Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 210

As President Vladimir Putin launched the first of three days of summit talks with President George W. Bush yesterday, some Russian newspapers were still focusing on a meeting Putin had conducted with his top military commanders only hours before his departure for Washington. The meeting was a regularly scheduled one, fulfilling what has become an obligation for the Russian head of state to address the military leadership at its annual November convocation. The top brass meets at this time each year to discuss developments in the armed forces over the previous twelve months and to anticipate military policy for the new year to come. But the routine scheduling of the meeting did not stop some Russian news sources from suggesting that Putin had felt compelled to meet with military leaders on the eve of his departure from Moscow to explain what he hoped to accomplish during the long-anticipated Russian-U.S. summit meeting. According to other sources, however, that was not at all the purpose. They suggested that arms control and other topics likely to be at the center of discussions in Washington and Texas were not even addressed directly.

Indeed, Russian news sources were surprisingly varied in their depictions of the November 12 meeting, with the conservative Nezavisimaya Gazeta putting forth the most alarmist spin of all. In a curtain-raiser for the meeting, published on November 10, the newspaper warned darkly of Kremlin concerns that falling world oil prices could threaten planned allocations to the armed forces and thus raise tensions between the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry. The paper also quoted what it said were military sources in reporting that defense spending in 2002 will not exceed 2.7 percent of Russian GDP, a figure that it described as the lowest in Russia’s post-Soviet history (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 10).

But it really went into overdrive several days later, when its report of the November 12 meeting depicted a situation in which the military leadership was slipping out of the Kremlin’s control. Among other things, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin–now the most powerful uniformed officer in the Russian army–has begun, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, to gain political influence at the expense of Russia’s civilian defense minister and Putin appointee, Sergei Ivanov. In addition, the newspaper painted a picture of a military leadership seeking to regain influence over the Kremlin on a host of key security issues, including strategic parity with the United States, Russia’s geostrategic position in Central Asia and the social status of servicemen. The generals were said to still favor a Soviet-style defense of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, to be dissatisfied over the Kremlin’s cooperation with the United States in the antiterror war and its acceptance of a U.S. military presence in Central Asia, and to oppose the Kremlin’s recent decision to withdraw from the listening posts at Lourdes in Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. They were said also to be disenchanted with the Kremlin’s domestic military policies and to believe that Putin had failed to deliver on promises that he would raise military salaries and rearm the armed forces (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 13).

Other sources took a more prosaic approach to the November 12 meeting, however, seeing in it little more than an opportunity for the president to offer a routine review of the Defense Ministry’s performance over the past year and to set out in general terms what the Kremlin sees as its military priorities for the year 2002. In this respect, most Russian news sources pointed to the four key points Putin outlined in his public address to the generals. As described in a lengthy report of the president’s speech published by the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (“Red Star”), Putin pointed first to the rapidly changing international environment and especially to the important role that the battle against international terrorism will have to play in the formation of Russian defense policy.

Second, Putin spoke of the critical need both to concentrate scarce state defense funding on priority tasks and to avoid duplication and waste in the arming and supplying of Russia’s various armed forces and security structures. Third, he called for the military leadership to optimize the structure, the mobilizational capabilities, and the battle readiness of the armed forces. He identified this as one area where the military leadership had not fully met its goals over the past year. Fourth, in what he identified as one of the most crucial areas of military reforms, the Russian president spoke of the urgent need to raise military salaries and to improve in general the living standards of Russian military personnel. Finally, it is worth noting that Putin appeared to make no mention of any plans to transform Russia’s current conscript army into a volunteer, professional force. Indeed, in calling in his conclusion for the creation of a “qualified, well-prepared army,” he appeared to abandon the rhetoric of some earlier years in which top political and military officials spoke of the need for the army’s increased “professionalization.”

Some of the issues addressed paralleled what was said at Putin’s last meeting with top military commanders, on October 17 (see the Monitor, October 29). One obvious difference was that the three priorities for military development he outlined at that time have now apparently become four. But he nevertheless underscored the “new” one–which pertains to the importance of the terrorist threat and the extent to which it will now be used to shape defense policy–during the earlier meeting as well. Another area in which the two meetings paralleled each other was Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov’s complaints on both occasions regarding what he suggested has been the government’s inadequate funding of the armed forces. Given that Ivanov is considered a close Putin advisor and that his appointment was seen by most observers as a move to ensure the Kremlin’s control over the Defense Ministry, Ivanov’s seeming defiance on this point seems surprising. But at least one Russian source used reporting of the November 12 meeting to repeat rumors that tensions between Putin and Ivanov are in fact developing. According to the Polit.ru web site, there has even been speculation of late that the Foreign Ministry and its head, Igor Ivanov (no relation), have recently increased their influence over Kremlin policy and are now competing more successfully with Sergei Ivanov (Reuters, Strana.ru, Interfax-AVN, Polit.ru, November 12; Krasnaya Zvezda, Vremya Novostei, Izvestia, November 13).

In the run up to this week’s Russian-U.S. summit, numerous Russian and Western publications have reported that Putin faces a possible backlash from nationalist forces in Russia–including the military leadership–if he is seen as making big concessions to Washington without getting commensurate rewards in return. Reports of the November 12 meeting made no mention of “stormy” clashes between Putin and the generals, as some reports of the October 17 meeting had, but the Nezavisimaya Gazeta articles at least suggested that these tensions remained a factor even on the eve of Putin’s departure. It is possible, of course, that some public figures in Russia are deliberately fanning these rumors of a possible nationalist backlash so as to improve Putin’s bargaining position during the talks in the United States. Depending on the results of this week’s summit, the days and weeks to come should give a better indication of the real state of Putin’s relations with the military high command, and whether a leader with exceptionally high approval ratings and no obvious political opposition really faces a threat from dissatisfied nationalists.