A Military Reform That Does Not Seem to Satisfy Anyone

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 241

Last October Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov revealed drastic plans to reform and cut the Russian military (see EDM, October 16). Since then, defense experts, the public, and thousands of officers in active service who maybe forcibly retired at short notice have been seeking clarification of the true intent and exact procedures of the coming changes. They have received nothing but soothing official replies that there is no need to panic and that everything will be alright. Not much additional information has been released, and resistance is growing to a transformation that is long overdue and badly needed.

Vladimir Putin announced that the reforms would improve Russia’s military, that "we are not planning mass layoffs," and that in 2009 only those officers who have reached retirement age and civilian university graduates who were conscripted for two years as substitute lieutenants would be dismissed. Warrant officers, according to Putin, will be allowed to serve until their contracts expire, and everyone will receive due retirement benefits and housing. Officers and warrant officers may be reemployed as civilian Defense Ministry personnel after retirement or as professional sergeants. "Fears are ungrounded," announced Putin. "If some officials go too far, if we expose unplanned problems, we will react immediately" (www.premier.gov.ru, December 4).

Despite Putin’s soothing, it is clear that the reform will be very painful. Some 300,000 officers and warrant officers will be retired in three years. The 150,000 that will stay will have to adapt to a totally different military service.

According to the First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov, 160,000 officers will be retired and 40,000 vacant officers positions will be cut. Some 100,000 officers will be retired with a military pension and receive free housing and about 60,000 without a pension but with housing. The Defense Ministry must provide 113,000 retired officers with housing in three years. Flats will be built and purchased. According to Makarov, there is enough money in the defense budget to provide the retirees with benefits, to increase pay for those who stay in service, and to procure new weapons (Interfax, December 15). The number of civilian Defense Ministry employees will decrease from 750,000 to 600,000 in three years. According to Makarov, today only 20 percent of Defense Ministry units have "permanent readiness status," while by 2011 all of them will (Kommersant, December 11).

Serdyukov has announced, "We do not believe that hundreds of thousands of servicemen will become unemployed because of the cuts" (RIA-Novosti, December 17). Unemployment and mass social distress are, in fact, highly possible. Putin has acknowledged that housing in big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg is too expensive to provide for retired officers (www.premier.gov.ru, December 4). Most will be given housing in the Russian provinces, where real estate prices are much lower but there are also many fewer opportunities for employment, especially during the current depression. Retired officers may be stuck in economically depressed areas, with insufficient or no pensions and housing that is virtually worthless on the free market.

Prominent retired generals, admirals, and military analysts complain that they do not know the particulars of the reform plan and have not been consulted. The chairman of the Duma’s defense committee General Viktor Zavarzin has complained that parliament was not fully consulted and deputies were not told how much the planned military reform would cost and where the money would come from. But, of course, as a Putin loyalist from the United Russia party, Zavarzin and his Duma defense committee “basically support the Defense Ministry reform plan,” apparently without knowing much about it (Interfax, December 15).

Dissent and resistance to the reform plan are increasing. Last Sunday retired officer activists of the pro-Communist Union of Soviet Officers joined antigovernment protesters from the Other Russia coalition in Moscow. Riot police arrested the officers, including a retired admiral and general in military uniform with decorations (Kommersant, December 15).

To make things worse, Makarov announced that the main staff of the Navy would be moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg to the historic Admiralty Building, where the Russian Imperial Fleet had its headquarters before 1917. Last January a group of prominent retired admirals called plans to move the main naval staff to St. Petersburg a senseless idea that would require tens of billions of dollars of extra expenditures and destroy the operational cohesion of the navy. For a time it seemed that the idea had been dropped, but now it was suddenly announced that the transfer would begin immediately (Interfax, December 16).

It is clear that the ridiculous move of the naval headquarters is to please Putin and his cohorts from St. Petersburg who want to restore some imperial glory to their home town. The military absurdity of the move will outrage naval commanders and prominent retired admirals. Announced at the same time as reform plans are being discussed, the move seriously calls their validity in doubt.