Russian Government Denies Reports of Serdyukov’s Dismissal

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 190

Russian Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov. (RIA Novosti)
A tabloid Moscow weekly reported that Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, has ordered Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov’s resignation (Argumenti Nedeli, October 20). High-level sources in the Russian government are reported to have dismissed the report as “lunacy” (Interfax, October 21). The public fray reflects a serious crisis of insubordination within the Russian military.
This week a meeting of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council (a Kremlin-connected semi-independent think tank in Moscow) discussed the growing problems of military reform and conscription in Russia. The demographic problem of finding enough soldiers to man a combat ready force is made worse because in Russia the more educated and wealthy classes actively avoid conscription. The Russian officer corps is in a state of disarray, anticipating massive forced retirements. The military education system is in the midst of radical change and confusion. The defense ministry still does not have a recruiting system capable of finding good contract soldiers or sergeants. The multiple problems of the Russian military are the consequence of years of neglect and the absence of timely vital reforms, but Serdyukov’s radical transformation is rejected by many prominent generals and defense think tanks.
There are clear signs that discipline in the ranks is waning. According to the main military prosecutor’s office, the number of reported incidents of hazing in the barracks increased by 50 percent in the first five months of 2010 (RIA Novosti, July 21). In a presentation to the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, Colonel (retired) Vitaliy Shlykov, who is an adviser on military reform in the defense ministry, expressed fear that the top brass may be losing control of its army units. Soldier conscript service was reduced to one year in 2008. It was hoped this would eliminate constant hazing in the barracks –a traditional feature of the Russian military known as dedovshchina, under which the conscripts serving the last six months of a two year service term (known as “grandfathers” or dedy) dominated, disciplined and often hazed younger soldiers. The dedy, as informal leaders, de facto replaced nonexistent professional sergeants in Russian (Soviet) military units and to them officers delegated the task of keeping discipline in the ranks. The transition to one year service (from two years) undermined the traditional seniority ranking of conscripts, but since there are still no professional sergeants, discipline collapsed, according to Shlykov, as organized dedovshchina was replaced by outright hooliganism and indiscriminate senseless violence in the barracks.
The Russian defense ministry will need at least 200,000 professional sergeants (or better still 300,000) to have a well organized, capable military force of one million members, according to Shlykov, but today only 90,000 to 100,000 contract soldiers and sergeants positions will be retained together with 150,000 officers. Plans have been announced to train 10,000 sergeants in two years in military academies that had trained lieutenants (EDM, September 13). But this plan seems to have been stalled. Only the airborne forcesVozdushno Desantnye Voyska (VDV) elite Ryazan academy is at present training several hundred new sergeants –a handful that cannot contain the collapse in discipline. At present some 10,000 new lieutenants that graduated in 2009 and 2010 have not found officers jobs within the ranks and are offered sergeant’s positions, but not many take the opportunity –no career roadmap for professional sergeants has been created in Russia rendering it as an unattractive dead-end job. It will surely take many years before a capable professional sergeant’s corps appears in Russia.
The growing disgruntlement of the officer corps became public earlier this week. The Airborne Union (an influential veteran’s organization of the VDV) publicly denounced Serdyukov, accusing him of verbally abusing the commandant of the Ryazan VDV academy, decorated Hero of Russia, Colonel Andrei Krasov. The Airborne Union statement implied that during a sudden inspection visit to the Ryazan academy on September 30, Serdyukov demanded that Krasov remove a newly-built Orthodox church from the premises of the Academy training center. The statement called on the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church to intervene and demanded the ousting of Serdyukov “for destroying the VDV and the Orthodox faith” (Kommersant, October 18).
Only two days later the commander of the VDV, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, told journalists that “the story was overblown” and Serdyukov only suggested it would be better to move the church to some nearby village, so that both civilians and military people could have access. “I will not allow political divisions within the VDV,” added Shamanov.  Krasov announced he had “an emotional, but businesslike exchange with Serdyukov” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 20). Argumenti Nedeli reported that Putin demanded Serdyukov should apologize and write a letter of resignation, effective on December 1. Serdyukov will be replaced by the Chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister, Army-General Nikolai Makarov (Argumenti Nedeli, October 20). High-level sources in the Russian government dismissed the report of Serdyukov’s ouster as “lunacy” (Interfax, October 21). Meanwhile, another veteran’s organization –the Union of Military Seamen– petitioned the Kremlin, demanding the immediate dismissal of Serdyukov and his deputies “for the insane reforms that are destroying the armed forces” (RIA Novi Region, October 20).
In a sudden reversal of previous decisions, the defense ministry has announced it will promptly begin to form a Military Police (MP) force to stem the growing military insubordination and collapse in discipline. Makarov reportedly told the members of the Duma Defense Committee at a closed briefing that a 20,000 strong MP force will be created and manned mostly by service members that were dismissed because of the military reforms (Interfax, October 15). The defense ministry press service confirmed the MP formation, but noted this required legal work and legislative changes that will take most of next year (RIA Novosti, October 18).
The idea to man a MP force with disgruntled ousted service members seems strange and a truly efficient force may take many years to create –as long maybe as the professional sergeants’ corps. It is unclear whether Serdyukov and his reforms will survive until then.