Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has appeared to be in political trouble since the start of the year. The traditional pompous celebrations of Defender of the Fatherland Day on February 23 were overshadowed by the scandal around the brutal hazing of a young conscript at the Chelyabinsk military academy. A string of other cases of dedovshchina have been reported and moved public opinion further against a conscript army. In response President Vladimir Putin reduced the length of service from two years to one, beginning spring 2008, leaving it to Ivanov to sort out the details (Vedomosti, February 14; Lenta.ru, March 22). Even the international occasions where Ivanov usually thrives were rather chilly, since his NATO counterparts were not exactly thrilled by his statements about the “shoot-to-kill” rules for protecting the Black Sea Fleet installations in the Crimea (Vremya novostei, January 18). Insightful commentators were hinting that Ivanov was on his way “out” as a potential presidential candidate when Putin suddenly promoted him to be chairman of the newly created Military-Industrial Commission (Vedomosti, March 21).
This is no small bureaucratic achievement. Ivanov declared his intention to take control over the industrial sectors that worked on orders from the Defense Ministry back in November 2005 when he was promoted to deputy prime minister, but Mikhail Fradkov, the hard-nosed prime minister, dampened Ivanov’s ambitions and kept the levers of control in his own hands (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 21). But now Ivanov has scored a victory far beyond the original aims, since the new Commission is not just another bureaucratic forum for comparing egos. According to the presidential decree, it is a permanently functioning body with vast responsibilities for supervising the distribution and implementation of the “defense order” worth up to $10 billion, so that Ivanov’s new deputy, General Vladislav Putilin, has received the rank of a government minister (Kommersant, March 21). Ivanov and Putilin will also control the arms exports that reached $6.1 billion in 2005 and might increase with the new multi-billion contracts signed recently with Algeria (Kommersant, March 11). And in a significant coup in bureaucratic status games, the Ivanov Commission can deliver drafts of presidential decrees to the Kremlin without the prime minister’s signature.
The new superstructure looks so monumental that comparisons with the Soviet military-industrial complex are unavoidable, except that in those days a defense minister would never have such a degree of formal control over the industry. The fact of the matter is, however, that nowadays the industrial part of the former complex is so atomized and disintegrated that it should rather be called a conglomerate. Companies that bitterly compete for defense orders would never consider proposals for horizontal cooperation, while for many enterprises the inclusion in the long list of “strategic contractors” is merely a means of protection against bankruptcy. Hence the accelerating growth of prices for the final product that leads to the situation where the fast-expanding acquisitions budget provides only for purchasing the same six or seven “Topol-M” strategic missiles every year (Novaya gazeta, March 23). Taking a quick tour along several military plants in the Urals, the defense minister assured listeners that his new responsibilities would guarantee a far more efficient spending of the “targeted” funds for modernization of the armed forces (Kommersant, March 24). However, as Vitaly Shlykov, a respected Russian military expert, points out, the task of cleaning up the Augean stables of military-industrial non-cooperation requires labors that Ivanov is hardly prepared to deliver (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, March 24).
His record in advancing long-overdue military reform is truly dismal, but he has shown much inventiveness and even passion in protecting his generals from public criticism and arguing that the dreadful atmosphere in the barracks is merely a reflection of multiple social problems. Now he would deploy these talents to explain away the failures in launching satellites and accidents with combat planes falling apart in the air, which certainly have nothing to do with poor maintenance and reliance on antiquated technology. Such PR exercises are only a minor price to pay for the significant increase of his political “weight” and bureaucratic clout, as he is now sitting on the top of his own pyramid that distributes unaccountable funds towards well-hidden internal secret chambers.
Ivanov certainly is not unique in Putin’s court, where loyalty is rewarded extra generously when it comes hand-in-hand with professional incompetence so that the minion in question always remembers he is expendable (Kommersant, March 13). For that matter, the previous large-scale administrative “reform” that placed Nikolai Patrushev, the director of the FSB, in charge of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee was driven not by any increase in the intensity of the terrorist threat but by the most natural bureaucratic desire to monopolize the flow of funds earmarked for counter-terrorism activities (Lenta.ru, February 17). In a much similar way, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a presidential hopeful, is busy constructing his own pyramid that would “utilize” financial resources directed towards presidential “national projects.” The overall result of these collective efforts is impressive indeed: Putin’s army of bureaucrats is now numerically equal to Brezhnev’s (close to 2 million “soldiers”) and the expenses for remunerating their service are projected to grow by a record 30% in the 2006 state budget (Vedomosti, March 24).
Only 9,000 people signed a recent petition demanding Ivanov’s resignation as defense minister because of his neglect of the spread of dedovshchina (Novye izvestiya, March 22). Russians know all too well that even a hundred times more signatures would not convince Putin — and Ivanov knows it as well, dismissing the appeal as “artistic whistle” (Grani.ru, March 22). It was, nevertheless, an irritant strong enough to bring Marina Litvinovich, one of the initiators, a severe beating by unknown hooligans (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 21). These triumphant bureaucrats may consider themselves invincible and refuse to see the writing that has appeared on the Kremlin wall — but the words they hate the most are repeated there 9,000 times: “Personal responsibility.”