Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 26

Nearly two weeks after reports suggested that President Vladimir Putin had indeed signed off on a package of military reform documents to drive the Kremlin’s high profile defense restructuring effort (see the Monitor, January 26), there are now new rumors indicating that military reform in Russia may in fact still be stuck in neutral. These latest rumors suggest that the Kremlin may be struggling unsuccessfully to resolve bitter differences within the military leadership itself over the proposed military reforms. They also suggest that Putin’s decision to turn military reform over to the Russian Security Council, a body which is subordinated to the president’s office and is headed by one of his closest advisers, may not be paying the sort of immediate dividends the Kremlin undoubtedly hoped for. Most important, the sense of continued bickering over defense reform and of the Kremlin’s enduring failure to overcome it has contributed to the only recently awakening perception that Putin may not be quite so strong a leader as most observers inside and outside of Russia have assumed. Indeed, some commentaries have used Putin’s apparent inability thus far to move forward on the military reform issue to support the broader conclusion that the Russian president is proving indecisive in handling a host of the most important issues facing the government (Washington Post, February 6; Novoe Vremya, No. 5, February 2001).

Assessments about the current state of the military reform debate in Russia are difficult to make, unfortunately, due to the government’s decision to keep the issue out of the public eye. This official silence, however, together with Putin’s own increasingly odd failure to address the issue directly, may be serving more than anything else to reinforce perceptions that the Kremlin is not in control of the situation. What we do appear to know for certain is that Putin signed some defense reform related documents on January 16, and that these documents apparently make official plans announced earlier to cut the regular Russian armed forces by more than 350,000 men.

But, if recent Russian newspaper reports are to be believed, there is not much else that we know for certain. Previous speculation had suggested that the documents signed by Putin represented a victory for the hawkish and politically ambitious chief of the Russian General Staff, General Anatoly Kvashnin. More recent reports cast doubt, however, on whether Kvashnin has actually achieved either of his two main aims: to increase the authority of the General Staff at the expense of the Defense Ministry, and to ensure rapid reductions in the size of Russia’s ground-based strategic missile forces as well as the downgrading over the next several years of the status of the Strategic Missile Troops themselves. In his now long-standing public battle with Defense Minister Igor Sergeev (a former rocket forces commander), Kvashnin has argued that Russia’s strategic missile troops should be rapidly reduced so that scarce defense funding can be shifted to rebuilding the country’s conventional forces.

The man who has done the most to raise doubts about Kvashnin’s “victory” in the military reform debate is Russian State Duma Defense Committee chairman Andrei Nikolaev. A former General Staff deputy chief himself, Nikolaev is said to be one of only two lawmakers (the other is Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev) who has been granted the privilege of seeing the military reform document that Putin is believed to have signed. In a series of interviews with the press Nikolaev has refused, on the grounds of national security, to provide any details about Russian military reform plans. But he has made it very clear that the documents Putin signed represented in no sense a victory for Kvashnin and, indeed, that he was “100 percent sure” that the government would not, ultimately, endorse Kvashnin’s military reform plan. Kvashnin appeared to base this conclusion on what he said was Putin’s decision to change, and to delete from the draft reform documents, a number of the provisions dearest to Kvashnin’s heart. These reportedly included the call for a drastic reduction in Russia’s ground-based strategic rocket forces. Nikolaev was even quoted as saying that the Russian president’s “point of view [on this issue] is rather similar to [Defense Minister] Sergeev’s views.” Indeed, Nikolaev appears to have become something of an advocate on behalf of those who oppose Kvashnin, including Sergeev. He says that he too agrees with Marshal Sergeev’s views, and that he has written a letter to Putin expressing this fact (The Russia Journal, January 30; Vremya novostei, February 1; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 2).

If that all seems rather simple, some of the other recent speculation concerning the state of military reform in Russia is not so at all. Izvestia, for example, reported that there is currently a “missile lobby” within the General Staff that also supports the view that Russia’s strategic missile troops need be preserved. And it said that General Vladimir Yakovlev, Sergeev’s protege and the man who currently heads the strategic missile troops, has emerged as a leading candidate to replace Kvashnin as General Staff chief. The newspaper quotes speculation that, under this scenario, the strategic missile troops might be administratively downgraded as was earlier suggested, but that the move would mean little in practical terms because Yakovlev would be wielding command authority.

Izvestia, moreover, also outlined Putin’s own at times erratic handling over the past year of the military reform issue. It pointed out, for example, how Putin had appeared last year to embrace current Russian naval commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov as his favorite. Putin’s actions generated speculation that the Russian admiral was himself in line for the defense minister’s job, and that the navy more broadly was likely to be granted a much more influential role in Russian defense planning. That approach reportedly died with the sinking of the Kursk last August. The newspaper also rehashed the speculation that has arisen periodically regarding the Kremlin’s alleged intention to appoint a civilian to the Defense Ministry post, and to the likelihood that current Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov (or his assistant, Aleksei Moskovsky) would be tabbed for that post (Izvestia, February 5).

Putin’s seeming failure to move more decisively in this area is said by some reports to be creating tensions within the armed forces, and to be reinforcing the impression that political considerations and individual ambitions–rather than the good of the country–are driving the defense reform effort. Some observers have also pointed out that there are no real reformers at present among country’s current military leadership, and that the Kremlin will never really advance its military reform plans until it moves new people into these leadership positions (Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 2). The pressures surrounding the military reform effort, meanwhile, have been intensified in recent weeks by the change of presidential administrations in Washington. Bush administration signals that it will go forward with deployment of a missile defense system–be it national or global–have raised the stakes for Moscow, and are presumably sharpening the debate among competing interest groups over the future of Russia’s armed forces.