Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 163

With world and Russian media focused in recent weeks on the furor and recriminations which accompanied the tragic loss of the Russian submarine Kursk on August 12, little attention has been paid to the meeting of the Russian Security Council on August 11. Indeed, criticisms which President Vladimir Putin leveled, during that meeting, at the military leadership for its failure to address key problems in the armed forces serve, in retrospect, as a sad and oddly prescient backdrop to the sinking of the Kursk and the navy’s gross mishandling of the subsequent rescue attempt. It is worthwhile to ask–particularly in the wake of that tragedy–whether the August 11 Security Council meeting, which was devoted to the subject of Russian military reform, really moved the Russian government and military leadership closer to the launching of genuine military restructuring, or whether that meeting is likely to prove but another in a long string of unrealized government initiatives aimed at improving Russia’s decrepit armed forces.

The driving force behind the convening of the meeting was the very public row which erupted between Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin in mid-July. The row reflected both long-brewing personal animosities between the two men, who are the two most senior officers in the Russian military hierarchy, as well as equally longstanding tensions between competing interest groups within the armed forces. Put most simply, Sergeev represented the Defense Ministry leadership, the Strategic Missile Troops (SMT), and an existing military policy which had long favored the SMT over Russian’s increasingly impoverished and ineffective conventional forces. Kvashnin, in turn, represented the General Staff, which wanted to increase its own authority within the defense establishment, as well as those within the leaderships of the Russian navy, air force and ground forces who resented playing second fiddle–particularly on financing matters–to the rocket troops. Two developments brought the conflict between these two groups to a head in July: a plan which Sergeev had long been pushing to concentrate command control over all the country’s strategic assets under the SMT; and the war in Chechnya, which had revealed anew how poorly equipped and poorly prepared were Russia’s conventional forces (see the Monitor, July 13, 17, August 4).

The public showdown between Sergeev and Kvashnin forced Putin to intervene and, perhaps earlier than the Kremlin wished, pushed military restructuring to the top of the government’s political agenda. The Russian Security Council, the advisory body to the president which has assumed increasing power under Putin, was tasked with the urgent question of military restructuring. The Council began an examination of both Sergeev’s plan for concentrating command over the strategic forces and a competing plan submitted by Kvashnin which called, instead, for quickly reducing the size of the SMT, folding it into the Air Force and redirecting scarce defense funding from the SMT to Russia’s conventional forces. The August 11 Security Council meeting was intended to render some decisions on these key issues by mapping out a military reform policy which, over the next fifteen years, would reshape Russia’s military machine for the new century. At the same time, many in Russia saw the meeting as an opportunity for Putin to assert his control over the military leadership and to begin putting his own imprint firmly on Russian military policy. In much the same vein, it was thought that the August 11 meeting might also reveal some personnel decisions which would begin what many assume will be a major shakeup of the military leadership–a shakeup has been expected since Putin was inaugurated this past spring.

Whether the August 11 meeting accomplished any of these aims is difficult to say, however. Little information about the substance of the meeting was made public, and reports of the meeting–and of related developments in its aftermath–have offered sharply divergent views as to what was decided. There is apparently no question either that Putin devoted considerable attention to military reform issues prior to the meeting, or that the four hours or so he met with military and government leaders on August 11 represented one of the Kremlin’s more serious efforts to grapple with these issues since the demise of the Soviet Union. There also seems to be little question that Putin used the meeting to speak critically of the army’s problems–“Are our armed forces, our whole military component effective? Unfortunately, they are not,” he was quoted as saying–but also to underscore the fact that military restructuring would have to be conducted in accordance with the limited financial resources available to the Russian government. He called for a “development strategy for the armed forces up to 2015, taking into account our needs and the state’s ability.” He also told the generals that “we need to make sure that all our actions are absolutely balanced, weighed out and economically founded” (Reuters, August 11).

Putin’s references to the government’s fiscal restraints were important, given both the military leadership’s frequent demands for more money and Putin’s own equally frequent pledges to rebuild Russian military power. But while some reports suggested that Putin had used the August 11 meeting to launch a major restructuring of the Russian armed forces (BBC, August 12), others suggested that little concrete had been accomplished and that most big decisions were put off until later this decade. One indication that the latter interpretation might be more justified was the fact that there was apparently no talk of the expected reshuffling atop the military leadership. It is difficult to see how Putin can launch a major reform effort without replacing key Defense Ministry leaders.

That the August 11 meeting took no radical steps was also suggested by Defense Minister Sergeev’s cheery comments after the meeting. Sergeev had gone into the meeting as an underdog, with many observers convinced that Kvashnin’s plan to cut the SMT and to prioritize funding for the conventional forces would be embraced by Putin. And a decision of that sort was apparently taken. But whereas Kvashnin had called for the liquidation of the SMT as an independent force (and its folding into the Air Force) over the next several years, if not sooner, the Security Council reportedly decided instead to put off that decision until 2006. Until that time the SMT as a whole will be reduced in size, but only as missiles reach the end of their service life and are retired. Kvashnin had reportedly proposed retiring some Russian missiles early in order to speed the phasing out of the SMT, its incorporation into the Air Force, and the shifting of resources to the conventional forces. Sergeev, who will undoubtedly not be around as defense minister in 2006, probably is hopeful that the political winds could change by that time and that the SMT, which he once commanded, can still be saved.

Kvashnin did apparently win something of a victory with a Security Council decision to begin channeling funding away from the SMT and toward Russia’s conventional forces. But it remains unclear what sort of changes the Kremlin has in mind in this area. Indeed, it appears that the military leadership as a whole may actually have suffered something of a defeat with regard to overall military spending. As was suggested above, senior Russian generals have long called for the Kremlin to live up to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s earlier pledge to raise defense spending to 3.5 percent of GDP (it is currently down below 2.5 percent). Russian sources are unclear on this point, but Putin seems in fact to have suggested during the August 11 meeting that spending on the armed forces could actually fall next year. Indeed, according to several reports, while overall defense spending may rise a bit, a greater portion of that funding will henceforth be allocated to the country’s various security structures rather than to the armed forces (AP, August 13; Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 15; Vremya Novosti, August 14; Obshchaya gazeta, August 17-23; Nezavisimaya voennoe obozrenie, August 17-24).

If true, this suggests that tensions could continue to rise within the military leadership and throughout the armed forces more generally. In fact, many commentators in Russia have argued that the Sergeev-Kvashnin conflict and the institutional interests underlying it are about funding more than anything else. Moreover, some of these same commentators have suggested that, by failing to take decisive steps, the August 11 meeting also left unresolved the tensions between Sergeev and Kvashnin related to the military reform. That Putin chose after the Kursk debacle neither to blame the military leadership nor to dismiss any top generals suggests–as does the August 11 Security Council meeting–that the Russian president may remain reticent to take on the Defense Ministry directly.