Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 91

A day after Russia’s Victory Day celebration, which marked the first time in the country’s history that the holiday had been presided over by a “civilian” defense minister, it is worth looking at some of the key personnel changes defense chief Sergei Ivanov has made since being appointed to the post on March 28. Ivanov–regarded as Putin’s closest advisor and, like the Russian president, a former KGB official–is said to have been named to the defense minister post with the express purpose of implementing the Kremlin’s plans to reduce, restructure and, if all goes as hoped, rebuild Russia’s decrepit armed forces. The Kremlin has also presented the appointment as part of a plan to “civilianize” the Russian Defense Ministry, and to demonstrate its seriousness named several other nonmilitary officials to top Defense Ministry positions to serve under Ivanov. That most of these officials are, like Putin and Ivanov, veterans of Russia’s security services undermines the notion that Moscow is really moving toward a more Western-style system of civil-military relations, and suggests instead that Putin may be most interested in ensuring reliable Kremlin control over the military establishment (see the Monitor, March 30, April 18). Be that as it may, Ivanov is the pointman for Russia’s military reform program, and Putin’s success as a president and his ability to restore Russian influence on the international scene will to some extent depend on Ivanov’s performance in that role.

Unlike the initial round of appointments that accompanied Ivanov’s installation in the defense minister post, more recent personnel changes atop the military hierarchy–and the signals they send about military policy–have received relatively little coverage in the press. This silence appears in part to be due to the Kremlin’s and Ivanov’s personal desire to proceed quietly with the next stage of military reform. Indeed, as various Russian critics have pointed out, the very secrecy with which the defense reform program has been formulated (most of its details remain classified) and is now being implemented does much to belie Russian claims of moving toward a more typically civilian and democratic model of military politics. Russian lawmakers have had virtually no input in the process, while public discussion has been crippled and distorted by the dearth of available hard information about the plan.

That said, a pair of appointments announced in the Russian press last month suggest that, in administrative and political terms at least, some significant moves are afoot in the Defense Ministry. The appointments involve the naming of Russian Ground Forces Commander-in-Chief Colonel General Nikolai Kormiltsev as a Russian deputy defense minister, and the ouster of long-time Strategic Missile Troops Commander-in-Chief Army General Vladimir Yakovlev and his replacement by Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov. The appointments are in a sense two sides of the same coin: They reflect an unexpected and major upgrading of the importance of the Russian Ground Forces, and a corresponding sharp downgrade in the status of the country’s one proud strategic rocket troops.

Kormiltsev’s appointment as Ground Forces CINC came back in March with Ivanov’s naming as defense minister, and reflected a Kremlin decision to reinstate an independent Ground Forces command and to reestablish the Ground Forces as one of Russia’s three (there were previously five) services. Indeed, in an indication of how wasteful and misdirected Russian military reform efforts have been over the past decade, the revival of the Ground Forces command marks a major reversal of an action taken in the name of efficiency and military reform just a few years ago under previous Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. What is important about the Kremlin’s April 27 decision to elevate Kormiltsev to the rank of deputy defense minister, however, is that it came with indications suggesting that the Ground Forces command is to be given a degree of authority exceeding that which it enjoyed even in Soviet times, and that its gains in this area may be coming in part at the expense of the Russian General Staff.