Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 198

Nearly two weeks after it occurred, President Vladimir Putin’s October 17 meeting with top-ranking Russian military officials clearly appears to have been an event of some importance with respect both to Russian security policy abroad and to the Kremlin’s plans for military reform at home. On the first count, some of the consequences of the meeting are already apparent. Putin announced afterward, for example, that Moscow plans to vacate key Soviet-era military facilities in both Cuba and Vietnam. The decision to abandon the Lourdes listening post near Havana was especially important, coming as it did on the eve of Putin’s October 21 talks with U.S. President George W. Bush in Shanghai. It thus set the stage not only for continued Russian-U.S. cooperation in the antiterror war and other areas, but also for what looks increasingly likely to be a breakthrough in talks between Russia and the United States on the issues of missile defense and strategic arms reduction when the two presidents meet in November (see the Monitor, October 18-19, 24).

But the impact of the October 17 meeting on Russia’s domestic military policies remains less clear. It should be recalled that Putin did place his decision to abandon both the Lourdes listening post and Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay naval base within the context of Russian military reform and the need to focus scarce government funding solely on the armed forces’ most pressing needs. But while he may have used the army’s difficult financial situation to justify a pullback that he in fact sought primarily for foreign policy reasons–that is, to please Washington on the eve of the Shanghai talks–reports of the meeting provide credible evidence that he may also have been seeking to reenergize a military reform process that, less than a year after its inception, appears already to have bogged down in bureaucratic inertia.

Indeed, based on reports of the Russian president’s remarks at the October 17 meeting, it appears that he may be using changes in the international environment brought on by the September 11 attacks in the United States not only to recast Moscow’s relations with Washington and the West, but also to drive an intensified reshaping of his own country’s defense development plans. Thus, in ordering military leaders to re-examine all their priorities with regard to defense spending and military reform, he spoke of how the “situation in the world is changing rapidly,” and of how the international battle against terrorism is linked to domestic Russian military concerns.

Exactly what changes Putin is proposing remains unclear. But it was striking that he called upon Russian military leaders on October 17 to look anew at the content of key defense development documents and to reevaluate them in terms of how well they respond to the latest global developments. Putin did not specify which documents he meant, though they presumably include a series of military reform guidelines that have been adopted by the government since August of 2000. But his comments also raised at least the possibility that he is also seeking a review of even more fundamental documents, such as the country’s concept of national security and its military doctrine. That would be important not only for what it says about the importance that Moscow is attaching to the changing international security environment, but also because Putin and his handpicked defense minister, former Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov, were themselves instrumental in drawing up those documents.

On a more pedestrian but–in the same context–perhaps no less important note, Putin issued a series of general but potentially important injunctions to Russia’s military command. As described by one report, they were organized around three points. First, that military leaders should focus their attentions only on the most important, high-priority tasks, and not “waste money to no effect” on less urgent matters. Second, that “parallel structures” should be eliminated within the Defense Ministry, as should duplication among the power structures more generally, including in the procurement of military hardware. And, third, that government funding should not be expended wastefully, but should be concentrated instead on the most important of the country’s defense agencies, such as the Russian space forces.

What was also striking about Putin’s remarks, though this point is less clear, was that he appeared to be directing some of his criticism at Sergei Ivanov, the former KGB official who he himself installed atop the Defense Ministry this past spring. At the least, Ivanov appeared to be engaging in some self-criticism when, in his own remarks to the October 17 participants, he said that, despite the efforts of the new Defense Ministry leadership (that is, his own), “negative tendencies from previous years have not yet been fully overcome.” Ivanov appeared also to be claiming, moreover, that the stabilization of defense funding to his ministry this year has not been enough to ensure “positive changes in national defense.” His call for increased defense spending was reminiscent of similar demands made by his predecessors in the defense minister post, and somewhat surprising given that, as the country’s first civilian defense chief and one of Putin’s closest aides, he was expected to bring a new discipline to the post.

In any event, Ivanov’s entreaties appear not to have gone unanswered. Another of the more significant outcomes of the October 17 meeting was Putin’s announcement that defense spending would indeed rise. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who was present at the meeting, said that an additional 4 billion rubles would be found for the army this year, and that funding for military procurement would be upped by some 27 billion in the year 2002.

Putin himself chose to emphasize the importance of raising living standards more generally for Russian soldiers, however. Given the abject condition under which many Russian military personnel and their families live, that is a policy which makes a great deal of sense. Indeed, recent surveys apparently show rising dissatisfaction within the ranks over poor living conditions, and also over the government’s failures to deliver on some earlier promises of increased wages. But Putin’s emphasis on improving living conditions for average soldiers may also have had some political significance: At a time when he is adopting policies unlikely to be popular with the high command, the Russian president may feel the need to buttress his standing with military personnel more generally.

The full fall-out from what occurred on October 17 will probably not be known for some time. Putin’s discussions with military leaders were said to have been “stormy,” and some of the generals reportedly raised objections to the Kremlin’s recent decisions both to join the American-led antiterror campaign–including proffering support for basing U.S. forces in Central Asia–and to negotiate an agreement on missile defense. It is possible, on the other hand, that “leaks” of this sort have been organized deliberately by the Kremlin to suggest in the run up to the November Russian-U.S. summit that Putin is under pressure from hardliners at home. That perception could buttress any demands that Putin might make for U.S. concessions in return for Russia’s support in the antiterror war.

But a host of domestic defense-related issues appear also to be on the agenda in Russia, and they too could test relations between Putin and his generals. Those issues include not only the defense spending ones outlined above, but also the ending of conscription and transition to a more purely volunteer force, as well as the enactment, after long and fruitless years of debate, of alternative military service legislation. And there is the need to provide benefits and training for the thousands of Russian officers scheduled to be decommissioned this year as part of the Kremlin’s move to downsize the armed forces. Moreover, at least one influential defense critic in Russia, Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Nikolaev, has charged that the military reform process currently being overseen by the Kremlin is substituting mindless force cuts for what should be the army’s highest priorities: optimizing its staffing policies and ensuring that the armed forces are equipped with new weaponry.

To date Putin has gotten a free ride on most military reform issues, but he could feel some heat if, just as force reductions begin to bite, he also alienates some in the defense community by turning too sharply toward Washington (, October 15; Interfax,, October 17, 18, 25; Kommersant, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Obshchaya Gazeta, October 18).