Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 27

Rumors have been circulating in the Russian press for nearly a month now that Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s days are numbered and that his replacement is likely to come as part of a larger shake-up of the Russian military leadership. Intimations of such a reshuffle have been driven in part by developments in the war in Chechnya. But the rumors are also linked to Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anticipated election victory next month, and to expectations that he will move quickly to install his own team atop the military establishment. What observers cannot seem to decide on is whether the hardline clique of generals who have lined up behind current General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin will ultimately claim the spoils of victory in the new Putin administration, or whether the newly anointed Russian president will try instead to bring “fresh” faces into the defense establishment. Those favoring the latter scenario have pointed to the Russian Duma’s current Defense Committee chairman, retired General Andrei Nikolaev, as a leading candidate for the Defense Ministry post.

The personal rivalry which has dominated backroom Russian military politics over the past several years has been the one which quickly developed between the Russian military’s two top uniformed officers–Marshal Igor Sergeev and Army General Anatoly Kvashnin. The two men were appointed together following President Boris Yeltsin’s surprise dismissal in May of 1997 of the men who formerly held those posts: Generals Igor Rodionov and Viktor Samsonov. Sergeev’s promotion was something of a surprise insofar as it elevated to the top defense post a strategic rocket forces commander in a military establishment long dominated by the Ground Forces. Yet the appointment made some sense. At a time of severe budgetary constraints, and amid the continued deterioration of Russia’s conventional forces, Sergeev’s appointment represented the Kremlin’s decision to concentrate attention and resources on maintaining Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Indeed, Sergeev was also given the related task of formulating and implementing a broader military reform program, one aimed at greatly reducing the size of the Russian army–and thus the amount of funding needed to maintain it. That goal was clearly not a popular one throughout the armed forces as a whole, and Rodionov’s and Samsonov’s earlier failure to move toward its realization had been one of the key reasons for their dismissal.

Some Russian observers have suggested that Sergeev and Kvashnin never got along well, and that the Kremlin had in fact deliberately made use of the tensions between the two men as a way of keeping the army divided and blunting its effectiveness as a political force. Moreover, in contrast to the cerebral Sergeev, who remained loyal to Yeltsin, Kvashnin has been repeatedly described as an effective and ambitious backroom operator whose political skills may exceed his abilities as a commander. The behind-the-scenes battles between the two men were fought out against the background of broader military policy debates, and involved particularly Sergeev’s efforts to concentrate authority over all of Russia’s strategic forces in the hands of his protege, Strategic Missile Troops commander Colonel General Vladimir Yakovlev (see the Monitor, September 28). Russian President Boris Yeltsin, meanwhile, played his usual Machiavellian role, backing Sergeev publicly while–if reports are to be believed–simultaneously granting Kvashnin a direct line to the president’s office.

The differences between the two men, and between the military and political constituencies that they represented, came to a head of sorts at the close of last year’s NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia. Kvashnin is believed to have been a key author of the plan which dispatched Russian paratroopers unexpectedly to Kosovo in June. Although Sergeev had joined enthusiastically in the virulent anti-NATO rhetoric spewing out of Moscow at the time, the dash to Pristina clearly elevated the political stock of Kvashnin and other hardliners with similar views in the Russian defense establishment.

Their increased influence could also be seen several months later in the uncompromisingly brutal fashion in which the Kremlin chose to wage its war in Chechnya. Indeed, the fighting in the Caucasus had not been under way for long when complaints were heard from military sources that the Defense Ministry’s emphasis on Russia’s strategic forces had left the conventional forces poorly prepared to fight in Chechnya. Since then there have been indications that increases in the defense procurement budget–which Putin promised–will benefit Russia’s conventional forces, and that a broader shift of priorities may now be taking place which will favor Russia’s conventional over its strategic forces (Segodnya, September 23; AP, January 27; Wall Street Journal, January 28).

It was against this background that the announced replacement of Generals Vladimir Shamanov and Gennady Troshev in early January were interpreted by some Russian newspapers as the first step in a looming shake-up of the military leadership which would ultimately see Kvashnin ascend to the Defense Ministry post. That prediction was based in part upon reports that Putin and Kvashnin had developed a close working and political relationship (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 11; Obshchaya gazeta, January 13-19; Vremya MN, January 27). Indeed, a Western expert, quoting Russian intelligence sources, has suggested that Putin and Kvashnin may have struck a deal as early as last September. Under this alleged pact, Kvashnin promised that his troops would deliver a victory in Chechnya to boost Putin’s political career. Putin, in turn, promised a big increase in the military budget and a free hand to conduct the war in the Caucasus without political interference (Globe and Mail, February 3).