Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 213

Aside from raising questions related to the mechanics and details of Russia’s recently approved military reductions plan (see the Monitor, November 13), decisions on that issue taken at the November 9 Security Council meeting have sharpened speculation in Russia regarding the political calculations which underlay the Kremlin’s military development plans. Speculation in this area has in general focused on Putin’s evolving relationship with the Russian military leadership and on what the Kremlin’s real plans for restructuring the military leadership may be.

These issues are important not only because they will go a long way toward determining whether the Kremlin’s military reform effort is successful, but also because they could have a significant impact on Russia’s broader political development. Putin’s accession to power, it should be remembered, was built on the former KGB officer’s strong alliance with the military leadership. Putin actualized that alliance by offering an unwavering commitment to the army’s brutal war in the Caucasus. In much the same way, Putin fashioned himself a defender of Russian national interests more generally by embracing the military leadership’s call for a rebuilding of Russian military might.

Ultimately, were the Kremlin to successfully reduce, streamline and improve the efficiency of Russia’s armed forces, the effort could have a positive impact on the course of political and economic reforms in Russia. But, in adopting a plan which will radically downsize the armed forces, Putin may also be risking his heretofore-friendly relations with the military high command. His still considerable political authority should be enough to help him get the ball rolling with regard to radical military reform. But institutional resistance would be a factor even under the best of circumstances, and it seems likely that a more potent opposition to radical military reform could arise within the military leadership and among more nationalist-minded political groups in Russia if Putin’s political popularity and authority ever start to wane.

As he has on several previous occasions, Putin apparently laid it on the line to military leaders during the November 9 Security Council meeting. According to Russian reports, he told the generals that the country could wait no longer for radical military reform. “The future of the country’s armed forces and military institutions depends on this, as does Russia’s very security,” he was quoted as saying. “We have discussed this [military reform] for a long time and moved toward this decision. Our time is up.”

Putin was also quoted as having told military leaders that “to maintain such a cumbersome and at times ineffective military organization is extravagant and in all senses wrong. In our situation it’s simply not permissible.” Putin’s tough talk, at least insofar as it was reported, appeared to reflect the assessments of long-time Defense Ministry critics. It likewise appeared to grant no credence either to repeated claims by military leaders that they have already begun effective reform of the armed forces, or that their efforts have been hamstrung primarily by the state’s failure to come up with sufficient funds to finance military restructuring. That military and security leaders had defended themselves energetically during the November 9 meeting was suggested by Putin’s remark that “the arguments” at the Security Council meeting “have been intense and at times difficult” (Reuters, November 10).

Among the perils Putin faces is the possibility that the envisioned manpower reductions–which are to include some 600,000 uniformed and civilian personnel from Russia’s defense and security establishments–will cause such hardship and social dislocation that the Kremlin will be discredited not only in the army, but among Russian voters as well. Plans to demobilize some 240,000 career officers, including 380 generals, could be especially difficult for the army and society to swallow.

Indeed, the demobilization–and the ultimate re-equipping and rebuilding of the Russian armed forces more generally–may depend in large part on the ability of the government to come up with sufficient funding. One Western press report said that the Kremlin’s military reform plan is based on a 5 to 5.5 percent increase in Russian GDP over the next five to ten years–a seemingly overly optimistic projection (Reuters, November 10). In fact, many Russian defense experts predict that an effort to radically cut the size of the armed forces will actually lead to an increase in defense expenditures, at least in the short run. That is because newly released officers, the majority of whom will presumably be middle-aged or older (the armed forces are currently short of junior officers) will need to be pensioned off and, equally important, should be provided with housing and other benefits. A failure to address such needs adequately could leave Putin vulnerable to the sort of harsh political criticism Nikita Khrushchev faced in the early 1960s after cutting the Soviet armed forces by over 1 million men (Soviet officers continued to speak bitterly of the reductions even in the 1980s), or which Mikhail Gorbachev faced following his own decisions both to cut Soviet forces and to withdraw hundreds of thousands of soldiers and their families from Eastern Europe.

There has also been more than a little speculation in the Russian media that–while no personnel changes were apparently discussed during the November 9 Security Council meeting–a major restructuring of the defense hierarchy is looming. That this should be so is no surprise. Russian news sources have reported for years proposals both to civilianize the Defense Ministry and to recast and more carefully delineate the functions of the Defense Ministry and the Russian General Staff. A very public feud which broke out between Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin this past summer, one Putin may have still not fully resolved, added more fuel to that fire.

But this sort of speculation has grown even stronger in the wake of a Kremlin decision earlier this month to restructure Russia’s arms export establishment (see the Monitor, November 7). Most reports of that event have focused on plans to combine two existing Russian state arms trading companies–Rosvooruzhenie and Promeksport–into a larger company called Rosoboroneksport. Less noticed, however, is the fact that Putin has apparently transferred responsibility for overseeing Russia’s lucrative arms trade dealings from the Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology to the Defense Ministry (Itar-Tass, November 8; Vedomosti, November 9). Given that current Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s days at his post appear to be numbered, this suggests that the Kremlin may indeed have in mind a plan to recast the functions of the Defense Ministry and to name a new–and possibly civilian–head.

According to Russian news sources, two civilians–not surprisingly–are among the leading candidates for what could thus turn out to be a newly enhanced and powerful Defense Ministry post. They are: Ilya Klebanov, Russia’s current first deputy prime minister and the man who both handles defense industrial issues within the cabinet and heads the government’s commission investigating the Kursk disaster; and Sergei Ivanov, a close associate of Putin’s who currently serves as Security Council secretary. Indeed, there has been some speculation that a raft of press interviews given recently by the formerly secretive Ivanov (he, like Putin, is a product of Russia’s intelligence establishment), as well as Ivanov’s well-publicized decision at the November 9 Security Council meeting to give up his Foreign Service Intelligence ranking (lieutenant general), are part of a campaign to prepare the public for his appointment to a top government position. Whether that will be the Defense Ministry post, which would seem actually to be a step down from his current duties, remains to be seen. But the 47-year-old Ivanov, who appears to be emerging as the eminence grise of Kremlin politics, seems clearly to be a man on the rise within Russia’s defense and security policy establishment (Reuters, November 10; Profil, November 6; Izvestia, November 9; Segodnya, November 10; Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 11).