Many observers scoffed when Vladimir Putin appointed Anatoly Serdyukov to head the Ministry of Defense in February 2007, because Serdyukov had no experience in national security. Instead, he was known for heading the Federal Tax Service and monitoring financial flows. But apparently the main reason for his appointment was precisely this background. That is, he was appointed to exercise much tighter supervision and purge corruption from the Ministry of Defense. As a result, Putin also announced that certain functions assigned to the Ministry in the 2004 reform that had strengthened the ministry at the expense of the General Staff would revert back to the previous division of responsibility. Almost a year later it appears that Serdyukov has put his stamp on the ministry and demonstrated his willingness to fire officers for corruption, including the commander in chief of the Air Force, General Vladimir Mikhailov, and his deputy, Air Force Chief of Staff General Boris Cheltsov.
In November 2007, clearly on Putin’s order, Serdyukov fired three generals for non-performance of their duties: General Igor Bykov, chief of the ministry’s Main Medical Directorate; General Anatoly Grebenyuk, who was responsible for construction of medical facilities; and the chief of the Main Armor Directorate, Colonel-General Vladislav Polonsky (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 23, 2007). These moves showed that both he and Putin meant business in terms of making financial flows more transparent to the Kremlin (not to the Duma or to the public) and were implicit admissions that much was wrong with the administration of medical services and housing for troops.
Nor is this the only area where there are serious and still-unresolved problems. As of November 2007, for example, the Russian Army had lost almost 400 servicemen, a number equal to a battalion, to non-combat situations, such as suicides and hazing. Indeed, suicides amounted to half of this total. Alexander Kanshin, chairman of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council and a member of the Public Chamber, admitted that these losses “point to an unsound moral and psychological environment in the army and navy, and to bullying” (Agenstvo Voyennykh Novostey (November 29, 2007).
Serdyukov also has begun to appoint more civilians, including people from his former agency, to supervise the ministry’s financial dealings, as well as new generals to replace the ones who were dismissed. Apart from the air force, the navy and airborne troops also have new commanders and generals with combat experience or practical command experience (Politkom.ru, November 26, 2007).
Despite these quite visible problems, Serdyukov seems to be winning the respect of his subordinates and consolidating his authority in the ministry (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 2). People have stopped calling him the “furniture dealer” (which he was in an earlier phase of life), and he seems to be more popular among the officers than was his predecessor, Sergei Ivanov. At the same time Serdyukov seems to have worked out a viable relationship with General Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of the General Staff. Last year Putin extended the general’s service beyond the retirement age of 60, and there are reports that Putin will extend his service all the way to 2010 (Interfax, January 8). This obviously indicates Putin’s satisfaction with his work. But it also signifies a desire to keep the military on his side throughout the presidential succession process this year, given the rivalries within his entourage and among the power structures that are generally reported to be unhappy with the choice of Dmitry Medvedev to succeed Putin.
Baluyevsky’s loyalty, the unwillingness of the General Staff to go public in the succession issue with its “candidate,” as well as the rumors of Baluyevsky’s extension suggest that, for now, the previous rivalry between the ministry and the General Staff has abated. Medvedev is also cultivating the military, e.g. by calling for a bigger navy in Murmansk, the home of the Northern Fleet (Moscow Times, January 13).
This combination of trends suggests that initially Medvedev is not likely to encounter too many military problems from within the General Staff or the ministry. But he is unlikely to be able to do much to rock this boat, as the Ministry of Defense’s budget is fixed for the next three years. Putin has essentially tried to deprive the next regime of the discretion that could be expected from a Russian president by passing three-year rather than annual budgets. But these factors also suggest that Putin has merely papered over the fundamental problems that afflict the relationship between a defense minister who is steadily accruing greater authority, if not power, and a General Staff that seems wedded to a threat assessment more relevant to the Cold War than to current realities.