Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 75

Roughly three weeks after President Vladimir Putin launched his reshuffle of the Russian Defense Ministry leadership, commentators in Russia remain divided over its meaning and significance. Some have bought into the Kremlin’s interpretation of the move, seeing the appointment of former Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov to the defense minister post as a sign of Putin’s determination both to radically restructure the armed forces and to begin a process to “civilianize” the Defense Ministry. Others, however, have taken a more skeptical view. They have suggested that the installation of several former KGB officers, Ivanov among them, into top Defense Ministry posts in itself hardly constitutes a looming “civilianization” of the ministry. And, while virtually all Russian commentators agree that Ivanov’s authority within the military will, by dint of his close association with Putin, be unchallenged, some have suggested that the specifics of his military reform program indicate that the Kremlin may in fact be more interested in cosmetic changes than in the sort of radical reforms which most experts believe necessary. In other words, while all Russian commentators appear to agree that the appointment of Putin’s closest political ally to the post of defense minister reflects the earnestness of presidential interest in the armed forces, they disagree over whether the Russian president’s first priority is to reform the army, or merely to ensure reliable Kremlin control over it.

Many of those taking a more skeptical view of Putin’s defense reshuffle have aimed their criticism in particular at the Kremlin notion that the new appointments are intended to “civilianize” the Defense Ministry. That is, that the appointment of Ivanov and Aleksei Moskovsky, each of them technically civilians, and of a former top Finance Ministry official (and a woman to boot), Lyubov Kudelina, to defense and deputy defense minister posts marks a radical break with Soviet and Russian military tradition. By suggesting a transition to a more typical Western and democratic form of civilian-military relations, one in which civilians exert political control over the uniformed officer corps, the new appointments also appear designed to bolster Putin’s claims that he is continuing along the path of domestic political reform. It is probably no coincidence in this context that Ivanov’s appointment will now also permit Moscow to send an ostensibly civilian defense minister–rather than a uniformed and bemedaled former strategic rocket forces commander–to mix and mingle with Western defense chiefs at NATO and other international security gatherings.

But do these appointments really mark an important stage in Russia’s evolution toward Western style democracy? Those with doubts have pointed to several features of the Defense Ministry changes which would seem to undermine the Kremlin’s claims. The respected military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, for example, suggests that the Kremlin continues, despite the recent changes, to reject one of the fundamental characteristics of democratic political-military systems: the oversight by parliamentary bodies of key defense spending and developments policies. Felgenhauer points to Putin’s April 3 state-of-the-nation address to argue that the Russian president remains opposed to meaningful parliamentary participation in the state budget process. He suggests that, in that regard, the Kremlin’s views divert sharply from those of Russia’s liberals, who at a recent defense policy conference called for the declassification of the defense budget and for more parliamentary say in the formulation of defense appropriations (Moscow Times, April 12).

Another well-known Russian defense analyst, Aleksandr Golts, has argued much the same case. In a pair of articles published earlier this month, he noted that Ivanov had operated with notable secrecy over the past year while, as Security Council secretary, overseeing the drafting of the Kremlin’s current military reform program. Despite its importance to Russia’s political and economic future, that program remains in many of its essentials a state secret. There is little evidence that it will presented–“civilian” defense minister or not–for broader public discussion prior to its implementation. And the appointment of Kudelina, he says, argues no better for the likelihood of more transparency from the Defense Ministry in the future. During her time overseeing the military budget as a deputy finance minister, Golts says, Kudelina insisted on maximum secrecy.

Golts goes on to argue, moreover, that Putin’s recent Defense Ministry reshuffle shows no indication at present of moving the country toward what Golts says is an essential condition for real defense reform: the broader demilitarization of Russian society. “Real demilitarization of political institutions would have to start by removing the military status from the dozens of ministries and government agencies which run on military lines.” Instead, he says, current government plans may even envision subordinating more nonmilitary agencies to Ivanov’s Defense Ministry. As a result, Golts says, “we may end up with a military monster, composed of over two million personnel, despite all the planned [troop] reductions” (The Russian Journal, April 3; Itogi, No. 13, April 2001).

Perhaps the most skeptical view toward the motives which underlay Putin’s defense reshuffle, however, was expressed in the immediate aftermath of Ivanov’s appointment by a commentary published in the Russian newspaper Novye Izvestia. In it, Sergei Agafonov argued that the installation of a “qualified accountant” (Kudelina) and several former security service officers in the Defense Ministry in no way ensures either the ministry’s civilianization or that real reform of the armed forces is about to be launched. Indeed, Agafonov contends that these appointments are most significant for what they say about Putin’s distrust of the military top brass. “Ivanov in the Defense Ministry is not a civilian in the military for the sake of building a civilized democracy,” he writes. “This is the final phase of a clever covert operation [by the Kremlin] aimed at taking over a vital part of the security apparatus” (Novye Izvestia, March 30).