Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 152

The suspense continued to build this week over just how President Vladimir Putin will resolve the very public wrangle which has erupted between competing camps atop the Russian military establishment. The awkwardness of the current situation was highlighted during a pair of military events, the importance of which dictated that Putin–ever solicitous of his military constituency and his self-proclaimed role as a rebuilder of Russian military might–should appear in person. The president was careful to walk a fine line between the warring camps. Over the weekend, he attended festivities celebrating the Russian Navy in Kaliningrad and Baltiisk accompanied by one of the protagonists in the military row–General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin. On August 2 in Pskov, where Russian paratroopers were marking their 70th anniversary, Putin put in an appearance in the company of the second protagonist–Defense Minister Igor Sergeev.

Putin used both occasions to reiterate his support for the armed forces and to sound some now familiar themes: that the military remains a bedrock of Russian state policy and a guarantor of the country’s security and territorial integrity. The head of state, who seems often to tell his audiences what they most want to hear, stayed in form during the weekend’s naval celebrations. “Russia is a great naval power,” he told officers and sailors in Baltiisk. “At all times when its fleet was growing weak, things would get worse for the whole country… and when the fleet revived, the country also rose, allowing itself to be called a great state.” In another remark probably interpreted by his listeners as a pledge to raise state spending on the navy, Putin said, “if we want Russia to prosper, we must pay special attention to the navy” (UPI, July 30, Reuters, July 31; Komsomolskaya pravda, August 1). The problem, of course, is that the Russian government does not have the financial wherewithal to fund upgrades of all its services, and it remains unclear whether the Kremlin intends to back demands by the fleet’s leadership for increased naval allocations.

Putin’s visit to Pskov was a more somber occasion, one which the Russian president used to hail the Airborne Forces for their performance in Chechnya, and to offer sympathy to the families of paratroopers who lost their lives in the Caucasus conflict. Indeed, Russian reports highlighted approvingly what they said was the directness of Putin’s appeal to the troops and civilians present. They also pointed to what some said was an unprecedented gesture by the president to put responsibility for poor policy decisions and unnecessary Russian losses in Chechnya on the government and the military leadership. What was unclear from the reports was whether Putin was accepting some of that responsibility for himself (Komsomolskaya pravda said that the president had himself apologized) or whether he was assigning blame primarily to the administration of former President Boris Yeltsin. It was also unclear whether he was pointing an accusing finger as Sergeev for his own role in the conduct of the Caucasus war (Reuters, Komsomolskaya pravda, August 3).

One of the interesting features of the coverage of Putin’s visits to the Baltics and Pskov was the extent to which reports focused on the ongoing struggle atop the Defense Ministry and on what many observers believe could soon be a major shake-up of the military leadership. Among the likely scenarios Russian newspapers offered was one in which Putin chooses to dump both Sergeev and Kvashnin and to break with precedent by installing a civilian in the Defense Ministry post. Among the possible candidates for defense chief identified in the event that Putin goes this route were three top Security Council officials: Secretary Sergei Ivanov, First Deputy Secretary Mikhail Fradkov and Deputy Secretary Aleksei Moskovsky. Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov was also seen as a possible replacement for Sergeev, as was a former security supremo under Boris Yeltsin, the well-known defense intellectual Andrei Kokoshin. In what was perhaps an indication that there is a dearth of serious strategists among senior military officers, the Russian press came up with only a few possible replacements for Kvashnin in the event that Putin chooses to remove him from the post of General Staff chief (AFP, Russian agencies, August 1; Reuters, August 2; Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, August 4).

One major military newspaper, meanwhile, described the current situation in the Defense Ministry leadership as the “calm before the reforming storm.” Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie (August 4) said that it had become apparent that a whole series of disagreements over the course military reform should take in the Russian armed forces can be resolved only through wholesale personnel changes. The paper also suggested that the row between Sergeev and Kvashnin has forced Putin to make this a priority issue, and that the first results of intense government deliberations in this area are likely to be revealed at a meeting of the Security Council scheduled for later this month. The Security Council is now considering rival military reform plans, one proposed by the Defense Ministry and the other–Kvashnin’s–by the General Staff. Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie suggests that elements from the latter plan are likely to win out, and that the Russian Air Force will over time absorb Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops. That paper also foresees a series of other radical measures being adopted, including additional major reductions in military manpower. Reforms of this sort are likely to be unpopular among a number of military interest groups. It will be interesting to see whether Putin–unlike his successor, Boris Yeltsin–can marshal the political skill and authority to impose the Kremlin’s will on the armed forces and to effect the wide-ranging changes so needed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.