Ability, Talent and Lost Careers: Russia’s “Superfluous Generals”

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 133

Russian Army Chief of Staff General Nikolai Makarov (Source: PressTV)

In 1850, Ivan Turgenev popularized the literary concept of the “superfluous man” in his Dnevnik Lishnego Cheloveka (The Diary of a Superfluous Man). The character is unable to reconcile his own talents and abilities to the state-centric approach demanded by his employment. During the reorganization of General Staff officers initiated under the management of Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov in the fall of 2008, that literary concept transmogrified into a unique contemporary experience: the “superfluous general.” Reporting in the Russian media on July 5 on the resignations of another group of generals triggered unusual speculation about their motives. It centered on why a small number of comparatively young and talented generals had resigned, and if this might shed light on the dark recesses of a “reform” that has long-since faltered under the burden of self-contradiction (Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 5).

Resignations were submitted by Lieutenant-General Andrei Tretyak (52), the Deputy Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Main Directorate of Operations, Lieutenant-General Sergei Skokov (51), the Chief of Staff in the Ground Forces and Major-General Oleg Ivanov (45), Chief of the Electronic Warfare Directorate and “others.” However, these three were variously described in the media as “brilliant.” General Skokov was appointed to his last post in June 2009, after working in the Main Operational Directorate coordinating large-scale military exercises involving motorized rifle brigades. His promotion in 2009 was widely expected by his colleagues, not least given his combat experience in Chechnya for which he was decorated. He was a strong advocate for contract personnel (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 12, 2009; Interfax, June 8, 2009). Skokov was also broadly aligned with progressive ideas, playing a role in the development of network-centric warfare capabilities and involved in overseeing the introduction of automated command and control systems. Yet, Tretyak’s resignation became a focus of interest not least since this important position in the General Staff has become a revolving door in recent years (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 5).

Media coverage diverged widely on the reasons underlying the unexpected discovery of another batch of “superfluous generals.” Sergei Konovalov represented the resignations as a “demarche” against the “reform,” aimed at the Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov. Konovalov’s anonymous “defense ministry” source explained that their motives lay not in opposing Serdyukov, whom they allegedly characterized as a “skilled manager” but the manner in which Makarov was subjecting the officer corps to a period of protracted experiment. The real source of incompetence and indecision was the chief of the general staff, who could not decide on basic instructions or combat regulations and was reduced to making “fantastic” claims about combat readiness. Skokov had apparently decided to leave the military as too much attention was paid to automated systems and time, as well as resources were being wasted in an effort to bring obsolete structures in line with modern means of conducting warfare. The article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye implied that the resignations had serious political ramifications and may indeed run much deeper than a “reform” issue (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, July 5).

Nonetheless, articles by Viktor Baranets and Yuri Gavrilov in Komsomolskaya Pravda and Rossiyskaya Gazeta respectively, contradicted the account offered by Konovalov –the latter had given traction to rumor and placed too much emphasis on one anonymous source (Komsomolskaya Pravda, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, July 5). Despite this, Colonel-General (retired) Petr Deynekin, Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of the Air Force in 1991-1998, reasoned that the generals in this instance had voted with their feet, and were “brave enough” to register what they really believed about the “so-called reform,” by their actions rather than relying on any statement. Konstantin Sivkov, first vice-president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, questioned the sense of pursuing the staffing policy of rotation, arguing that it makes it impossible to develop or maintain the General Staff at the “required level,” and suggested that “rushed” rotation was undermining the General Staff. Aleksandr Sharavin, the Director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, highlighted the constant reversal of position by the General Staff’s leadership on contract personnel; and asked at which point they had reached “the correct view?” (Ren TV, July 5). Sivkov suggested that Serdyukov’s well-known rudeness in how he deals with officers may be involved in each case. But to portray the resignations as evidence of either a deep schism between Serdyukov and Makarov or a group of “Decembrists” waiting in the wings was simply illogical (https://svpressa.ru/society/article/45280/, July 5).

Sergei Melkov, a political scientist, questioned the basis of the Konovalov article. The latter had tried to connect the disparate generals as a “group” and unite them in a cause against Makarov without offering firm evidence. The attempt to portray them as “disgruntled generals” that may trigger a deeper political revolt was far-fetched and mischievous. Melkov admitted that Makarov may be narrow-minded and singularly qualified for his post based on his loyalty to the defense minister, but this provided insufficient grounds for “thinking up” discontent in the armed forces (https://www.lawinrussia.ru/node/27446, July 5).

Clearly, the central theme presented through Konovalov’s article was odd, not least by selecting Makarov rather than Serdyukov as the person to blame for continued experiments among the armed forces. Makarov often simply carries out the directives of the defense minister, while his term of service was extended by presidential ukaz in October 2009 for three years, which means he has less than 15 months left in his post in any case. Naturally, the defense ministry lost no time in issuing a denial of the reported reasons for these resignations, and noted that the generals had asked to leave the military between April and July on health grounds while also identifying the prospect of rotation, which may entail moving to a post beyond Moscow, as an additional factor. General Tretyak also took the step of formally rebutting such allegations: “My decision to resign from the army is no way linked to the issues of the reform of the Armed Forces, let alone to some kind of disagreement with the leadership” (Ren TV, Interfax, July 5).

While the latest batch of “superfluous generals” departing from the armed forces aroused brief controversy, its context must be understood, in order to explain why such neuralgia was triggered. A series of measures in late 2008 by General Makarov banned senior officers from openly criticizing the reform, while the General Staff also sent its “representatives” into units to monitor potential opposition to the process; these were in addition to Federal Security Service (FSB) counter-intelligence officers already present at brigade level in the armed forces. Consequently, the reasons for any senior officer submitting his resignation became subject to speculation. In January 2010, another group of generals resigned, including Army-General Vladimir Boldyrev, the then CINC of the Ground Forces. Boldyrev apparently attempted to resign on several occasions prior to his final departure, but the authorities remained tight-lipped and knew he could not lawfully publicly discuss his departure (Parlamentskaya Gazeta, May 29, 2010; Kommersant, March 10, 2010; Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 18, 2008).

The Russian defense ministry is currently pre-occupied with issues such as European missile defense, the future of Russia’s strategic deterrence, and a faltering military modernization agenda; for many “reform” has slipped off the radar. Konovalov’s mysterious source used these high-profile resignations to highlight the spurious nature of the claims regularly made about improved combat readiness. It also exposed the schwacher punkt in the approach to reform: poor planning and constant experimentation (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 6). But the underlying issue that transcends analysis of “reform” is that the latest “superfluous generals” were younger with more career potential than previous examples. Skokov perhaps more than Tretyak illustrates this –but the top brass can ill-afford to lose such senior officers.