this year.  The source indicated orders to this effect came from Chief of the General Staff Army General Valeriy Gerasimov.

The new division will reportedly be based in three garrison towns in Rostov Oblast.  Staff buildings and barracks will be constructed initially, with other facilities to follow in 2017.  Housing the division, storing its equipment, and providing training grounds and other essential infrastructure improvements will cost at least 5 billion rubles [$73 million].

Headquarters to the Southern MD, Rostov-na-Donu is opposite Donetsk and was the staging area for Russian forces that intervened in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

On 12 January, Defense Minister Shoygu announced that three divisions would be established in the western direction during 2016, but didn’t say where.  He also didn’t indicate if they would be completely new formations or existing ones moved to a new location and beefed up.

Most Southern MD forces are located south of Stavropol (headquarters of the 49th CAA) and are oriented on the Caucasus.

But Aleksey Ramm has suggested that an MRD at Rostov-na-Donu might be formed out of the current 33rd Independent Motorized Rifle Brigade (Mountain) now based in Maykop and Novocherkassk.  There aren’t other good candidates except to make a new division out of whole cloth.

If Rostov-na-Donu is one division, what about the other two?

The reincarnated 1st Tank Army just west of Moscow probably needs its 6th Tank Brigade to become a division for the army to be a real tank army (at least two tank divisions).

The 20th CAA — moved from around Nizhniy Novgorod to Voronezh — could have either its 9th MRB or 1st Tank Brigade (both near Boguchar) turned into a division.

But in light of increased tension with NATO, especially with its newest and easternmost members, it seems the Kremlin might want a new division opposite the Baltic states, or perhaps even in Kaliningrad. The latter would be a low-cost reorganization since the Ground Troops already have an independent brigade and regiment in the Russian exclave.

Tupolevs Over Tajikistan

Tu-95 MS Bear (photo TVZvezda)

Tu-95MS / Bear (photo: TVZvezda)

Moscow integrated Tu-95MS / Bear and Tu-22M3 / Backfire bombers into a “large-scale” exercise with Tajikistan this week.

Bears and Backfires (and Tu-160 / Blackjacks) participated in strikes on Syrian targets last November, and we’re accustomed to Russian bombers probing U.S. and NATO air defenses.  But this might be the first time the Russians have deployed strategic bombers for training over a former Soviet / CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization partner.

If not, it is uncommon.

This somewhat dubious distinction might indicate that Kremlin concern about Tajikistan’s security (and its impact on Russia’s) is a notch above worries about other allies right now.

The Bears flew from their base at Engels in Saratov Oblast by way of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to get to Tajikistan.  The TVZvezda video below shows one hooked up to a tanker aircraft.

The Backfires operated from Tajik airfields along with 30 Russian Su-24M and Su-25SM aircraft and combat helicopters, according to TVZvezda.

The “anti-terrorism” exercise began on 14 March, and involved roughly 2,000 troops from the two sides, news agency TASS reported.

The combined force, including troops from Russia’s 201st Military Base in Tajikistan, VDV, and VDV Spetsnaz, blocked and destroyed a large notional motorized insurgent group that violated the country’s border.  The VDV conducted tactical airborne and air assault operations against the notional enemy along the Tajik-Afghan border.

Central MD commander General-Colonel Vladimir Zarudnitskiy and Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo observed the exercise.

So why the bombers?  First, it’s good to get flight familiarization over terrain where one might fly a real combat mission one day.  Second and more important, bombers armed with cruise missiles make a more immediate and tangible impression than equally threatening submarines cruising in the Black Sea or Med.  It’s almost the inverse of Syria where subs got the first action but LRA also had the chance to conduct real-world operations.

What of Tajikistan, the ostensible reason for the entire military display?

For, Paul Goble has written about its vulnerability to Islamic State or Taliban forces.  But, he says, Turkmenistan might actually be a more vulnerable and more attractive target.  It has natural gas for the taking and it lacks a fairly strong and proactive ally like Russia.

Also writing for Jamestown, Steve Blank speculated that Tajikistan could become a “fourth front” for Russia, along with Ukraine, Syria, and the North Caucasus. Tajikistan is a key part of Moscow’s “domino theory.”  If Dushanbe falls into hostile hands, the rest of Central Asia and Russia itself become more vulnerable.

Come what may, an exercise involving strategic aviation just beyond Russia’s periphery is an interesting and rather unnoticed event that we could see again.

Third Iskander-M Brigade in Far East

The Eastern Military District’s third brigade of Iskander-M SRBMs is set to deploy to its base after initial training on the range in Astrakhan Oblast.  Interfaks-AVN and RIA Novosti covered the story yesterday.

The recipient is the Ussuriysk-based 5th Combined Arms Army’s 20th Missile Brigade at Spassk-Dalniy, Primorskiy Kray.

The first Iskander-M brigade in the Far East was the 35th Army’s 107th Missile Brigade in Birobidzhan in 2013.  The 36th Army’s 103rd Missile Brigade in Ulan-Ude got the Iskander-M last December.

The Russian Defense Ministry has said it intends to field two brigades of Iskander-M missiles each year until it replaces older Tochka / Tochka-U SRBMs.