Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 77

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev celebrated his sixtieth birthday earlier this week. That he still holds the post–albeit as an acting minister–would seem to signify Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s continued faith in him. When Sergeev was appointed originally in May of last year, some speculation circulated that his stewardship of the ministry might be a short one. The former Strategic Rocket Forces commander was fifty-nine years old at that time. The mandatory retirement age for Russian officers was sixty. Indeed, given the tumultuous tenure of Sergeev’s predecessor, General Igor Rodionov, it would not have been a surprise if Yeltsin had chosen Sergeev at least in part because the mandatory retirement would permit him to be dumped quickly in the event he failed to work well with the Kremlin team. That had been the case with Rodionov, who clashed with the Kremlin on the issue of military reform and publicly embarrassed the political leadership with alarmist warnings about the mood of Russia’s army.

As a Russian military publication noted earlier this month, however, Yeltsin presented Sergeev with an early birthday present when he signed into law new regulations permitting an extension of service for some military officers beyond the age of sixty. Yeltsin’s continued faith in the Russian defense chief–he made Sergeev post-Soviet Russia’s first Marshal in November–was also evident last month. After his unexpected sacking of the government, the Russian leader indicated his desire to keep Sergeev in the Defense Ministry post. This week, Yeltsin reportedly congratulated Sergeev personally on his birthday and commended him once again for the job he has done in advancing the Kremlin’s military reform plans. (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, April 3-9; Itar-Tass, April 20)

Sergeev’s low-key style and his apparent loyalty to the Kremlin are very important to Russia’s political leadership. The reforms being implemented in the armed forces are unpopular and controversial. As such, they have both raised tensions in the ranks and become a frequent target for Yeltsin’s political opposition. Yeltsin needs a defense chief he can rely on.

More broadly, the troubled state of Russia’s overall defense establishment could become a hot point for political debate in Russia over the coming months. It might also emerge as an important issue in the country’s next presidential election. That will be especially true if either or both of two retired generals-turned-politicians–Aleksandr Lebed and Andrei Nikolaev–emerge as factors in Russia’s 2000 presidential campaign (see Monitor story on Lebed campaign in tomorrow’s Monitor). Lebed has long enjoyed significant support in the armed forces and–assuming he prevails in the Krasnoyarsk governor’s race–is likely to be a strong presidential candidate. Nikolaev, a former general staffer and then Federal Border Service director, recently won election to the Duma and is seen as a rising star in Russian politics. (See Monitor, April 14)