Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 30

As Russia’s main army holiday fast approaches, the country’s defense leadership suddenly faces a political assault on a host of military-related issues. These recent developments suggest that President Vladimir Putin is attempting to force a reluctant senior officer corps to accelerate the pace of a Kremlin-ordered reform and restructuring program. Putin may at the same time be seeking to ensure that restive generals maintain at least a public facade of support for the Kremlin’s decision both to join the U.S.-led drive against international terrorism and to seek warmer relations with the West more generally. Recent moves by the Kremlin and other political groupings have targeted the Defense Ministry on issues ranging from energy procurement and financial practices to alternative military service to discipline in the ranks. It is also not beyond the realm of possibility that the Kremlin has even had a hand in a pair of recent Supreme Court decisions that struck down two Defense Ministry secrecy directives, and in reports that investigators looking into the causes of the August 2000 Kursk submarine disaster are now ruling out the possibility of a collision with a foreign sub. This weekend’s February 23 army holiday could thus turn out to be something less than a full celebration for the country’s beleaguered military leadership.

An embarrassing series of public clashes last month between the military leadership and several of Russia’s energy suppliers, which resulted in energy cutoffs to a number of Russian military facilities (see the Monitor, January 29), provided the occasion for Putin to criticize the Defense Ministry–and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov–directly on February 18. As several Russian commentaries noted, this was the first time since Ivanov’s appointment to the post last spring that Putin had publicly dressed down the man once considered to be his closest advisor. The criticism came during a cabinet meeting when Putin pointedly singled out the Defense Ministry for its poor performance both with respect to the timely paying of pensions and wages and for ensuring that military bases and garrisons were provided with adequate supplies of electricity. Indeed, Putin appeared to highlight the latter problem when he complained that “all of these problems and scandals, so damaging to the economy and morale, could have been avoided” if the Defense Ministry had taken more decisive action. The daily Vremya Novostei observed that Putin’s admonition on this occasion contained echoes of criticism he had leveled against the military leadership early last year, at a time when the leaders of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff were engaged in a verbal public brawl over military reform. As the newspaper noted, one of the two men involved–in this case then Defense Minister Igor Sergeev–was subsequently removed from his post (Vremya Novostei, February 19;, February 18).

It was perhaps no surprise, therefore, that at yet another meeting with Putin just two days later, Ivanov appeared to be on his best behavior. In comments to the press he hailed the government for having removed what he called the “irregularities in the funding of the armed forces” at the beginning of this year. “Never before has the money for state defense contracts been appropriated so early–in the middle of February,” he added. Ivanov also suggested that, thanks to government action, the Defense Ministry would have no further problems this year with paying off its energy suppliers (Interfax, Itar-Tass, May 20). Ivanov’s remarks were interesting because he has indirectly criticized the Kremlin several times over the past several months for what he suggested was its failure to fully fund all the armed forces’ needs. Indeed, it was that earlier criticism that suggested possibly emerging tensions between Putin and his hand-picked defense chief.

If Ivanov appeared to get the short of the end of the stick in his encounters with Putin over the past week, his ministry more generally seems also to have suffered at least partial setbacks on several important issues over the past month or so. On February 14, for example, the Russian cabinet approved a draft bill on alternative military service that contains several provisions proposed by the Union of Right-Wing Forces and long opposed by the Defense Ministry. It is unlikely, moreover, that the cabinet would have rejected a version of the alternative service law drafted by the General Staff without the Kremlin’s approval.

The alternative service bill, moreover, has helped to highlight a broader battle between military traditionalists and their more reform-minded–and often civilian–opponents over the future of the armed forces more generally. Those seeking to cut the size of the armed forces even below levels contained in a current Kremlin-backed plan and to move the army from conscript to volunteer–or professional–staffing have been aided in recent weeks by a series of murderous rampages perpetrated by Russian servicemen. The incidents have focused fresh attention on the continuing brutality of barracks life in Russia and thereby boosted the efforts of reformers seeking to professionalize the armed forces. Russian military leaders have said for over a decade that they favor transitioning from a conscript to a professional army in Russia. Their actions and the various obstacles they’ve thrown up, however, make it clear that many remain wedded to conscription and other Soviet-era notions of military development.

The Defense Ministry also learned this week that it will apparently be the target of investigations by the State Duma’s Audit Chamber into how defense leaders have spent large amounts of state funding over the past five years. Most immediately, lawmakers are seeking to know whether some 57 billion rubles allocated for arms procurement, research and development in 2001 were spent as intended. Because of these concerns, they have also voted to ask the Audit Chamber to examine some government defense spending practices going back to 1997. In addition, they are asking the Audit Chamber to look specifically into how the Strategic Missile Forces used revenues earned from commercial space launches from September of 1997 until June of last year, when the Military Space Forces were removed from their command. Some lawmakers have alleged a gross misuse of funds by military leaders in all of these areas (Moscow Times, February 19;, September 15; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 16).

Two other recent incidents suggest that a political tide of sorts may be turning against the Defense Ministry, perhaps at the Kremlin’s instigation. One is the unexpected pair of decisions the Russian Supreme Court handed down on February 12-13. These invalidated as unconstitutional two shadowy Defense Ministry orders, one of which had served to classify as state secrets hundreds of items of defense-related information and the other of which had forbidden Russian military personnel with access to state secrets to have personal or unofficial contact with foreigners. The decisions also appear to have greatly weakened the government’s cases against military journalist Grigory Pasko and several others accused of spying and simultaneously limited Defense Ministry prerogatives in this area (see the Monitor, February 15).

The Defense Ministry may also be losing a political battle over an investigation into the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk. Until now, defense leaders have generally insisted that the most likely explanation for the Kursk’s demise was a collision with a foreign–that is, American or British–submarine. Many observers in Russia and elsewhere have contended that the High Command pushed this claim to focus attention on Russia’s Cold War-era enemies and discourage an investigation into the Russian navy’s own role in the tragedy. In recent weeks, however, the man heading the Kursk investigation–former Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov–has been demoted and relieved of his investigation duties. Official Russian sources, moreover, have pointed not to the collision theory, but to “sloppiness” on the part of the Navy and to a suspect torpedo type as the likely causes of the disaster. The Russian navy, and the military leadership as a whole, will suffer a serious blow if these conclusions are made official, and it would not be a surprise if more heads rolled as a result. There has already been one bloodletting atop the navy’s leadership related to the Kursk investigation (see the Monitor, December 4, 6, 2001).