On May 26 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov as the new commander of the airborne troops (VDV). The post had been vacant since early May, following Lieutenant-General Valeriy Yevtukhovich being discharged to the reserve. Shamanov was twice decorated as a "Hero of Russia" for his combat role in both Russian military campaigns in Chechnya, and was also a former governor of Ulyanovsk Oblast. In his most recent post as the chief of the main combat training directorate Shamanov emerged as a suitable candidate for promotion. Nonetheless, his appointment also marks a significant blow to the wider military reform agenda (Vedomosti, May 26).
The 52-year-old Shamanov has significant experience within the airborne troops, graduating from the Ryazan Airborne Troops School and serving as the chief of staff of the Novorossiysk 7th Division. Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov appointed him as the chief of the combat training directorate in 2007. His reputation as a competent commander emerged intact despite human rights groups alleging his involvement in massacres within Chechnya. More recently, he commanded the 58th Army which played a critical role in the war with Georgia in August 2008. Despite these impressive credentials, some questioned the motive behind his promotion. Mikhail Babich, deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee said that the reasons underlying Yevtukhovich’s resignation remained unclear, while he lamented the decision not to relocate him elsewhere within the MoD (Vedomosti, May 26).
The VDV is widely regarded as the most combat-capable element of the conventional forces, and Serdyukov’s role in the appointment of Shamanov might indicate that he wants a career paratrooper to oversee the force during this critical period, as the entire armed forces are reorganized. However, Shamanov’s appointment was also justified in terms of his combat experience in Karabakh, Chechnya and Dagestan. Moreover, his background within the VDV and thorough knowledge of its tactics and organization suggests he might be well placed to defend its interests as the reform program proceeds (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 26).
In a clear departure from the plans first announced in the fall of 2008, the 106th Airborne Division in Tula will survive the extensive re-organization currently underway within the rest of the ground forces. This division will not be broken up in order to form brigades – which represent the defining feature of the structural reforms to transfer from a division-based to a new brigade-based system. On May 27 the Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolay Makarov, said the airborne forces will still face reform. Makarov explained that the Tula division will remain intact, while the reform program will be amended accordingly for the airborne troops. He envisages that additional reinforcements and new units will strengthen the VDV (Zvezda TV, May 27). General Shamanov reinforced the message that the VDV will face changes. New units will be formed within the Moscow and Leningrad military districts: an airborne assault brigade in the former and a parachute assault regiment within the latter. However, the order to disband the Tula division was signed by Serdyukov in January, and was due for completion on June 1, leading some observers to speculate that Shamanov made its preservation a condition of his appointment (Zvezda TV, Interfax, May 27; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 28).
On the state-controlled Center TV, Shamanov admitted that the VDV faces precisely the same issues negatively affecting the rest of the Russian ground forces. This mainly relates to aging equipment and weapons, specifically the BMD-1 airborne fighting vehicle which as Shamanov noted, had been introduced into service thirty years ago, as well as the BMD-2 that first appeared in the 1980’s. He also criticized existing communications and reconnaissance systems, explaining that these urgently required upgrading. The deputy commander of the VDV Major-General Vyacheslav Borisov believes that 2009-10 will prove critical in procuring new hardware and weaponry. Indeed, the state armament program details supplying the VDV with large numbers of airborne combat vehicles including the BMD-4, multipurpose airborne armored personnel carriers BTR-MD, 125-mm self-propelled antitank guns as well as various models of KamAZ vehicles (Interfax, May 28).
On May 25 the MoD announced the replacement of the director of the federal service for defense orders (Rosoboronzakaz) -Sergey Mayev- by Serdyukov’s adviser Aleksandr Sukhorukov. The appointment is an attempt on the part of Serdyukov to strengthen his position within the ministry, since Sukhorukov was the former chief of the organizational inspection administration at the federal taxation service – in the period when it was run by Serdyukov. These appointments are part of Serdyukov’s effort to maximize the chances of success for his controversial reform program, in the context a turf-war over the implementation of the radical agenda (Vedomosti, May 26).
Rumors have also circulated within the MoD of Serdyukov’s imminent resignation, since a spokesman took the unusual step on May 19 of stating that the defense minister had gone on vacation for fifteen days: some observers considered that he might not return to his post (Interfax, May 19). Nevertheless, the appointment of Shamanov and Sukhorukov, at Serdyukov’s initiative, suggests that such rumors must be treated cautiously. MoD sources have said that for him to resign at the height of the current reforms might be interpreted as an admission of failure, thus undermining the entire process.
General Shamanov is also considered to be broadly supportive of Serdyukov’s reform agenda, while he will undoubtedly manage the impact of the changes in a manner that mitigates any damage to the VDV, as well as more broadly "fighting" for the interests of the airborne forces. In this complex turf-war, with senior officers opposed to reform being removed from their posts and its supporters promoted, the VDV has scored the first major success for the non-reformist camp. They have demonstrated their disapproval of the "one-size fits all approach," and preserved their division-based structure. Serdyukov continues to display determination to drive though the most controversial reform program in post-war Russian history, despite a series of setbacks.