Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 27

More recent Russian press commentaries have continued to suggest that Sergeev, who is already past retirement age, is likely to be relieved of his post soon after Putin’s expected election. But some of these reports have speculated that another candidate has emerged for the post of defense minister–Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Nikolaev. The retired Russian general has had an interesting career. At a young age he rose, in the early 1990s, to become the first deputy of chief of the Russian General Staff. In 1993 he was rather unexpectedly appointed to command the Russian border troops. In the succeeding years Nikolaev become deeply embroiled in the Russian military reform debate, and was reportedly considered for the vacated General Staff chief post in 1997. Disagreements over the role and authority of the federal border guard service appeared to sour relations between Nikolaev and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin later that year, however, and in December Nikolaev resigned from his post. He had by that time built up a significant political following (there were rumors he had presidential ambitions), and in April 1998 he was elected to the State Duma from a district in Moscow.

Reports mooting Nikolaev’s name as a possible defense minister in the Putin administration suggest that the acting Russian president–himself a career intelligence officer–is attracted by the fact that Nikolaev has a background both in the army and in the border forces (which during the Soviet period were subordinated to the KGB). Putin is also said to have an affinity for Nikolaev’s ideas regarding military reform. On the negative side of the ledger, however, are Nikolaev’s seeming penchant for confrontations and his political ambitions and political following. For a president-to-be with no real political base of his own, that could be a threatening prospect. As chairman of the Duma’s Defense Committee, Nikolaev will likely be a player of some note in Russian defense policymaking, regardless of whether he winds up in the Putin administration (Segodnya, January 24; Kommersant daily, February 4-5; Novye izvestia, February 5).

Putin’s handling of defense appointments and defense policy after his presumed election will say much about not only his own views on various aspects of Russian security, but his abilities as a politician as well. By most accounts, Putin is politically beholden to Kvashnin and other hardliners in the military leadership. It will be interesting to see whether he opts to reward them with key appointments–and satisfies their policy demands–or moves to establish his own political independence by bringing in fresh faces. In waging the war in the Caucasus, Putin has seen his own interests coincide with those of the military. But it is not clear that those interests will continue to coincide if the war is prolonged, or once the focus of relations between Putin and the armed forces turns to other issues. Despite a pledge to raise defense procurement spending, funding will remain a problem for Russia’s armed forces and a likely source of tension between Putin and various military interest groups. It will require political skill to manage those tensions.

Finally, since the demise of the Soviet Union, there has been an unceasing struggle for power and authority (not to mention funding) among not only various groups in the regular armed forces, but also between and among the army and the myriad other intelligence and security agencies that make up Russia’s “power ministries.” There have been suggestions that Putin–a career KGB officer–may try to tip the balance of authority in this arena back toward the security services. If so, that could undermine support for Putin among military commanders and compel him to maneuver with a political dexterity very different from what has been demanded of him in unleashing Russia’s military might on Chechnya.