Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 37

The Kremlin began celebrations marking the country’s main military holiday two days early yesterday, as Acting President Vladimir Putin conferred promotions on several leading commanders of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya while Defense Minister Igor Sergeev presided over a military parade in Djohar (Reuters, Russian agencies, February 21; see last story in this issue). February 23 is Russia’s “Defender of the Fatherland” day, and Putin’s actions in Moscow yesterday suggested that he intends to use the holiday to highlight his support for the armed forces and its leadership as well as to further strengthen–in the weeks leading up to Russia’s presidential election–his perceived standing as defender of Russia’s security.

February 23 was also the Soviet Union’s main military holiday–when it was called Soviet Army Day. Putin’s actions yesterday also served to reinforce the impression that he, as acting president, is attempting at least in part to emulate policies used by Soviet leaders to ensure political control over the military high command. Those policies involved an implicit bargain between the Communist Party leadership and the top brass. The Party provided generous funding for the armed forces while simultaneously embracing an ideology and world view that were consonant with the army’s own and that glorified the military’s role as chief defender of the fatherland. With similar goals in mind, the Party also ensured the army’s prestige in society and promoted the inculcation of patriotic virtues among Soviet youth and throughout society as a whole. In return for this official support and patronage, the military leadership willingly submitted to close Party control. This political oversight was achieved through the close observation of all military formations by Soviet security personnel–the KGB’s so-called “special departments”–and by the maintenance within the armed forces of an extensive network of political officers.

Of course, that was then and this is now. The economic, political and social levers available to Putin are considerably less impressive than those available to Soviet leaders. Yet he has thus far used them adroitly (and in a fashion designed to increase his own political authority) by giving unqualified backing to the military’s war effort in the Caucasus and by promising–and at least in part delivering–increases in defense spending. Putin has also backed the promulgation of a pair of anti-Western security documents which reflect the armed forces’ confrontational view of the world. In addition, Putin appears to be behind two policies–summoning military reservists for training and reintroducing military training courses in the schools–which, however faintly, hearken back to the militarized nature of Soviet society. His use of yesterday’s military holiday celebration to confer promotions on the commanders of Russia’s air force and navy, as well as on three of the leading commanders of the Caucasus military operation, was right out of the Soviet handbook.

Yet already Putin’s support for the military leadership–so instrumental in his rise to political authority–appears to have come at a price. A decree published by the acting Russian president earlier this month reportedly strengthens the oversight role of the Federal Security Service (FSB)–the chief successor organization to the KGB–within all of Russia’s armed forces. It is also said to integrate all counterintelligence units throughout these forces under the “unified, centralized system” of the FSB (Wall Street Journal, February 16; see the Monitor, February 14). The move appears to be part of a broader effort by Putin, a career KGB officer who earlier headed the FSB, to increase the authority of the Russian intelligence establishment within the government and throughout society as a whole.

Putin appeared also to have moved against hardliners within the military high command–or at least in defiance of their wishes–when he hosted a visit to Moscow last week by NATO Secretary General George Robertson (see the Monitor, February 17). The chief spokesman for the hardliners–Colonel General Leonid Ivashov–was sent to a defense conference in Switzerland and was thus not in attendance at the talks with Robertson (this despite the fact that he heads the Defense Ministry’s directorate for contacts with foreign military organizations). Russian observers speculated that Putin was able to get away with this slight to the hardliners–and with a push toward warmer ties with NATO and the West–precisely because of the nationalist credentials he had earned in supporting the army in its prosecution of the war in Chechnya. Effective control of the armed forces by Putin could prove to be of some importance following his anticipated election victory next month, when the Kremlin is expected by many observers to launch a shake-up of the Russian military leadership (see Monitor, February 8). Effective political control over the army could also be important if some in the military leadership object to Putin’s apparent decision to pursue warmer relations with the West, or if they chafe at the prospect of increased oversight by the FSB.

Indeed, for a variety of reasons, and particularly because of Russia’s continuing economic woes, Putin’s fledgling “contract” with the armed forces could be a difficult one to fulfill. To date the Kremlin appears to have been able to finance the war in Chechnya–and modest increases in allocations to the armed forces–largely because of increased revenues from higher world oil prices. Yet it is not clear whether that sort of spending can be sustained, or whether the government will be able to come up with the funds to cover a host of other anticipated defense expenditures. Those include moneys for the purchase of new weaponry and the upgrading of old, for increased defense research and development, to cover mounting payment arrears to defense enterprises, and to fund promised increases in salaries for Russian military personnel. A failure by the Russian leader to follow through on his budget pledges in this area could end Putin’s current honeymoon with the military leadership and could result in the reemergence of “Yeltsin-era” style frictions between the Kremlin and Russia’s military commanders. A drawn-out guerrilla war in the Caucasus could have similarly corrosive effects.