Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 138

The unprecedented struggle within Russia’s military high command which erupted in public view last week continued to intensify into the weekend and, if Russian reports are to be believed, compelled President Vladimir Putin to meet with his feuding defense minister and general staff chief on two different occasions. The rift has been developing for nearly two years and reflects an interconnected clash of personal ambitions, a struggle between various service branches and among other military and political interests, and a battle over the future shape of Russia’s post-Soviet armed forces. That it has burst into the open now is, in part, a result of earlier pledges Putin made to the military leadership–pledges which have not been honored–and the Russian president’s broader failure to address long-festering tensions within the armed forces. Resolution of the current conflict could test Putin’s political skills and, ultimately, disenchant some elements within a military establishment which has up to now been solidly in the president’s corner.

The clash between Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin erupted during a meeting of the Defense Ministry’s collegium (which groups the military’s most senior officers) on July 12, when Kvashnin proposed a military restructuring plan to eliminate Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops (SMT) as an independent service branch and subordinate its assets to the Air Force. The plan was meant to counter a long-standing proposal by Sergeev which envisioned the creation of a Russian Strategic Deterrent Force–a single command under which the SMT would exercise operational control over all of Russia’s strategic forces, including those belonging to the Air Force and Navy. Sergeev, himself a former rocket forces commander-in-chief, hoped to place current SMT commander Army General Vladimir Yakovlev at the head of the new strategic deterrent force. Sergeev argued that his plan would save scarce funding by streamlining the structures commanding Russia’s nuclear arsenal (see the Monitor, July 13).

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Kvashnin’s proposal used the same logic–the need to save money–to justify a radically different notion of military restructuring. Details of the General Staff proposal remained sketchy, but various Russian sources suggested that it called for eliminating up to twenty missile troops divisions (one report said twenty of twenty divisions would be terminated) while slashing the number of land-based missile-launchers from 756 to 150 by the year 2003. Some reports also said that the plan called for reducing production of Russia’s new single-warhead Topol-M ICBM from ten to two per year. As part of the move to shift resources from the missile troops to Russia’s conventional forces, the strength of the latter would reportedly be increased by 50,000 servicemen, with deployments being concentrated in Russia’s North Caucasus region and in the areas bordering Central Asia. Russia’s Ground Forces, which during an earlier restructuring lost their independent command and considerable troop strength, would be brought back up to 380,000 troops. Sergeev’s plans would have greatly reduced the authority of the General Staff and Russia’s service chiefs; Kvashnin’s plan, not surprisingly, strengthens the General Staff.

The substance and presentation of Kvashnin’s plan was seen by some Russian sources to have constituted a virtual “coup” attempt against Russia’s defense minister. And the normally mild-mannered Sergeev was not slow to fire back. In a series of unprecedentedly harsh public statements made on July 14, the Russian marshal described the General Staff plan as “criminal stupidity and an attempt to harm the national interests of Russia.” According to some sources, he also accused Kvashnin of having launched a “psychotic attack” which would destroy Russia’s rocket forces. Most tellingly, perhaps, Sergeev insinuated that Kvashnin was playing into Washington’s hands by calling for a radical reduction of Russia’s nuclear missile force. “Whose interests are the general staff promoting?” he was quoted as asking. SMT commander General Vladimir Yakovlev, a protege of Sergeev’s, took up that same refrain. “Changing the balance of forces, as implied by reforming the rocket forces, could lead to the disruption of negotiations and transform our country into a second-rate nuclear power,” Yakovlev was quoted as saying. He also warned that Kvashnin’s proposals, if implemented, could ultimately preclude Russia from taking “asymmetrical” countermeasures to a possible U.S. deployment of a national missile defense system. Russian military leaders have repeatedly brandished this threat–which could include anything from installing multiple warheads on Topol-M missiles to deploying intermediate range nuclear missiles targeted at Europe–in an effort to compel the United States to give up its missile defense plans.

Indeed, Kvashnin’s plan does seem constructed in a way which could undermine Russian negotiators in their strategic arms talks with the United States. The plan also seems to contradict, as Sergeev and Yakovlev pointed out, Russia’s recently approved military doctrine. That document maintains an important deterrence role for the country’s strategic forces.

These sorts of considerations, along with the general unseemliness of the clash between Sergeev and Kvashnin, prompted Putin to scold the two military leaders on July 14 and to tell them to stop their public brawling. “This is a serious decision of principal on which the country’s future is depending,” the Russian president said during a visit with Sergeev to an arms show in the Urals region. “Such a decision cannot be taken behind closed doors, but nor can it be opened up to nationwide debate.” Putin also suggested that there would, in any case, be no immediate restructuring of the armed forces. He said that any decision on the matter would be made at the highest levels and would not be made in haste. According to a top General Staff officer, General Valery Manilov, documents relative to the dispute are to be prepared immediately and submitted to the Russian Security Council. Putin, he said, would make a decision on them by the end of this month. Sergeev, meanwhile, on July 14 denied earlier reports that he intended to retire if a decision was made to implement Kvashnin’s proposal (International agencies, July 14-16; Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 14; International Herald Tribune, Irish Independent, July 15).