Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 136

A long-smoldering conflict within the Russian military high command appears to have come to a head in recent days, and its resolution could force President Vladimir Putin to make some difficult and potentially unpopular decisions regarding military policy and personnel. According to Russian news sources, General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin used a meeting today of senior Defense Ministry officials to offer a radical and even–as one Russian agency put it–“sensational” plan for reorganizing the Russian armed forces; namely, to eliminate the country’s Strategic Missile Troops (SMT) as a separate service branch and to resubordinate the SMT’s assets to the Russian Air Force. Kvashnin apparently justified the proposal with the argument that the armed forces as a whole would be best served by shifting scarce resources from the SMT to the country’s conventional forces. If adopted by the Kremlin, Kvashnin’s proposal would represent a radical restructuring of the armed forces and the demise, apparently, of the strategic rocket forces, long the chief symbol of Moscow’s military might and of its status as a superpower.

Although yesterday’s events were something of a sensation, they in fact reflect a struggle within the Defense Ministry leadership which has been going on for at least the past two years. At the center of this struggle are Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, the number one man in the Russian military’s leadership hierarchy, and Kvashnin, who as General Staff chief is subordinated only to Sergeev. Both men were appointed to their respective posts in May of 1997 by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin; the antagonism which existed from the start between them was reportedly seen by the Kremlin as a useful tool to ensure its control of the armed forces. That antagonism only grew with the passing months as Sergeev, a former strategic missile forces commander-in-chief, embarked on the implementation of a military reform program which saw the country’s already troubled conventional forces reduced in number while increasingly scarce resources were devoted to maintaining Russia’s strategic deterrent.

Given the Russian government’s dire financial straits and the diminution of military tensions which followed the end of the Cold War, that policy probably made sense–even to Kvashnin. But the move which really set the Defense Minister against the General Staff chief was apparently a proposal delivered by Sergeev to Yeltsin in late 1998 that, in effect, would have placed operational command over all of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces–including those belonging to the navy and air force–in the hands of Russian SMT commander (and Sergeev protege) General Vladimir Yakovlev. Kvashnin and the other service chiefs were reported to have been incensed by Sergeev’s proposal because they saw it as an effort both to increase the authority of the SMT vis-a-vis the General Staff and the other service branches, and because it would undermine the claims of the latter group for budget resources. Yeltsin never implemented Sergeev’s proposed reorganization, however, but the issue remained a point of friction within the high command following Yeltsin’s resignation and the accession of Putin to the presidency.

Last year’s NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia and the start of Moscow’s current war in the Caucasus helped propel the broader struggle between Russia’s strategic and conventional troops–and between Sergeev and Kvashnin personally–back to the forefront of Russian defense politics. The NATO air war tended to strengthen the hand of those Defense Ministry hardliners who were grouped around Kvashnin. Their position was further reinforced, moreover, when Russian paratroopers unexpectedly seized the Slatina airport in Kosovo in June of last year. That move, which was very popular in Russia, is believed to have been orchestrated by Kvashnin and his supporters.

This same group, not surprisingly, is thought to have been the driving force behind the hardline strategy which Moscow adopted in the Caucasus. The difficulties which Russian troops faced early in the campaign, moreover, afforded Kvashnin and others the opportunity to complain that the existing policy of favoring the country’s strategic missile troops had left Russia’s conventional forces poorly equipped and ill-prepared to do battle. As the conflict in the Caucasus wore on and Putin began to consolidate his political authority, in part by promising to rebuild Russia’s military might, there were indications that spending priorities within the Defense Ministry would be reordered so as to give greater attention to the conventional troops. That decision appeared to reflect the belief that Kvashnin and others connected to the Caucasus war effort were riding high, and that they would profit by Putin’s election as president and by what many believed would be a subsequent housecleaning atop the Defense Ministry.

That housecleaning never came, however. Following Putin’s inauguration the Russian president chose instead to retain the services of Sergeev as defense minister. This decision suggested that Putin was hesitant to shake up the military leadership so soon after his election. It may also have reflected the fact that Russian troops fighting in Chechnya had lost momentum and that the operation’s commanders were no longer in favor. Indeed, recent weeks seem to have seen the pendulum swing back against Kvashnin. One Russian daily suggested late last month that the deepening rift between Moscow and Washington over missile defense and other arms control issues has helped to restore the political influence of Sergeev and the strategic rocket forces more generally. That newly recovered influence was said to have been behind the very public and high-profile criticism which Sergeev and, especially, SMT commander Yakovlev leveled at the United States in late June over Washington’s apparent intentions to proceed with the deployment of a national missile defense system (see the Monitor, June 28).

But yesterday’s Defense Ministry meeting suggests that Kvashnin and those behind him may not be quite dead yet. Indeed, the Russian General Staff chief appears to be trying to hoist Sergeev on his own petard. The Russian defense minister had argued for the establishment of a single strategic forces command on the grounds that it would streamline command structures and thus make better use of scarce financial resources. But Kvashnin’s plan, which was apparently drawn up by the General Staff, reportedly argues that eliminating the SMT and folding its assets into the air force would in fact better serve efficiency and cost-cutting. Details of Kvashnin’s plan remained sketchy, but Russian reports suggested that it was based on the notion that Russian-U.S. arms control agreements will lead over the next few years to radical reductions in Russia’s strategic missile arsenal and thus will eliminate the need for a separate missile forces service. Some of these same reports suggest, however, that the logic underpinning Kvashnin’s argument has little in common with Russia’s recently approved military doctrine, and that it may also presuppose a rate of retiring Russian strategic missiles that exceeds the terms set out in the amended START II arms reduction treaty (AFP, Reuters, Vremya MN, Russian agencies, July 12; NTV, July 11; Itogi, July 4).

All of this suggests that Kvashnin’s most recent moves may be motivated far more by politics than by Russian security considerations. If so, that would be no surprise. Kvashnin has long been described by Russian sources as a supremely political general, a man who is ruthlessly ambitious and who has long had his sights on the defense minister post. Some have also suggested that he has Putin’s favor. Kvashnin’s unexpected appointment to the influential Russian Security Council last month–the Defense Ministry is now the only Russian ministry with two representatives on the council (Izvestia, June 14)–suggests that the General Staff chief may be operating from a position of strength. His apparently naked challenge to Sergeev yesterday could test this assumption. It could also force Putin to choose between the two men, and to at last make clearer his own priorities regarding the future development of Russia’s armed forces.