It is unclear exactly when yesterday’s meeting between Putin and the generals was arranged. Putin was addressing an annual convocation of senior Russian officers drawn from military and naval units across the breadth of Russia. That meeting actually began in the middle of last week, however, and was scheduled to have ended on November 17. Reports yesterday suggested that the generals had been kept in Moscow for several extra days so that Putin could hold his meeting with them.
It remains to be seen whether Putin’s harsh words will finally put an end to the Peyton Place atmosphere which has pervaded Russian military politics since a very public feud broke out this past August between Russia’s two top uniformed officers: General Staff chief Anatoly Kvashnin and Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. Since that time the two men have found themselves on opposite sides of a furious debate over the future of the armed forces, with Sergeev fighting an apparently losing battle to defend the country’s strategic missile troops while Kvashnin seeks to secure priority funding for Russia’s conventional forces. Not coincidentally, Kvashnin has also continued to advocate ideas which would greatly increase the authority of his own General Staff. Kvashnin’s ambitions were on full display during an appearance before deputies from the State Duma on November 16. He reportedly used the appearance to push a plan whereby the General Staff would be converted into a “joint staff” and given authority over various assets currently belonging to the county’s security ministries. Those assets–including rear, medical and other services belonging to Russian law enforcement agencies–are to be consolidated under a military reform plan the Kremlin is pushing.
Even more boldly, Kvashnin appeared to make a grab for those troops currently belonging to two of Russia’s security agencies, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) and the Federal Border Guard Service. He proposed transforming the border guard troops into a combat arm subordinated to the General Staff, and suggested that they might be employed as ground troops during “special periods.” He apparently also suggested that troops from the Interior Ministry be reorganized into a national guard and removed from the control of the ministry (presumably also to be resubordinated to the General Staff). Kvashnin suggested that the MVD and border forces troops together could help compensate for manpower reductions of 180,000 men which are being imposed on the regular army’s ground forces. Although he apparently did not elaborate, Kvashnin also pushed for the “civilianization” of the Russian Defense Minister post and for limiting the ministry’s role to “purely political functions.” If adopted, that would presumably spell the end of the road for Sergeev, whose dismissal has long been predicted (AVN, November 16; Nezavisimaya gazeta, Kommersant, AFP, November 17).
What was unclear then–and what remains unclear even in the aftermath of Putin’s November 20 address–was the extent to which the ideas enunciated by Kvashnin represent his own views and the extent to which they reflect decisions officially approved in recent weeks by the Russian Security Council. While reports had said that Kvashnin’s appearance before the Duma deputies was planned in order to inform them about the current status of the military reform plans, some news sources suggested that he had in fact used the occasion to grab the initiative and push his own plans. Some of what Kvashnin told the deputies nevertheless does appear to reflect official policies. Reports suggest that the defense minister post is likely to be civilianized, that various assets belonging to the Defense Ministry and the country’s various security services are to be consolidated, and that a restructuring of command authority and political oversight is looming. But whether the General Staff will emerge as a main beneficiary of these changes, as Kvashnin suggested, remains to be seen.
It is perhaps also worth noting that Kvashnin’s appearance before Russian lawmakers came as top Russian defense chiefs arrived in Moscow for their annual meeting. In an address to the gathering, Sergeev reportedly extolled the performance of the country’s strategic missile troops this past year. But the former rocket forces commander in chief appears to be fighting a losing battle on this score; according to Kvashnin and other official sources, the strategic missile troops face significant reductions and will be folded into the Russian air force sometime over the next five years or so. Of perhaps greater interest with regard to the gathering of military leaders was the news that considerable attention had been devoted to regulations governing the mothballing of combat hardware and preparations for its long-term storage. The issue was said to be especially important this year given the plans to cut military personnel by more than 350,000 over the next five years. Proper storage of the equipment is apparently also important because military leaders foresee at least portions of it being sold for export by the recently restructured Russian state arms trading company, Rosoboroneksport (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 15; Kommersant, November 15; Russian agencies, November 15; Segodnya, November 18).
Meanwhile, there was an interesting footnote to yesterday’s meeting between Putin and military commanders. On November 18 the Russian newspaper Segodnya claimed that an incident last week–one in which Russian jet fighters “buzzed” the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk while it was refueling in the Sea of Japan–was at least partly related to last week’s gathering of military leaders in Moscow. The newspaper suggested that Russia’s military high command–humiliated by the sinking of the Kursk in August and the crash of an IL-18 military cargo plane in Georgia last month–had cooked up the air mission over the Kitty Hawk in order to impress Putin. The newspaper also said, however, that despite the military’s braggadocio and the considerable amount of attention which Russian media gave the incident, Putin originally chose not to appear at the military gathering. That he did meet with senior officers yesterday, but used the occasion to criticize their performance, tends to confirm the newspaper’s conclusion that the Russian air “attack” on the Kitty Hawk did not impress him (Segodnya, November 18, Los Angeles Times, November 16).
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