Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 63

In a move which surprised more than a few Russia-watchers, the Kremlin announced yesterday that President-elect Vladimir Putin will apparently retain the services of Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. A Kremlin spokesman said that Putin had decided “some time ago” to extend Sergeev’s tenure. A quick decision was necessitated in part because of Russian law, which requires the president to act annually to extend the service of senior military personnel who have reached the age of 60. Sergeev will be 62 on April 20, and has already had his term of service extended twice by former President Boris Yeltsin. Putin has apparently ordered that the paperwork be drawn up which will permit Sergeev to stay in the armed forces for yet another year. It is not clear, however, whether he means by that to keep Sergeev in the Defense Minister post until his service renewal comes up again next April.

Yesterday’s announcement came after Putin met with Sergeev in the Kremlin to discuss military reform and operations in Chechnya (Reuters, Itar-Tass, March 28). Coming so soon after Putin’s election, the talks between the two men underscored yet again the primacy that Putin is attaching to defense issues. Indeed, a day earlier Putin had signaled his intention to continue military operations in the Caucasus. It was Putin’s ruthless prosecution of the bloody war in Chechnya that won him the strong support of the military leadership in the first place. Russia’s strategic forces test-fired two submarine-based ballistic missiles on Monday to mark Putin’s electoral victory.

The reappointment was nevertheless something of a surprise. Russian newspapers had been filled with speculation following Putin’s elevation to the acting-president post that the former KGB officer intended to reshuffle the country’s military leadership soon after his expected victory in the March 26 presidential election. Russian military experts pointed in particular to two likely candidates to succeed Sergeev: General Staff chief General Anatoly Kvashnin and Duma Defense Committee chairman (and retired general) Andrei Nikolaev. The elevation of Kvashnin–who has long sought the job–would have been interpreted as a reward for a particularly hawkish clique of Russian generals who are believed to have been a driving force behind both the war in Chechnya and Russia’s earlier confrontational and hardline attitude toward the NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. The naming of Nikolaev, on the other hand, would have been interpreted as a move to bring younger men with fresh–albeit not necessarily any more moderate–views into the Defense Ministry (see the Monitor, February 8).

Putin’s decision to stick with Sergeev may reflect, as many reports suggested yesterday, a desire not to rock the boat within the defense hierarchy too soon after his election. In fact, it may more accurately reflect a wariness on Putin’s part to confront the tensions and personal animosities which have long divided the defense leadership.

Sergeev is a former strategic rocket forces commander whose original appointment to the defense minister post in May 1997 sat awkwardly with other more tradition-minded Russian military leaders. Tensions grew worse over the next several years as Sergeev embarked on a military reform program which both cut the size of the armed forces while simultaneously prioritizing funding for the country’s strategic deterrent. The complaint that Russia’s conventional forces had improperly suffered the brunt of defense manpower and funding cuts was resurrected early in the war in Chechnya, when there were charges that Sergeev’s military reform approach had left the army poorly prepared to fight in the Caucasus. Sergeev had also long been at loggerheads with the General Staff over a plan to concentrate control over all of Russia’s strategic forces in the hands of General Vladimir Yakovlev, the commander of the Strategic Missile Troops and Sergeev’s own protege. Kvashnin, who is said to be an energetic and capable political operator, is believed to have been behind many of the intrigues that revolved around these tensions in the Defense Ministry.

Indeed, Putin’s posturing as the Russian military’s “top gun” may not be of quite so much service to him now that the Russian presidential election is over. While his willingness to prosecute the Caucasus war will surely be appreciated by military leaders (if not in Western capitals), he will soon also have to turn his attention to the considerably more difficult defense-related problems which bedeviled the Kremlin during Yeltsin’s tenure. Those problems include continuing funding shortages, the inability of the armed forces to either retain talented young officers or attract effective contract volunteers, and the need to upgrade or replace aging equipment. In addition, Putin must root out both widespread corruption within the officer corps and the continuing prevalence of deadly barracks violence. Both phenomena have corroded military morale and contribute significantly to the armed forces current low level of battle readiness.

Finally–and, in political terms, most crucially–Putin must make decisions over how best to prioritize Russia’s still meager defense funding over a wide range of competing defense interests. Given the expectations that Putin has raised within the armed forces, thanks in part to his promises of increased defense spending and a resurrection of Russia’s military might, some groups within the armed forces are sure to find themselves disappointed. The resolution of those sorts of demands are likely to test Putin’s political skills and to threaten the overwhelming support that he now enjoys within the armed forces. Putin’s problems in this area could be compounded if the army suffers reverses in Chechnya and if the Kremlin’s “victorious little war” is transformed into the quagmire that many predicted earlier.