Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 60

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov met their U.S. counterparts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Moscow March 17-18, one important person was absent – Russia’s top military commander, First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces General Yuri Baluyevsky. Officially, Baluyevsky is on leave, but his absence was all the more conspicuous since Baluyevsky has always enjoyed high-level contacts with foreign dignitaries. First Deputy Chief of General Staff General Alexander Burutin replaced him at the 2 + 2 talks.

According to the Russian media, Defense Ministry sources say that Baluyevsky has offered his resignation and will be replaced after President-elect Dmitry Medvedev is inaugurated on May 7. Burutin, who previously served in the Kremlin as President Vladimir Putin’s advisor on the arms trade, is seen as Baluyevsky’s possible successor (RIA-Novosti, March 21; Nezavisimaya gazeta, Izvestiya, March 24).

I met Baluyevsky in 1996, when he moved to Moscow to the General Staff after serving in Tbilisi, Georgia, as chief of staff of the Russian forces in the Transcaucasus. His career in Moscow was outstanding. In 1996, he became chief of the General Staff Main Operational Directorate (GS-MOD) and continued in this position until 2004. Baluyevsky once told me over drinks that he was the longest-serving chief of the GS-MOD in Russian military history. The GS-MOD is in operational real-time control of Russia’s land-, sea- and air-based strategic nuclear deterrent.

Baluyevsky was in the line of command to initiate a nuclear attack. In 2004, he replaced General Anatoly Kvashnin as chief of the General Staff and was assigned one of Russia’s three nuclear footballs, known as the “suitcase” or chemodanchik, that may be used to launch nuclear hostilities. The president and minister of defense control the other two. Baluyevsky was an intelligent, light drinking, and capable staff general; I would even say “enlightened.” Putin liked Baluyevsky and in 2000 ordered him to carry out important military negotiations with the United States, NATO, and the Chinese military instead of the hard-drinking buffoon Kvashnin. In December 2002, during a U.S. reception in honor of the participants in a pompous NATO-Russia Council conference in Moscow on fighting terrorism, Baluyevsky told me that the notion of a multipolar world was rubbish and that Russian national interests demanded that Moscow be a close partner and ally of the West, Brussels, and Washington. Asked when such worthy policies would be employed, Baluyevsky answered, as soon as the Kremlin gives the order.

Instead, from 2003 onward relations with Washington deteriorated from bad to worse, and Baluyevsky turned with the tide without hesitation. Baluyevsky repeatedly, publicly – and without any military merit – declared that planned Western military deployments in Europe were a threat to Russia. At a December 2007 press conference in Moscow, Baluyevsky argued that Russia was right to abandon the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, because the tiny armies of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – no more than several thousand men with no tanks or military aircraft – posed a threat to Russia. “Mr. [Pavel] Felgenhauer attempted to argue with me,” said Baluyevsky, “That I had counted armored cars employed to collect cash by Baltic banks as armored combat vehicles (ACV) deployed in the Baltics. No, respected colleague, I counted the true ACVs, as designated by CFE, that do not, I stress, carry money, and their number has recently increased in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia 10 times to 430 pieces.” Furthermore, Baluyevsky announced that the ACVs and 340 heavy artillery pieces that allegedly been recently deployed in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are aggressively aimed at Russia.

The announced resignation of Baluyevsky, who I once admired as a sound military professional, is good riddance. But he is on his way out not because of his ridiculous statements about the Baltic military threat. In February 2007, Baluyevsky was expected to replace Sergei Ivanov as defense minister, but Putin instead chose Serdyukov, a former tax official, to clean up the massive misappropriation of military funds. Baluyevsky opposed Serdyukov’s reforms and last September publicly rejoiced when Serdyukov announced his resignation after his father-in-law, Viktor Zubkov, became prime minister (see EDM, September 26, 2007).

Serdyukov has announced plans to employ more civilian personnel and outsource logistics and other support tasks to private companies. The Defense Ministry is also planning to publicly auction land near Moscow to raise money to buy housing for officers. The top brass oppose these plans, and Baluyevsky is seen as a focus of discontent (Izvestiya, March 24; Trud, March 25).

No one can guarantee that Serdyukov’s reforms will improve anything, but doing nothing is not an option. Defense Ministry budget funds, property, and real estate have been in the past squandered and grabbed, while Russia’s armed forces disintegrated. I did not hear anyone accuse Baluyevsky of profiteering directly from this corruption, but he did not seem to do much to stop it, either. Baluyevsky does not enjoy any true following among the impoverished rank and file of the military and cannot be a genuine focus of discontent. Some other general or group of officers may in the future lead this widespread discontent if Serdyukov’s reforms fail, as did all other attempts to revamp Russia’s military since 1991.