Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 149

In what is apparently the latest manifestation of continuing tensions within the Russian military leadership, reports yesterday said that President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree dismissing six generals serving in top Defense Ministry posts. Western accounts connected the firings to the well-publicized row which erupted into public view last month between Russia’s two most powerful military leaders: Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin. The same accounts also said that the generals who had been sacked had ties to Sergeev, and suggested that the dismissals amounted to a political victory for Kvashnin (Reuters, AP, BBC, July 31). Some Russian sources took a more nuanced view, however. They intimated that at least this round of personnel changes may be centered more on a struggle over defense procurement policy between Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov and the most prominent of the dismissed generals–the Defense Ministry’s chief of procurement and armaments, Anatoly Sitnov. A number of accounts also suggested that yesterday’s firings are likely to be but the first salvo in a larger housecleaning which looms atop the defense establishment, a development which some said could ultimately cost both Sergeev and Kvashnin their current posts.

The key struggle within the military leadership right now involves a military reform plan Kvashnin unveiled last month which would greatly reduce the strength of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops (SMT) and, if reports are to be believed, subordinate the leftover assets to the Russian Air Force. Kvashnin has justified the move as a cost-cutting measure, one which he says would allow the military leadership to devote greater funding to restoring the war fighting capabilities of Russia’s increasingly decrepit conventional forces. Sergeev–himself a former rocket forces commander who, during his tenure as defense minister, has prioritized funding for the SMT–denounced the plan. The Kvashnin-Sergeev row is but a reflection of a broader struggle within the armed forces, which pits the SMT against both the other service branches and Russia’s ground troops. Putin’s failure to substantially increase military spending, as he had promised earlier, has raised the stakes in the battle. But personal politics are also involved. Kvashnin has long had his eyes on the defense minister post. If Russian accounts are to be believed, he has moved adroitly to win backing for himself and those close to him among a number of Russian political leaders, including President Vladimir Putin (see the Monitor, July 13, 17).

In this context, what stands out about yesterday’s firings is that none of those dismissed is a strategic rocket forces officer. Aside from Sitnov, the generals who lost their jobs were identified as Stanislav Petrov (chief of the Defense Ministry’s radiation, chemical and biological defense troops), Boris Dukhov (head of the army’s air defense force), Nikolai Karaulov (chief of the Defense Ministry’s main rocket and artillery directorate), Aleksandr Zobnin (chief of the ministry’s administration for material resources and foreign economic relations), and Anatoly Shatalov (head of the ministry’s press service).

According to one Russian report, all of those fired, except for Shatalov, are proteges of the aforementioned Anatoly Sitnov. The same report suggests that it is Sitnov’s absence which is likely to hurt Sergeev during an upcoming meeting of the Russian Security Council at which questions related to Kvashnin’s military reform proposal are to be considered. There have been suggestions that Klebanov has chosen to side with Kvashnin, and that the two men together may have played a role in Sitnov’s ouster (The Moscow Times, August 1; Kommersant daily, July 29).

Sitnov had occupied his post since 1994, during which time he reportedly helped draft and oversee longer-term Russian arms procurement policies. Sitnov has been a frequent spokesman in the Russian press on questions related to military procurement policy and, indeed, has often criticized the low levels of Russian state spending in this area. What is a bit surprising is that Sitnov has himself tended to argue for greater funding for Russia’s conventional forces–a position which presumably does not differ greatly from that held by Kvashnin and his supporters. Sitnov may have been hurt, however, by suggestions that he has misused his office. According to one Russian source, Putin moved several months ago to launch an investigation into financial dealings between Sitnov’s Defense Ministry directorate and the various defense enterprises with which it works (Moskovsky komsomolets, August 1).

Assuming that yesterday’s firings are related to the Sergeev-Kvashnin struggle, then they could further politicize the issue of Kvashnin’s military reform plan among both uniformed officers and interested political groups. There are many in both of these spheres who continue to see Russia’s strategic missile troops not only as a crucial component of Russia’s military security, but also as an enduring symbol and guarantee of the country’s status as a great power. Sergeev himself was quick to play upon these sorts of sentiments following last month’s confrontation with Kvashnin when he accused the General Staff chief of, among other things, purposefully and recklessly weakening Russia’s position in strategic arms control negotiations with the United States. Other military and civilian political figures have taken up this chorus. In mid July a group of well-known former Soviet military commanders argued in an appeal to the Russian president and to the speakers of Russia’s two houses of parliament that the country’s strategic nuclear rocket forces should not be unilaterally reduced, as Kvashnin has proposed. Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev followed that appeal up last week with a pledge that he would do his best to prevent the SMT from being cut. He also accused Kvashnin of causing the latest wrangle within the military high command. All of this suggests that Putin–who is reported to favor Kvashnin–faces a ticklish political dilemma and one that presents the Russian leaders with few cost-free options (Obshchaya gazeta, July 27-August 3; Kommersant daily, July 29).