On July 5, Sergei Konovalov treated the world to the birth of military opposition to Russia’s “New Look” defense reforms. According to Konovalov, three senior officers had resigned from their posts and been retired (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 5). The resignations of Lieutenant-General Andrei Tretyak, Lieutenant-General Sergei Skokov, and Major-General Oleg Ivanov were depicted as part of a cabal among General Staff officers actively opposing Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov’s “New Look,” but according to Konovalov, their real enemy was Army-General Nikolai Makarov, the Chief of the General Staff, who was accused by unnamed sources of both spreading chaos through ill-considered reforms and lying about the combat readiness of the Russian armed forces. Tretyak was Chief of the Operations Director of the General Staff and held the post of Deputy Chief of the General Staff. Ivanov commanded Electronic Warfare Forces, and Skokov was Chief of the Ground Forces Main Staff and Deputy Commander of Ground Forces. According to Konovalov, Serdyukov was dismissed in this account as just a “manager.”
Within days, other commentators were questioning the whole story of the “generals’ demarche.” Viktor Baranets countered Konovalov’s claims and described the events as less of a demarche and more of a “false revolt.” Baranets, a retired colonel and former press secretary at the defense ministry, did not deny the reports of conflicts between the three generals and Makarov over the course of the reforms, but pointed out that the resignations came over the issue of their transfers to duties outside Moscow (Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 6). Yuri Gavrilov depicted the same events as simple resignations. Gavrilov had interviewed State Secretary and Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov about the resignations. Pankov, the chief of personnel for the defense ministry, confirmed that two of the generals (Skokov and Ivanov) had resigned after declining other posts offered to them. General Tretyak’s resignation was another matter entirely. Tretyak had resigned because of illness and was at this time in hospital. Pankov denied that any protests over policy were involved in the resignations (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, July 6).
On July 5, the Russian mass media was already carrying reports that confirmed Pankov’s news about Tretyak. The general was, indeed, in a hospital and had confirmed that his resignation was for health reasons. Tretyak stated: “I did not have any disagreements with the military leadership regarding the reform of the Armed Forces” (Argumenti Nedeli, July 5).
Konovalov had yet another sensation: the Kremlin itself was concerned about a military opposition and was about to begin a major review of cadre policy. Konovalov wrote on the basis of unnamed sources that President Dmitry Medvedev was conducting a full review of senior officer appointments in the defense ministry and that personnel actions concerning senior officers had been frozen. Regarding the resignations of Tretyak, Ivanov and Skokov, Konovalov, again citing unnamed sources, declared: “in the near future, the generals who have submitted their letters of resignation will be interviewed by Human Resources representatives from the presidential administration, in order to reveal the true reasons for the young, promising leaders’ retirement from the army” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 12). Three days later, the supposedly frozen personnel actions were back in business with Medvedev approving the retirement of a group of general officers (Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 16).
Yet, Konovalov’s article about the Kremlin’s concern relating to military opposition did not end with its revelations of a freeze in cadre policy, but went on to allege that defense ministry personnel policies were corrupt and involved the promotion of officers with criminal records. As one unnamed source declared: “Competent officers are retiring, while various offenders who have had to deal with representatives of the military justice system are being promoted to higher-ranking positions.” The action, which had prompted this revelation, was Serdyukov’s decision to create a military police force for the Russian armed forces. Russian military leaders have been debating the creation of such a force since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The initiative had moved forward, foreign nations’ experiences with military police had been studied, and a range of legal obstacles to the creation of such a force outlined. However, in early July, Serdyukov said that these obstacles were being addressed and that he expected a military police force to come into existence by the end of the year (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, July 8). Serdyukov even identified the officer he intended to nominate to head the military police: Lieutenant-General Sergei Surovikin (Rossiiskoe agenstvo pravovoi i sudebnoi informatsii, July 7). Viktor Baranets, writing about the decision to establish a military police force, presented the reform as an important step in the struggle against corruption, garrison crime and dedovshchina (Komsomolskaya Pravda, July 8).
The first general officer identified by Konovalov as an example of corrupt personnel policy was none other than General Surovikin. Konovalov mentions two instances when General Surovikin was under investigation. The first instance concerns events during the 1991 coup when he commanded a battalion of motorized infantry of the Taman Division in Moscow and one of the BMPs under his command ran over three persons at an underpass near the White House. He was arrested but found innocent and went back into active service six months later. The event was ruled an accident. The second incident occurred when Surovikin was a major and student as the Frunze Combined Arms Academy. As Konovalov tells the story, he was arrested, tried and convicted in 1995. His offense, according to Konovalov, was quite serious: trying to sell a pistol. Now, there was indeed a group of officers involved in the sale of side arms in 1995 – at a time when officers were not getting paid for months of service. In fact, Surovikin was asked to give a pistol to another classmate and did not know that officer was part of a group selling small arms. He was investigated but not convicted. He was not sent into exile in Tajikistan, but went there to command a battalion, the normal assignment for a graduate of the Frunze Academy. Konovalov then went on to list other instances of miscarriages of justice, where officers were guilty of various offenses but still had successful careers. Reading the list of these indictments of Russia’s system of military justice leaves this reader with a feeling that the later cases were added to make the argument against Surovikin, not to shed light on the depths of corruption within the Russian officer corps. Konovalov’s final point is that all the promotions of such officers were approved by President Medvedev on the recommendation of the defense minister. The article was picked up by Russia Today and translated into English for widespread dissemination (Russia Today, July 12).
However, other Russian commentators saw the Konovalov article as another piece of agitation against Serdyukov’s “New Look” and labeled the attack on General Surovikin as a case of kompromat that missed its target and defamed an officer with an outstanding record. Viktor Litovkin also commented on the creation of military police and raised the issue of the subordination of such a force to local commanders or directly to the defense minister, which would preclude some of the obvious threats to dilute the capacity of such a force to investigate criminal activities within the armed forces. Litovkin noted that some had already begun to attack Surovikin’s candidacy on the basis of the events of August 1991, but he pointed out that the young officer had been found innocent of all charges after an investigation. He wondered if this attack was not the work of some proposing another candidate for the post (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 11).
Born in 1966, Surovikin is a combat veteran of Afghanistan, where he fought in a Spetsnaz unit, and both Chechen campaigns, where he commanded the 42nd Division. Konovalov mentioned none of that in his kompromat from the unnamed General of Military Justice. He is a soldier’s soldier with a distinguished combat record. Colonel-General Viacheslav Dadonov, former commander of Group of Forces North Caucasus, said that General Surovikin, who served with him in the North Caucasus, stands out by his “tough character and impeccable capacity to fulfill any task” (Kommersant, July 8). Sergei Senin wrote that the fight over the creation of the military police involved conflicting claims over what forces would come under their purview: just defense ministry units or the armed forces of other power ministries. Senin described the general as an effective commander who reached his objectives and led from the front, risking his own life to save the lives of his subordinates during combat operations in Chechnya, where he was wounded. Senin reviewed the accusations leveled against Surovikin in connection with the Coup of August 1991 and the incident at the Frunze Academy and labeled their presentation in the recent press as unfounded accusations: “Such are the ‘black spots’ in the biography of General Surovikin. What is more interesting is to whom it is useful to slander this fighting general. It is understood that in cases of appointments to high positions there exists competition, but one should not try to sink competitors with fake kompromat.” Senin suggests that the real target of the kompromat may not have been the general but the man who nominated him –Defense Minister Serdyukov (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, July 15).
There is no doubt that there exists opposition to Serdyukov’s “New Look” among rank-and-file officers. But the latest press accounts of a revolt of the generals and corruption in the higher ranks of the officer corps have the feel of bureaucratic infighting rather than the complaints of field commanders. The “Arbat Generals” may be unhappy with the reforms and jockeying for position, but there is no evidence of what Aleksandr Svechin called the real test of senior officers, civic bravery on questions within their professional competence. It is much easier to manufacture counterfeit kompromat than openly debate military reform. This Russian Army still has no Peter, no Milyutin, and no Frunze. Perhaps there might be one coming from the field, and that is what has made the appointment of a commander of military police the subject of covert struggle.