Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 48

In a commentary published by the Russian daily Kommersant on February 22, two of the newspaper’s military correspondents quoted unnamed sources as saying that President Vladimir Putin was on the verge of launching a major personnel shake-up within the military leadership. Putin would sign the relevant decree, the correspondents said, on February 23, which happens to be Russia’s main military holiday. That date has come and gone, of course, and there have yet to be any changes announced among the country’s top military leaders. Kommersant’s errant prediction was nothing new, however. Almost since he assumed the Russian presidency on the final day of 1999, rumors have been rife that Putin would soon move to clear out Boris Yeltsin’s handpicked military leadership and instead install his own people atop the Defense Ministry and General Staff. Those rumors have intensified all the more over the past eight months or so, as the clamor for military reform grew louder and Putin finally approved a defense-restructuring plan. The belief of many Russia and foreign observers was that the current military leadership is noticeably short of real reformers, and that Putin could not hope to effect real change in the armed forces until he ousted those currently in command.

Putin’s apparent preference for choosing stability over change (or for discretion over valor) was perhaps understandable, given his initial reliance on the political support of the armed forces and the important role they have played in the Caucasus war, in the country’s lingering standoff with NATO over the Kosovo conflict, and in his own promises to rebuild Russia’s military might. For all of that, however, current Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s next birthday will be celebrated in April, and that improbable event has begun fueling what will likely be yet another frenzy of speculation regarding Putin’s plans for the High Command. That is because, at age 63, Sergeev will now be three years beyond Russia’s mandatory military retirement age. Russian law permits the president to extend the service of a top defense official on a yearly basis beyond the age of 60. Both Yeltsin and Putin have over the past several years taken advantage of this provision. By most accounts, however, the ever-loyal Sergeev is now in the final weeks of what will likely be his last go-around as defense chief.

Predictions as to who will succeed him are bound up with issues related to the Kremlin’s still poorly articulated plans for military reform, and particularly with the important, ongoing debate over how–or whether–to restructure the roles of the Defense Ministry and General Staff. Indeed, because of the general weakness of Russia’s state institutions, personnel decisions are often especially closely connected to policy choices, and individual appointments can say volumes about looming policy changes. Thus, the struggle in Russia is likely to involve not only the respective roles of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff, but also the relative strengths of Russian military’s four (and soon to be three) service branches. This sort of politicking goes on in any country, of course, but because of continued government funding shortages in Russia, and because the armed forces could be on the cusp of a major restructuring, a raft of new defense appointments this spring could carry special significance. Conversely, the fact that so much is potentially at stake may be one reason why Putin has moved so slowly thus far in renewing the military leadership, and why he may continue to proceed with caution this spring. The high stakes are also the reason why infighting over military reform among various groups within the armed forces (not to mention within and among Russia’s various other “power structures”) is reported to be so ferocious.

Among the major reform proposals standing before Putin and his Security Council (which is overseeing the defense reform debate) is one which would remodel the Russian Defense Ministry and General Staff in ways that would make it closer to the system employed in the United States. That is, the Russian Defense Ministry would be “civilianized,” and would exercise authority primarily in areas related to arms procurement, military budgeting, and the administrative management of the troops. The General Staff, in turn, would see its authority increased as it gained command control over all of Russia’s armed forces, including–if some General Staffers had their druthers–the country’s various security agencies. Under this scheme the defense minister would become a civilian while the General Staff chief would report to the president rather than to the defense minister.