Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 138

All of these developments had to be an unwelcome and even embarrassing distraction for Vladimir Putin. The Russian president was preparing over the weekend for a crucial visit to Asia which will take him this week to China (for summit talks with President Jiang Zemin), North Korea (for an unprecedented meeting with Kim Jong-il), and then on to the summit of G-7 countries and Russia in Japan. Putin hopes use the trip to begin rebuilding Russian influence in the Far East, in part by exploiting perceptions abroad that his election reflects both a sign of new-found stability in Russia and a reinvigoration of Moscow’s role on the international stage. He also undoubtedly intends to make arms control issues, and particularly Russian criticism of U.S. missile defense plans, a key part of his message during his travels. An ugly public spat among his generals on the eve of his departure will hardly advance his agenda in any of these areas. Indeed, Putin could only have been irritated at having to call both Sergeev and Kvashnin down to Sochi for a meeting yesterday after having just met with them in Moscow. He had reportedly hoped to get in a day of relaxation prior to his departure for Beijing (Reuters, AFP, July 16).

To some extent, however, last week’s brouhaha among Russian military leaders is of Putin’s own making. Last year the Russian president used the brutal military crackdown in Chechnya to build his own political popularity, and thereby hitched his wagon to Kvashnin and the hardline military leaders around him. In another move aimed at winning political popularity and support from the armed forces, Putin also promised to raise military spending and thereby to help restore Russian military might. Despite some initial injections of increased funding into the defense budget, however, Putin has largely failed to deliver on the funding pledge. Indeed, reports suggest that the defense budget for 2001 will actually be lower than this year’s spending. This funding shortfall appears to be at least partly behind the sharp clash between Sergeev and Kvashnin. Putin raised expectations, but, as was the case under former President Boris Yeltsin, the various services find themselves struggling once again for access to scarce funding.

Putin’s apparent decision to postpone key decisions on military personnel and policy has also contributed to the current tensions. Rumors were rife earlier this year that the Russian leader would move after his inauguration to bring his own people–many observers pointed to Kvashnin in this context–into top positions at the Defense Ministry. That did not happen. Putin chose instead to extend the tenure of Sergeev, who is already past retirement age and is resented by many in the military for his role in reducing the country’s general purpose forces while trying to maintain the viability of the country’s strategic deterrent. Putin’s lack of decisiveness in this area is also manifested in the country’s new military doctrine, which he is reported to have had a hand in shaping. Russian accounts of the doctrine suggest that it outlines a wide array of threats to Russia while failing to prioritize among them effectively. This means it does not answer key questions regarding, for example, the importance of Russia’s strategic forces versus that of the country’s conventional troops. Such ambiguities open the door to conflicts such as the one now enveloping the military leadership, particularly under circumstances in which civilian leaders have allowed senior officers to occupy high-profile public roles on a host of security issues.