Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked a great deal of his political credibility on stabilizing war-torn Chechnya, as underscored by his recent appointment of Colonel-General Alexei Maslov as the new Commander of the Ground Forces. Putin told Maslov at a meeting in the Kremlin on November 5 that he expects him to form an all-volunteer force in the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, by 2007. This move once again draws attention to the desperate need to improve the performance of the Russian security forces deployed in Chechnya and to minimize some of the worst aspects of the abuses and lack of combat readiness shown by conscripts serving there (RTR TV, November 5).
Maslov’s appointment is broadly in line with the stated aims of Russian military reform, which had envisaged the formation of a professional army, but plans were scaled back in line with fiscal limitations, targeting instead the higher-readiness formations serving in “hot spots.” Putin’s choice to replace the outgoing Commander of the Ground Troops, General Nikolai Kormiltsev, confirms his need for an individual with knowledge of the North Caucasus in particular. Maslov brings a wealth of experience to the post, as the former deputy chief of staff of the North Caucasus Military District. Although he was clearly involved with the many security failures in Chechnya, he has managed to emerge with a relatively unscathed reputation.
Maslov shares Putin’s belief in raising the numbers of contract servicemen serving in Chechnya as a mechanism likely to result in a better security environment. It may be wishful thinking. He confirmed that the current professionalizing of the armed forces has reached 90% of personnel serving in the 42nd Motor Rifle Division, while currently hiring more sergeants to serve in the 205th Brigade at an approximate level of 60%. The state program to build adequate housing for such contract servicemen supports this. But Putin was emphatic that the professional levels in these units serving in the North Caucasus must reach their designated target by late 2007, since Putin is slated to end his second term in 2008.
The thinking underlying this appointment, focused as it is on the priority of bringing stability to Chechnya and containing the spread of conflict throughout the North Caucasus, is based partly on Putin’s understanding of the mechanics of professionalizing the army. Putin’s main reasons for selecting Maslov for the post are evidently political. It is consistent with his efforts to promote the interests of the new generation of siloviki in the security apparatuses in the North Caucasus, distancing himself from the era of the “Chechen Generals” that marked the Yeltsin period.
General Vladimir Shamanov, closely associated with the troika of Chechen generals (Kvashnin, Kazantsev, and Troshev) that took part in the first Chechen war and were closely involved in planning the early stages of the second war in 1999, resigned from the armed forces on November 4. Significantly, Shamanov is widely expected to shortly leave his post as governor of Ulyanovsk, returning to Moscow, most likely as an aide to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Putin has shown great caution in gradually removing these Chechen generals from their posts, only too aware of the potentially damaging political role that may have resulted from any hasty attempts to silence them (Gazeta.Ru, November 4).
Maslov’s appointment at this time, and Putin’s insistence on achieving his ambitions to professionalize Russian military forces serving in the North Caucasus, signals his move away from the failures in Chechnya pursued under the leadership of General Anatoly Kvashnin and his colleagues — relying as they did on combating the enemy as “bandit formations” — to something closer to an anti-terrorist approach. Removing Shamanov also conveniently puts an end to the economic and trade damage he inflicted during his time as governor of Ulyanovsk. On the other hand, Maslov was also needed in this senior military post because of his knowledge of the region and his lack of direct association with the “Chechen generals.”
Putin remains confident that restructuring the armed forces and tinkering with their manning system can address the security problems that the Kremlin faces in Chechnya. Nevertheless, Russia’s senior military planners have little credible understanding of the whole culture and ethos, as well as management systems that support professional armed forces. Even if Putin succeeds in securing an all-volunteer force for those units deployed in Chechnya by 2007, it will not prove to be a panacea to Russia’s problems in the region. The Kremlin’s vision for Chechnya continues to give the Russian military a major role, unshaken in the belief that order can be restored by the army and security forces. That vision seeks to improve the security forces serving in Chechnya from above, with little room for reform from within, or engagement with a “hearts and minds” campaign among the civilian population. The signs suggest that the Russian military is preparing for a long haul in Chechnya.