Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 181

The Kremlin’s recent, well-publicized effort to launch substantive and long-overdue military reforms appeared to take an unexpected lurch to the side this week. Expectations had been high that a meeting of the increasingly influential Russian Security Council, scheduled to convene on September 27, would take some concrete decisions on the military restructuring program which the Kremlin hopes will transform Russia’s currently bedraggled army into a more compact and battle-worthy fighting force. At the last moment, however, the status of the September 27 meeting was apparently downgraded, and while military reform issues remained the subject of discussion, key decisions in this area were put off until November.

Little information was made immediately available as to why the meeting was downgraded, though Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov–a close associate of Putin–and Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov were said to have requested it. Reports did suggest, however, that objections from military chiefs regarding the Kremlin’s plan to cut some 350,000 troops from the armed forces had been largely responsible for the decision to postpone major defense-related decisions. More time–the council will meet again on military reform in November–will apparently be needed for Security Council officials and top defense chiefs to work out details of the new reform plan. That tensions regarding the distribution of the force reductions have grown sharper was suggested by Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s absence from the meeting. It was Sergeev’s public row with General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin in July which launched the latest military reform debate and–along with the loss of the submarine Kursk–forced the Kremlin to make military restructuring a high priority issue (see the Monitor, July 13, September 5).

Putin’s lengthy remarks to the September 27 gathering appeared to reflect some of the still unresolved issues in the Kremlin’s military reform initiative. The Russian leader insisted, for example, that the armed forces were getting plenty of funding–something which defense leaders have long denied–and that they had better start making more efficient use of it. “We spend colossal sums of money on the military,” Putin was quoted as saying, and yet too much of it is directed into activities “which have no direct link to military readiness of the army or to providing for its needs.” He also suggested that the military leadership had to manage its financial resources so as to raise pay for its personnel and provide them with better equipment. “We have no right to solve military tasks strictly on the basis of people’s enthusiasm and heroism.”

Yet Putin’s apparent admonitions to the High Command regarding the importance of reform were balanced by a demand that military leaders not launch hasty and poorly thought-out reductions of armed forces personnel. “When I say that we should be better organized, this does not mean that we should proceed with straightforward cuts of the armed forces and other military sectors.” In fact, the Kremlin’s plan to cut some 350,000 troops over the next three years will demand that tough and painful decisions be made and implemented quickly. His concerns on this score appear to be directed at the fear that competing service chiefs will simply lop off large numbers of troops where it is most politically expedient rather than crafting reductions in a fashion which might serve a larger plan to improve the capabilities of the armed forces.

Indeed, the reductions that the defense complex faces will apparently greatly exceed the 350,000 troops to be cut from the regular army. According to Russian reports, plans call for some 600,000 people to lose their jobs out of the approximately three million who serve either in the armed forces, in one of the country’s various other security ministries, or who are employed as civilian workers for the defense establishment. The goal, ultimately, is to end the current practice of using most government defense funding primarily to feed and maintain bloated and ineffective defense structures. Instead, the Kremlin hopes to be able to direct the same moneys at a smaller number of people, thus allowing increases in salaries, improved living conditions, and the provision of better military equipment (Reuters, AP, Segodnya, September 28; Russian agencies, September 27).

The problem, of course, is that many of these same needs and solutions have been voiced in one form or another repeatedly over the past decade–but without yielding any significant improvements in the military’s functioning. As one Russian military commentator, Aleksandr Golts, pointed out, for example, the size of the army has been reduced by 600,000 troops since 1997, “but the expected qualitative improvement never took place” (Itogi, September 19). Golts attributes this failure to the government’s unwillingness to make the transition to a fully volunteer and professional force. And, indeed, it is noteworthy that the current discussion on military reform appears to make scant mention of the professionalization issue. Yet the broader truth is that Russian troop reductions over the past decade have been poorly thought-out and have not been accompanied by the sorts of administrative and operational restructuring needed to raise the army’s capabilities. Given that the military leadership overseeing the current military reform effort is little changed in terms either of personnel or attitude from those who implemented these earlier reforms, there is little reason to believe that the effort now underway will be any more effective.

Indeed, among the tensions which may be hindering the current reform effort is one involving the role of the Russian Security Council itself. Over the past decade there has been much talk of vesting one agency–the Security Council or the General Staff have most often been suggested–with authority over all of Russia’s various military and security structures, with the goal of eliminating redundancies while streamlining the chain of command and the reform process. Efforts of this sort, which in fact were never very seriously pursued under President Boris Yeltsin, foundered on the immediate and effective opposition of those who run the various military and security agencies in question. Now Putin appears to have embarked on a similar, albeit more determined course, by granting considerable political authority to the Security Council, and by authorizing it to oversee the military reform effort. The president’s continuing political popularity have thus far left his efforts in this area largely unchallenged. But according to at least one Russian daily, defense chiefs are chafing under the Security Council’s authority, and some are apparently suggesting that the growing role of the council is undermining the existing system of control over the military establishment (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 28).

Whether or not such views reflect reality, it does seem undeniable that the manner in which military reform is being pursued in Russia right now replicates to some degree the sort of secrecy that accompanied defense decision making during the Soviet period (and much of the Yeltsin presidency as well). That is, security questions of overriding national importance are now being discussed–and decisions taken–by a narrow body of government officials with little or no meaningful public discourse and will little input from the Russian parliament. The degree to which this has become a closed discussion is evidenced by the paucity of public information available about the military reform plan (which, if all had gone well, was presumably to have been approved this week). Indeed, in this sense the discussion about military reform parallels that about the defense budget; lawmakers and public commentators have frequently complained the dearth of specific information that the Defense Ministry provides regarding the manner in which it spends state defense allocations. This enduring secrecy in the area of defense policymaking in Russia raises new questions about the Kremlin’s commitment to a political reform, and means that the government’s military restructuring policies are likely to be developed and implemented absent the checks and balances normally found in a democratic system of government.