Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 45

A lengthy article published in a Russian newspaper over the weekend is sure to fuel further speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be planning a shake-up of the country’s military leadership, and that the man Putin hand-picked last year to fill the defense minister’s post could be one of its primary targets. According to Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie (“Independent Military Review”), the Kremlin is dissatisfied with the performance of the Defense Ministry and its head, Sergei Ivanov, and may now be looking at candidates to replace top ministry leaders. The newspaper, which focuses on defense issues, is a subsidiary to the Boris Berezovsky-owned Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which in the past has published a number of articles critical of the Kremlin’s defense policies and of its efforts to reform the armed forces. The English-language Russian newspaper Moscow Times yesterday quoted independent analysts who said that the Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie (NVO) piece may have been a trial balloon of sorts, released by the Kremlin to try to gauge the public and military reaction to a possible change in Defense Ministry leadership.

If the unnamed NVO sources are any indication of actual sentiments in the army, then few tears would be shed among senior military commanders if Ivanov is indeed removed from the Defense Ministry post. The newspaper points to long-circulating rumors that top commanders have never been happy with Ivanov, who as a career intelligence officer (and top aide to Putin) was always seen as something of a foreigner within the defense establishment. Indeed, the newspaper suggests that Putin’s effort to place a “civilian” atop the Defense Ministry could end in failure, with the Kremlin forced to turn back to a uniformed officer to head the military bureaucracy. That would likely be a major disappointment for leading figures on both sides of the civilian-military divide. When he named Ivanov to the post last spring, Putin clearly hoped that the installation of his own closest advisor to the top Defense Ministry post would help both to ensure his political control of the military leadership and to boost Kremlin plans for cutting and restructuring the armed forces. For senior military leaders, the installation of an unwanted outsider atop the Defense Ministry may nevertheless have offered some reasons for hope. The generals may have believed that Ivanov’s appointment would focus the Kremlin’s attention on the army’s needs, and that his closeness to Putin might help them procure more state funding for defense.

In the event, however, the hopes of neither side have been met. By most accounts, Ivanov’s efforts to push reform have been stymied by the vast and tradition-minded military bureaucracy. Indeed, the NVO article claims that Ivanov and the handful of civilians he brought with him have wound up isolated in the Defense Ministry, unable either to control the military bureaucracy around them or to deal with the vast amount of paperwork that it has dumped upon them. The newspaper also suggests that Ivanov’s unfamiliarity with the details of defense policy left him vulnerable to such an outcome, and that his failure to establish workable administrative bodies to deal with this workload doomed his efforts. In the end, NVO claims, the Defense Ministry leadership came to play second fiddle to the General Staff, which had greater expertise and whose uniformed leadership worked better with–and enjoyed greater respect from–the military bureaucracy.

But neither the General Staff’s apparent political victories over the Defense Ministry leadership nor Ivanov’s close relations with Putin have brought the armed forces the rewards that Top Brass might have expected. In fact, despite earlier promises that he would rebuild Russia’s military might, Putin has made it increasingly clear over the past year that the army’s reconstruction is a long-term prospect and that senior commanders should expect little in the way of additional funding or new armaments in the years immediately ahead. The Kremlin’s turn to the West and its embrace of the American-led antiterror war, moreover, have been an additional setback for military leaders. An open letter written to Putin and published by the hardline communist newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya on February 21 reflected the sort of sentiment that some in the high command may feel about these policies. It excoriated Putin for allegedly betraying the voters who elected him and attacked him for, among other things, permitting U.S. forces to be based in Central Asia and abandoning key Russian military facilities in Cuba and Vietnam. Ivanov himself seems to have been caught between the Kremlin and a resentful military leadership on these and several other issues. The Russian defense minister was publicly wrong-footed on the issue of U.S. basing in Central Asia, for example, exclaiming publicly that Russia would not permit it, only to reverse himself shortly thereafter. Ivanov’s fruitless complaints about the size of the military budget appear likewise to have both angered Putin and won him no respect from military leaders.

If, however, the Kremlin is indeed considering Ivanov’s dismissal and a shake-up of the Defense Ministry leadership, it faces some difficult choices over naming a new team. NVO suggests in the commentary outlined above that current General Staff Chief General Anatoly Kvashnin is at present the only viable candidate to replace Ivanov. But the same newspaper, in a second article published in the same edition, describes some of the reasons why Kvashnin is anything but a suitable candidate. Indeed, Kvashnin is a supremely ambitious operator who has long had a polarizing effect within the military establishment. His current face-off with Ivanov for dominance over defense policy follows a similar battle that he waged–ultimately with success–against Ivanov’s predecessor, former Russian Defense Minister (and current Putin advisor) Marshal Igor Sergeev.

But his very success against Sergeev means that Kvashnin is himself responsible for a number of the dubious policies that have been implemented by defense leaders over the past several years. As the second NVO piece observes, Kvashnin played a role in the decision several years ago to liquidate the Ground Forces command–only to be forced last year to reconstitute it. And a move he backed to unify two of Russia’s military districts has been heavily criticized in a number of quarters, as has his successful drive to deprive the Russian airborne forces of their responsibility for peacekeeping activities. His role in the decision to radically downsize Russia’s strategic rocket forces also remains controversial. NVO quoted experts who estimated that faulty decisions made by Kvashnin’s General Staff had cost the army some 6 billion rubles (over US$200 million). For all of that, Kvashnin is said to be on good terms with Putin (and his wife to be close friends with Putin’s).

NVO also suggests, finally, that if Ivanov is removed from the defense minister post he could wind up either heading a new agency that would oversee all of Russia’s so-called power structures, or be returned to his previous post as secretary of the Russian Security Council. Either move would represent a significant and personal political failure for Putin, however, in part because his standing within the armed forces would likely suffer some additional erosion, but also because he has made defense reform one of his top priorities. A shakeup of the Defense Ministry leadership, moreover, would also come amid apparently worsening problems in the Kremlin’s effort to reform the military industrial sector. The man heading that effort, Minister of Industry, Science and Technology Ilya Klebanov, was recently stripped of his deputy prime minister duties and told to focus on defense industrial reform (see the Monitor, February 27). Klebanov’s demotion and the speculation that Ivanov’s future may be in doubt are a reminder that Vladimir Putin, for all his perceived political success to date, has yet to resolve one of the key complex of problems that so bedeviled his now much-criticized predecessor–the streamlining, restructuring and reform of Russia’s enormous and wasteful Soviet-era defense complex (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, March 1; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 2; Moscow Times, March 4; Sovetskaya Rossiya, February 21; Reuters, February 22).