On July 19, President Vladimir Putin fired Anatoly Kvashnin, Chief of the General Staff, as part of sweeping changes to the top brass in the Russian military. The announcement followed growing speculation in the Russian media and military press about Kvashnin’s future. The conjecture was a direct result of the June militant attacks in Ingushetia that exposed the weak coordination among the Russian security forces in the North Caucasus (Interfax, July 19).
All the personnel changes announced by Putin came as a consequence of the damaging impact of those events, but in sacking Kvashnin the Kremlin hopes to perpetuate the myth that all is well with its current stabilization efforts in Chechnya. But blaming individuals and singling out Kvashnin merely masks the emptiness of official Russian policy in Chechnya. The decision will be greeted with some relief in many quarters, especially given how closely Kvashnin came to be identified with the military campaign in Chechnya.
Whether the removal of Kvashnin could pave the way to a more serious attempt by the Kremlin to reconsider pursuing its policies in Chechnya through military force remains to be seen. Some understanding of the nature of the personnel changes, together with the recent reorganization within the Russian military’s managerial structures, may shed light on the current path being followed by Putin.
Putin also fired General Vyachelsav Tikhomirov, the head of the Interior Troops, Colonel-General Anatoly Yezhov, Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Colonel-General Vladimir Boldyrev, Commander of the North Caucasus Military District (Interfax, July 19). Each of these key individuals were from agencies implicated in the security failures in Ingushetia and, in that context, it is hardly surprising to learn of their dismissal. Each of these security agencies is involved in Russia’s ongoing conflict in Chechnya, which Moscow insists is making progress. Their lack of communication with each other, poor levels of coordination, and failure to make a timely response to the militant assaults were symptoms of a much deeper crisis within the Russian military. Firing the senior officers, as Putin has done, may give temporary positive publicity and a show of being in control, without tackling the real problems and obstacles in the path of Russian military reform.
Like a deck of cards, Putin believes in the reshuffle and is a master of the slight of hand. Note that Boldyrev has been appointed commander of the Volga-Urals Military District, while the former commander of the Volga-Urals Military District, Major-General Alexander Baronov, now becomes commander of the North Caucasus Military District (RIA News, July 19). Equally interesting, since Putin has shown great reluctance to dismiss Kvashnin in the past, even though he has continued to be a thorn in the flesh for the incumbent Minister of Defense, will be the precise role afforded to Kvashnin. Nezavisimaya gazeta recently suggested that he might receive a post in the Russian Security Council, which would keep him within the establishment, where he may do less political damage to his superiors.
Putin’s immediate concern, of course, is to defuse the tension that has persisted between the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff, the hallmark of Kvashnin’s ambitious tenure, by ensuring that his successor does not upset the balance. His choice, Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky, former First Deputy Chief of the General Staff, represents a conservative and comparatively safe selection. Between 1982 and 1997 Baluyevsky held various top posts in the main operational directorate of the General Staff. Alexei Sigutkin, First Deputy Chairman of the Duma’s Defense Committee commented, “Baluyevsky is quite an experienced general who has a strategic mind. We can expect that his experience, which he accumulated when he worked on the general staff during the Soviet period, when this structure was effective, will now serve for the good of the Russian armed forces” (Channel One TV, Interfax, July 19). However, aged 57 and nearing retirement, he will be less likely to rebel against the subordinate role for the General Staff under the Ministry of Defense, clarified by recent legislation.
Senior personnel changes signal a mooted blame offensive within the Kremlin, yet sacking Kvashnin has been on the agenda over the past few years. Putin relied, perhaps too much, on Kvashnin to stabilize the North Caucasus militarily, becoming in the process the champion of the war party. In the end, through military incompetence and insufficient preparation, the events in neighboring Ingushetia in June signalled Kvashnin’s downfall. The survivor and politically ambitious officer has finally fallen, raising hopes that inadvertently the military solution to the crisis in Chechnya, of which he was a leading advocate, could soon follow. The early signals from the Kremlin give reason to doubt that it is ready to re-examine its “counter-terrorist operation” in Chechnya. Kvashnin’s next appointment will, in some ways, be as significant as his sacking.