The Hedgehog in the Fog: Serdyukov Awaits Putin’s Decision

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 97

Anatoliy Serdyukov, Russian Minister of Defense (Source: Atlantic Council)

Speculation on the future shape of the new Russian cabinet has developed with unusual fervor, and Russian journalist Ignat Kalinin recently addressed the issues revolving around the next government’s precise formulation. He noted that one source suggested that Putin wants to enlist the Russian officer corps to help him overcome domestic criticism of himself. Kalinin also highlighted the fact that the split between Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and the officer corps had not been alleviated in any way following the increase to officer salaries in January 2012. To regain the trust of the military establishment, therefore, Putin will have to replace Serdyukov (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, May 16).

Potential successors for the ill-fated Serdyukov include the commander of the elite airborne forces, Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the Interior Troops, Nikolai Rogozhkin, or even the newly appointed Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Colonel-General Aleksandr Postnikov. The underlying message was twofold: that Putin needs to appoint a man in uniform, but somehow also to avoid too much bickering among the elites after this change in minister. However, Kalinin concluded that given the complexity of the choices involved Serdyukov could very well remain in the post temporarily despite the deep fissure between the Defense Ministry and the officer corps (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, May 16).

During this potentially protracted period of uncertainty for Serdyukov, Vedomosti released an unwelcome article examining his background, career and the number of business associates that have prospered during his tenure as Defense Minister. Serdyukov’s low reputation among the Russian officer corps was long known, with several jibes appearing in the media characterizing him as “Bughalter” (paper shuffler) or “Anatoliy Edwardovich the silent” (referring to his habit of not explaining reform initiatives before announcing them as official policy). But the lengthy analysis in Vedomosti further noted that Serdyukov also utterly detests Russian military officers – not only keeping many senior generals waiting unnecessarily to see him, but referring to them as “little green men” (Vedomosti, May 11).

Serdyukov rose from an obscure background as a St. Petersburg retailer with limited military service, working at the St. Petersburg tax inspectorate and tax service. He boosted his career by marrying Yulia Pokhlebenina, the daughter of former Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, and later playing a key role in smashing Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s financial empire. The article in Vedomosti alleged that after President Putin appointed Serdyukov Minister of Defense in February 2007, he de facto remained in charge of the Federal Tax Service until around April 2010. Serdyukov also appointed many of his former colleagues to key Defense Ministry posts, while ruthlessly stripping the power of the officer corps and the main administrative organ in the Defense Ministry. Putin understood that in order to stem the level of Defense Ministry corruption something had to be done and Serdyukov appeared qualified, given his background in tax and finance, to bring some semblance of order to the Ministry (Vedomosti, May 11).

Many of the reform initiatives were often financially driven: it made more sense to have fewer officers and more non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in order to save state funds. But the financial logic included selling off Defense Ministry real estate, which boomed after Serdyukov was appointed, rising from 1.4 billion rubles ($48 million) in the period 2000 to 2008, to 1.5 billion rubles ($50 million) in 2009, 4.4 billion rubles ($144 million) in 2010 and reaching 5 billion rubles ($156 million) in 2011; this opened new avenues for corruption to boom and flourish. Far from declining in this period, corruption simply became more sophisticated (Vedomosti, May 11).

The Vedomosti article left no doubt that Serdyukov has been dangling by a thread in his post, but also stated that the authors were told Serdyukov himself would prefer an alternative government position, perhaps serving as Vice-Prime Minister for Finance. Putin’s recent trip to Urlavagonzavod, the powerful complex of defense industry enterprises in Nizhniy Tagil, provoked expert commentary, which highlighted the new President’s awareness of the “real problems” of the Russian Army. Aleksey Druzhinin reported in Svobodnaya Pressa that Putin may organize a new office to defuse the tension between the Defense Ministry and defense industry, which would reduce Serdyukov’s level of authority in defense procurement. This speculation was fueled by the bad news concerning the lack of progress in signing defense procurement contracts for 2012: reportedly no more than 77 percent have been signed, suggesting that the contracts for this year will not allow sufficient time for their fulfillment. Experts were divided on whether such a new office was really needed, but were united in tracing the problem back to the Defense Ministry. Some experts laid the blame directly on Serdyukov. Konstatin Sivkov, Vice President of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, noted: “He [Minister Serdyukov] has not accomplished one task in enhancing the efficiency of our armed forces. There is no more order with regard to money either. I will go further: Serdyukov’s tenure in the post of Defense Minister has resulted in a drastic reduction in Russia’s defense capability. He essentially pursued outsourcing, the purpose of which was to satisfy the interests of particular private firms. Serdyukov is primarily concerned with ensuring that businessmen might latch onto the military budget. I discern his personal interests here” (Svobodnaya Pressa, May 14).

Sivkov noted that the same mistakes and delays in signing the defense procurement contracts had occurred last year, but little was done to hold the Minister accountable. Putin may take these issues more seriously, as well as pay more attention to the direction of the reform and modernization; though, it remains unclear if this will result in tangible change. Aleksandr Khramchikhin, the Deputy Director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, believed that Putin’s trip to the Urals may have been largely symbolic: “I believe the trip was a sign of gratitude to the Nizhniy Tagil workers, who were particularly ardent in their public support of Putin during the race. This was a domestic-policy trip. Problems of defense procurement could have been discussed in Moscow. Nothing indicates as yet that our leadership will now be attempting day and night to re-equip the army” (Svobodnaya Pressa, May 14).

The Soviet era cartoon “The Hedgehog in the Fog” conveyed a deep sense of bewilderment experienced by the creature as it grappled with its uncertain surroundings in an unexpected fog. Putin can no longer act like a firefly, which guides the hedgehog in the fog, and his options to dispel the confusion over the reform and future of the Armed Forces may result in appointing a new defense minister – and even a man in uniform. But procrastinating on this decision will risk tying Serdyukov’s name too closely to the future of the reform – if it survives.