Putin’s Military Shakeup: Origins of Present Crisis


2012-11-13 by Richard Weitz

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision last week to remove Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Chief of Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov, and other senior Russian defense officials and officers is an important development.

And it could have a major impact on Russia’s military reform program as well as the leadership team in Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MOD).

Since the end of the Cold War, Russian governments had struggled to transform the military they inherited from the Soviet Union. Human and financial resource shortfalls, recruitment and retention problems, and other difficulties made the institution outdated and inefficient. It had evolved into a shrunken version of the Soviet Red Army.

By 2008, the number of active-duty military personnel had declined from some 5 million during the Soviet period to about one million on paper. But rather than restructure the military through extensive rebalancing or reorganization, which could initially require large government expenditures, the MOD had merely reduced its size, often by eliminating many of the units that by then existed largely on paper.

These defects of the Soviet model army persisted, including excessively large command and administrative structures for a force that could at best field 100,000 actual combat-ready troops; the large proportion of officers and warrant officers, who comprised approximately half of Russia’s full-time military personnel; and the reliance on Soviet-era weapons systems that had outlived their peek performance periods.

For example, the military’s officer education and training infrastructure had 30 state-run military academies, suitable for staffing a force of roughly 4 million, a clear holdover from the Cold war.

Furthermore, the Russian officer corps was bloated with an upside down pyramid, with a large number of senior officer billets whose numbers have not fallen as steeply as the overall decline in Russian military personnel, partly because many of the low readiness or reserve units kept only some officers on active duty when not mobilized.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision last week to remove Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, Chief of Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov, and other senior Russian defense officials and officers is an important development. And it could have a major impact on Russia’s military reform program as well as the leadership team in Russia’s Ministry of Defense.

The Yeltsin administration of 1991-99 largely neglected the Russian armed forces, which sought to preserve its own organizational interests at the expense of efficiency. As a result, the government during the 1990s allowed the military to become marginalized as an institution.

Even so, the need to reform the armed forces became apparent – Russia’s military resources were only half those of the Soviet Union, and, naturally, it followed that the size of the military should be drawn down to compensate.

However, despite nominally reducing the size of the military, over the vociferous protests of the General Staff, the government found that no financial savings materialized.

The problem was that soldiers and officers simply joined Russia’s other power ministries.  These include the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main domestic security agency and main successor organization to the Soviet KGB, the Border Guard Service, the Interior Ministry’s Internal Troops, as well as the FSO, SVR, FSKN and EMERCOM, Russia’s paramilitary domestic emergency agency (a militarized FEMA), whose former head has been appointed Serdyukov’s replacement as Minister of Defense. Russian federal law treats these paramilitary agencies are if their personnel as serving in a military service. These power ministers were so vast that one out of three conscripts joined them rather than the regular armed forces.

The federal government also found it difficult to control military spending cuts, as the opaque MOD operated with such non-transparency that neither the civilian ministries nor the parliament could keep track of the money flows. Even so, the government sharply reduced the MOD budget over the course of the 1990s – between 1992 and 1999, by 62%.  The MOD responded by simply declining to pay soldiers, resulting in popular protests and declining popular prestige and morale of the armed forces.

These problems contributed to Russia’s military defeat in the First Chechen War, which was soon followed by the Russian economic crash of 1998, during which time the majority of soldiers went unpaid and the civil-military relationship grew colder.

In contrast to Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin saw the military as a potential political asset for reasons other than its utility in shelling the Russian Duma.

Upon coming to power in March 2000, Putin made an effort to embrace the military establishment, seeking to rebuild its prestige in order to enhance the legitimacy of his own office.

Putin’s patriotic appeals combined with his firmer administrative hand helped firm up civil-military relations over the course of the next decade.

In 2001, Putin took a step towards enhancing civilian oversight of the armed forces by dismissing Marshal Igor Sergeyev as minister of defense and appointing Putin’s former FSB Deputy, Sergei Ivanov, marking the first time in modern Russian history that the post of defense minister had been occupied by a non-uniformed official.

Putin’s administration benefited from an economic upturn in the 2000s, which enabled his government to reverse the military budget cuts of the Yeltsin years. By 2006, spending per soldier had increased by 350% relative to when Putin took office in 2000.  But this increased spending was characterized by the same distinct lack of accountability. It has been reported that as much as 70% of the 2008 defense budget may have been misappropriated.  However, the trade-off was that Putin was able to gain the respect of the military establishment as a leader – having done so, he in a strong position to make substantive changes in the civil-military dynamic in recent years.

The persistent difficulties affecting Russia’s military, as well as the Kremlin’s efforts to enhance civilian oversight of the defense sector and reduce corruption, largely explain the unexpected appointment on February 16, 2007 of Anatoly Serdyukov, the Director of the Federal Tax Service since 2004, as Russia’s new Defense Minister.

Apart from serving his obligatory two years of military service after graduation from the Leningrad Institute of Commerce in 1984, Serdyukov had never worked in the defense community. Yet, he did have substantial background in the private sector—both as an entrepreneur and as a tax official who spent years investigating Russian business practices—that would enhance his ability to oversee the Russian defense sector.

Serdyukov became the first genuine civilian head of the MOD.

His Soviet and Russian predecessors all had served as officers in the military or intelligence services. Indeed, several former military officers attacked Serdyukov’s appointment on the grounds that he lacked adequate knowledge of military affairs. In an article entitled, “Anyone Can Become a Minister Here,” Russian defense analyst and retired military officer Alexander Golts wrote that Serdyukov “had spent more time in his career working in a furniture store than doing anything else and doesn’t understand one darn thing about military affairs.” Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov joined others in wondering how could “a person who has never been in command of even a battalion … suddenly become the head of the defense agency.”

In fact, Serdyukov’s lack of defense experience did not become a major problem since he did engage on operational matters.

First, Putin continued to rely heavily on the General Staff for authoritative guidance in determining questions relating to military operations. In announcing Serdyukov’s appointment, Putin stated that “the significance of the military component, the significance of the General Staff, will certainly become even higher than it is now.”

Second, Serdyukov’s influential predecessor as defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, retained responsibility for supervising Russia’s military industrial complex—as well as the most strategic sectors of Russia’s civilian economy such as transportation, communications, and nuclear energy —as a newly appointed First Deputy Prime Minister. In a February 23 television interview, he told viewers, “I would like to assure you that the course the Defense Ministry has been following for the past six years will remain unchanged in the future as well.”

In practice, Serdyukov’s initial role was less to help decide what weapons Russia buys and how it uses them than to work with Ivanov to improve the efficiency of Russia’s defense industries. In the same statement in which he affirmed the expanding operational influence of the General Staff, Putin said Serdyukov would help the defense ministry to spend its expanding resources more rationally by “pay[ing] close attention to the economic and financial components” of Russian defense policies.

Shortly after becoming president in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev appointed General Nikolai Makarov Chief of the General Staff, replacing the vocally anti-reform General Yuri Baluyevsky.

Makarov has strongly supported the reforms.

Serduykov appointed some of his former subordinates at the Russian tax service to senior MOD posts, including several young women who also lacked military command experience. The Kremlin evidently hoped that, not having risen through the military-industrial complex, Serdykov and his team of outsiders would be more willing to tackle defense inefficiencies and corruption.

As the well known Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer has noted:

The change of guard in the defense ministry may take many months to complete, and this delay will gravely paralyze decision making as middle-ranking officials continue to guess: will they be ousted, posted to garrisons outside of Moscow or arrested?

Shoigu will face the daunting task of solving the serious problems of undermanning, overall backwardness and inefficiency of the Russian military.

Still, Shoigu has the advantage of being an experienced and highly popular politician.

The new defense minister seems to have the support of Putin, the uniform military and the general public to try once again to reshape Russia’s battered armed forces.

Photo was contained in the above article.