Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 48

Intense, behind the scenes maneuvering is reportedly continuing among top-ranking Russian military officials over a proposal which would unify command of Russia’s nuclear forces under the Strategic Missile Troops. The proposal is a controversial one which has been pushed by current Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, himself a former commander of Russian strategic rocket forces. Under the Sergeev proposal, the nuclear components of Russia’s air force and navy would be subordinated operationally to a new unified command, which would be established on the basis of the country’s Strategic Missile Troops. Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev, the current commander in chief of the missile troops and a protege of Sergeev’s, would be named to head the new joint command.

Sergeev reportedly won President Boris Yeltsin’s approval for the strategic forces’ reorganization last fall. Since then, however, considerable opposition to Sergeev’s plan is said to have developed within the military leadership. The Russian General Staff reportedly opposes it because the plan would shift much of the responsibility for planning and employing nuclear weapons from the General Staff to the new unified command. The command staffs of the Russian navy and air force likewise oppose the Sergeev plan because they would both lose control over their current nuclear assets and probably lose the funding associated with those assets. This opposition has reportedly been kept muted in public due to a belief among the commanders involved that the Russian president is squarely on the side of Sergeev.

On February 10, in what some Kremlin and Defense Ministry officials have described as an effort to resolve the deepening differences over the joint command proposal, Yeltsin created a commission to study the issue. Sergeev was named chairman of the new commission, and General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin named deputy chairman. The commanders in chief of the Russian navy, air force and missile troops are also members. The commission has reportedly been given a deadline of May 1 by which time it must present its recommendations to Yeltsin (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, March 5; Segodnya, March 4).

Several Russian news sources suggest, however, that Yeltsin–by naming Sergeev as its chairman–has ensured that the new commission will merely rubber-stamp the Russian defense minister’s proposal. But one of those sources also suggests that Sergeev’s apparent victory could prove to be a short-lived one. That source maintains that Sergeev has little support among Russian troops, and predicts that his joint command proposal will also alienate a considerable portion of the high command. Even with Yeltsin’s support, that could spell trouble for Sergeev (Kommersant, February 11; Profil, February 22).

Indeed, one Russian daily reported in December that Kvashnin has been instrumental in exploiting disenchantment among top military commanders with Sergeev’s policies. The same newspaper said that Kvashnin had likewise been busy trying to win support for his views among Russian political leaders in both parliament and the presidential administration. The newspaper suggested that Kvashnin could be in a position to pick up the pieces if opposition to Sergeev grows strong enough to endanger the defense minister’s position (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 5, 1998; see the Monitor, December 9, 1998).