Military Reform Exposes Tension within the Russian Government

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 115

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, second right, and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, right, visit a defense enterprise in Korolyov outside Moscow.

The failings of the Russian military modernization program are providing an additional source of discontent among the opponents of reform and within the government. On June 1, during a government session Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly criticized Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, the Chief of the General Staff Army-General Nikolai Makarov and the Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov over delays to defense contracts. Putin demanded an explanation from Ivanov: "I have spoken with the directors of enterprises of the defense complex. No-one is concluding the promised contracts with them. Why is it all going so slowly? I do not know what percentages you have. The directors are saying that there is no money, and everything is being done very slowly. Tell the minister [Serdyukov] that we need to get a move on" (Vremya Novostei, June 5).

Ivanov struggled to respond adequately, citing various figures and arguing that spending will continue as planned prior to the economic crisis, saying that in the coming years the Russian defense industries will switch to a series production of "modern arms." He continued along these lines, until in an effort to counter Putin’s unrealistic expectations of the modernization program he said:

    "This does not mean that we have to manufacture as many tanks, planes, and so forth as in the times of the Soviet Union. This is not our way. Militarization would simply cause the collapse of the economic foundation and stability of the state. Never in world history, has an arms race done any good. We need to have as many weapons of the type that will simply guarantee our security in any scenario" (Vremya Novostei, June 5).

On June 3, Ivanov tasked with overseeing issues relating to the military-industrial complex, showcased the "new look" future Russian military. He confirmed that more than 40 percent of the Ministry of Defense (MoD) budget is currently spent on the navy, especially its strategic nuclear forces. "Over 40 per cent of the defense ministry’s budget goes to the Navy, much more than to the RVSN, the Space Troops and the Air Force together. These funds are mainly directed towards strategic submarines," Ivanov said (Vremya Novostei, June 5).

As evidence of advances made by the navy, he cited the current testing of the latest strategic nuclear submarines Yuriy Dolgorukiy (Project 955, Borey) and the Severodvinsk (Project 855, Yasen), as well as referring to the Bulava submarine launched ballistic missile system. Moreover, overlooking the immense challenges presented by these ambitious projects to the country’s defense industry, he also estimated as "80 percent complete" the development of the nuclear powered submarine Belgorod (Project 949A, Antey), at the Sevmash shipyard. He also singled out the new fourth generation corvette Steregushchiy introduced in 2008 for the close maritime zone, which he said will provide the model for future distant maritime zone ships (RIA Novosti, June 3; Zvezda TV, June 8).

The Bulava system has experienced multiple setbacks: tested on ten occasions in 2008, half reportedly resulted in failure. Ivanov said the testing had now entered its "final stages," though he did not specify any revised timescale. In an effort to explain its unsuccessful launches, Ivanov said: "650 enterprises are cooperating on the Bulava and it is impossible to check quality at all the enterprises. All the unsuccessful launches indicate that the design solutions are right, but there are simple technological defects." In order to overcome these difficulties, he suggested, steps are being implemented to ensure the quality of the "technological processes" involved. Ivanov appeared unruffled by these failures, recalling that in the Soviet period around twenty tests were required before the introduction of the Topol missile system (RIA Novosti, June 3).

Pressures stemming from the nature of the sweeping and overly ambitious reform agenda are becoming pervasive. Since Serdyukov’s appointment as defense minister on February 15, 2007, almost all his deputies, commanders from most branches of the armed forces, combat arms (apart from Colonel-General Nikolai Solovtsov, the commander of the Strategic Rocket Forces, RSVN) and all the Military District and fleet commanders have been replaced. This has not only involved officers that might oppose his reforms, it appears to have targeted those considered as "outsiders," or inherited from the administrations of previous defense ministers. However, this officer purge has now entered a potentially more uncertain phase, focussed on removing lower echelon officers designated as "not up to their job." General Makarov confirmed this during a press conference on June 5, also characterizing the military reform as a response to the conventional strength of Western forces: "The U.S. and NATO armed forces’ superiority, many times over, in their general-purpose forces in all strategic sectors, is one of the threats to which Russia’s pre-reform armed forces could not have reacted adequately" (Interfax, June 5).

The latest high level officers to be removed included the chief of the medical service Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shappo, the head of Rosvoyenzhilye (Military Housing Agency) Major-General Aleksandr Rylskiy and the chief of the main staff of the navy Admiral Mikhail Abramov. One common theme in these cases is how silent the MoD and its leadership have remained on the reasons for such dismissals. Admiral Abramov’s departure reveals underlying tensions and pressures within the officer corps, placed under severe pressure due to Serdyukov’s reforms. Abramov at 52 could have served for another eight years before retirement. He had originally intended to leave the military in August, yet in April -after a period of official leave- he applied to be discharged following his admission to hospital (Svobodnaya Pressa, June 8).

The pressures of the reform program are affecting the officer corps and exposing tensions within the Russian government. This relates to weaknesses within the defense industries exacerbated by the intense demands of a modernization and reform agenda which is way too ambitious to achieve within the timescale imposed by the political elite. Moreover, the audio version of General Makarov’s press conference on June 5, in which he severely criticized the condition of the armed forces and advocated forging ahead with reform, was hurriedly removed from the MoD website -further underscoring these fissures and internal turf battles.