Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 218

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared unexpectedly yesterday to throw down the gauntlet to the country’s military leadership. In a brief speech to senior officers containing a number of harsh criticisms, Putin strongly suggested that the military leadership had itself ossified and that the current state of the armed forces–in terms of its morale, discipline and technical competence–was unequal to the tasks confronting it. He complained that the current Defense Ministry leadership is overburdened with bureaucrats who have spent long years in the Moscow Military District, and admonished those leaders for not doing enough to promote generals from the country’s other regions. Putin also suggested that this inertia among the top military leadership has led to a more general graying of the officer corps and resulted in unprecedented low levels of education among regimental commanders. According to one report, Putin’s remarks were interpreted by senior officers in the General Staff, who have been feuding with their Defense Ministry counterparts for months, as an attack on the ministry. For all observers, Putin’s remarks appeared to serve as further corroboration of the belief that a large-scale shakeup of the military leadership is looming.

Putin’s remarks appeared to be carefully designed so as not to suggest that he was criticizing either the armed forces as an institution–indeed, he underscored its critical importance to Russia’s national security–or military personnel in general. Those points are important because the Kremlin undoubtedly fears that its plans for radical cuts in defense personnel and for organizational restructuring could generate resentments both among military personnel and the population at large. In this regard, Putin appeared to be positioning himself as a defender of the common soldier against the bloated central military bureaucracy. He dwelt on the critical need to raise living standards for average military personnel, and even took a page out of former President Boris Yeltsin’s book by demonstratively ordering Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin to ensure that the government meets its financial obligations to the country’s uniformed soldiers. Kudrin has frequently been made a villain by Russian military leaders for his efforts to keep military spending under control. In much the same way Putin also put the spotlight on Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, saying very publicly that the Russian premier would be held responsible for the success of the Kremlin’s military reform plan.

In addition to offering another defense of Russia’s war in the North Caucasus, Putin appeared also to confirm that key decisions relative to the military reform program have indeed been finalized–and that it is now time to move from discussion and elaboration to implementation. His remarks appeared to be aimed at shutting down what are reported to be widespread objections to the military reform plan, and to rein in the leaders of the country’s various military services and security agencies who still seem to be contesting the manner in which the cuts and restructuring are to be carried out. Putin said that the Russian Security Council, which has been entrusted with drafting the military reform plan, would convene on December 10 to discuss issues related to ensuring the proper allocation of pay and benefits to military personnel (strana.ru, Russian agencies, November 20; Izvestia, Segodnya, November 21).