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Russia: Command Structure
Country Study > Chapter 9 > The Armed Forces > Force Structure > 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

Last Updated: July 1996

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Russia was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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