Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the elite Russian airborne forces (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska – VDV), turns 55 on February 15, 2012. The significance of his forthcoming birthday, the retirement age for an officer of his rank, prompted speculation in the Russian media concerning his future. The curious parameters of this speculation reflect wider concerns about the impact of the domestic political crisis and Vladimir’s Putin’s planned return to the Kremlin and how this may affect the “defense team.” However, the possibility that General Shamanov may simply be discharged into the reserve may have implications for the top brass maintaining its support for reforming the Armed Forces (Interfax, January 10).
On January 10, Interfax referred to Shamanov’s predicament, since in order to retain any post in the military he would need promotion to the rank of colonel-general. The problem with the promotion is not so much Shamanov’s controversial reputation as a tough officer with allegations of over-stepping the mark in Chechnya, but his more recent attempt in the fall of 2009 to use a VDV unit to protect the business interests of a family member. Consequently, with many observers expecting Shamanov to be dismissed from service, he received only a reprimand. According to an Interfax source in the defense ministry, this reprimand is being used as the formal reason to prevent Shamanov’s promotion, since it has not been revoked (Interfax, January 10).
Indeed, the reference to a “formal” reason to impede Shamanov’s career progression is revealing. In theory the Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, could resolve the problem and ensure that one of the few senior officers who consistently supported the reform would continue to serve. Serdyukov, however, undoubtedly has numerous reasons for preferring Shamanov to slip quietly into retirement. Although Shamanov has proven to be an avid reform supporter, he has also resisted aspects of its application to the VDV, most notably the original intention to apply the new brigade-based structure to the airborne forces. This resistance to the “one-size-fits-all” approach initially taken as the reform was implemented, has not always successfully protected the VDV from the process; such as the diminution of the numbers of educational officers, or problems over securing transport aviation (Interfax, July 29-30, 2010).
Serdyukov’s embarrassing spat in Ryazan on September 30, 2010, in the context of a dispute over a church building, which triggered a foul-mouthed dressing down from the minister to VDV Colonel Andrei Krasov, resulted in protests from VDV veterans. In order to placate the growing antipathy of the VDV veterans toward Serdyukov, it required among other responses a letter from Shamanov appealing to these retired officers to desist and complaining it marked an “unprecedented propaganda campaign” against the defense minister. Shamanov signed this letter at the hospital, following his car accident in Moscow in October 2010, and the Russian media showing images of him being visited by his close friend, Vladimir Putin (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 15, 2010).
It may well be the case that the defense ministry is ready to jettison Shamanov, a highly respected and decorated combat experienced officer with a reputation for toughness, but it would mark another serious blow to the reform effort. Remarkably, speculation concerning his future has also swung in an entirely different direction. In response to the retirement from his post in the Security Council of Yury Baluyevskiy, the former Chief of the General Staff (CGS), another defense ministry source suggested that Shamanov might even be appointed as the CGS. This was linked to the present CGS, Army-General Nikolai Makarov’s subordinates already starting to pack. In fact, Makarov has only a few months left in his post, after the presidential decree extended his service by three years when he reached retirement age in October 2009. In this scenario, Makarov’s departure was linked to Serdyukov being replaced in the widely expected government reshuffle either pre- or post-presidential election (http://www.argumenti.ru/army/n322/149176, January 11). The same anonymous source said that if Shamanov is appointed as the CGS, the heads of branch and service commanders will roll.
Meanwhile, Shamanov shows no signs of impending birthday blues. On January 12, he gave an interview to Interfax about plans for the VDV to hone its counter-terrorist skills later this year by staging joint exercises in the United States with US Special Forces. He said that the VDV will also participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Peace Mission 2012 in Tajikistan, as well as in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Kavkaz 2012 in Armenia. The VDV training program for this year includes a joint exercise with Ukrainian airmobile forces in Tula and an additional exercise in Ukraine joined by Belarusian units (Interfax, January 12).
Shamanov’s commitment to “reform,” was equally on display during his thirteen minute interview with Rossiya 24 on December 29. He highlighted important features of this reform, particularly in relation to improving combat training with the finalization of new guideline documents and field manuals. However, commenting on the need for a more systemic approach to combat training he expressed his hope that in 2012 new cadets would enroll in the country’s military schools after a two year hiatus. Shamanov referred to expected deliveries of modern weapons and equipment for the VDV, but expressed concern that this was not occurring quickly enough (Rossiya 24, December 29, 2011).
Underlying the speculation about Shamanov’s future, are deeper issues linked to restructuring the leadership of the defense ministry and top brass stemming from the Russian presidential election. The new CGS is perhaps more likely to be chosen from among the four Military District commanders, but the ultimate choice will be made by Putin. Equally, for Shamanov, the decision concerning his own future lies in the hands of Putin.