Publication: Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 232

The decision yesterday to retire Defense Minister Igor Rodionov from the armed forces while concurrently retaining him in his current post had all the markings of yet another hastily conceived personnel action devised by the Kremlin for fleeting political advantages. In fact, however, the move could have far-reaching implications for Russia’s defense establishment and appears to be part of a broader effort to push forward much needed reform in that troubled arena. The most immediate consequence is that Russia now has a civilian defense minister. This is a change that military reformers have lobbied hard for since before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but which has been strongly opposed by more traditional elements in society and, especially, in the uniformed officer corps.

As a career military officer Rodionov may not fit neatly into Western definitions of "civilian," but because he carries sufficient authority within the defense establishment his change of status may be the best way to move Russia to a point where, in the future, a true civilian can be appointed. In remarks yesterday President Boris Yeltsin implicitly made this point. He appeared to underline that Russia’s Defense Ministry will henceforth be headed by a civilian and that the decision on Rodionov was taken with an eye toward the practices of democratic societies. Yeltsin and other Russian leaders also emphasized that Rodionov’s change of status in no way reflects a diminution of his powers, and several of them suggested that the change might even allow Rodionov to operate more effectively in political terms. More immediately, yesterday’s events appeared to be a vote of confidence for Rodionov at a time when he is under fire both for the botched sacking of Russia’s ground forces commander-in-chief and for the still halting pace of military reform. (Itar-Tass, Interfax, December 10)

There was also speculation in Moscow yesterday that Rodionov’s change of status dovetails with long discussed proposals to differentiate more clearly the functions of Russia’s Defense Ministry and General Staff in a fashion that would enhance the latter agency’s role in operational matters. Indeed, Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin claimed earlier this week that Yeltsin intends to issue a decree in February that will not only increase the General Staff’s authority within the regular armed forces, but that will extend its oversight responsibilities to Russia’s myriad other "power ministries." (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 11) Questions of this sort presumably also arose during yesterday’s meeting of the Russian Defense Council, at which proposals on military reform were discussed. The few details of the meeting that were immediately available suggested that the Kremlin may be close to approving a comprehensive military reform plan that is sure to generate opposition within the broad defense establishment. For that very reason its success will require both that the men atop the Defense Ministry and General Staff fully support the reform effort, and that they command sufficient authority to push through the unpopular changes. Neither of these conditions is a given.

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