The ‘Nuanced Look’: Russia’s Defense Minister Considers Major Reform Reversals

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 7

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Source:
Russia’s new defense minister, Army-General Sergei Shoigu, under the guise of pursuing “nuanced changes” to the Armed Forces’ reform managed by his predecessor Anatoly Serdyukov, is reportedly considering systemic revisions to the entire process. These range from revising the reformed military districts (MDs) and joint strategic commands to targeting Serdyukov’s system of outsourcing support services for the military. However, the key to understanding the extent to which Shoigu may be preparing to clean Serdyukov’s stables lies in the court intrigue surrounding the former minister’s fall from grace, and specifically why President Vladimir Putin chose to appoint Shoigu from among a range of candidates (Interfax, January 11).
Shoigu’s initial steps in his new post were relatively cautious, with the underlying message that little in substance might change in terms of what remained of the “reform.” However, during a visit to the St. Petersburg Military Academy of Logistics on January 11, Shoigu called for “serious changes” to the reformed military-educational system. Leading Moscow-based defense experts anticipate the re-creation of some of the military academies abolished by Serdyukov (Interfax, January 11).
Combined with other important signals, this appears to indicate that nothing is sacred in the process of revising the previous minister’s approach to reforming the Armed Forces. An additional signal is the cadre changes implemented by Shoigu among the leadership of the defense ministry. Apart from showing the door to individuals from the finance ministry who were nominated to deputy defense minister posts by Serdyukov, Shoigu is strongly reinforcing the message that the officer corps is being listened to with keen interest. Unlike his predecessor, Shoigu is surrounding himself with men in uniform, with his latest deputy sharing his background in the Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (EMERCOM). President Putin signed the decree appointing Lieutenant-General Yury Sadovenko as deputy defense minister; he now serves as the head of Shoigu’s office (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 10;
Establishing Shoigu’s possible mandate to address the planning weaknesses and inconsistencies within the reform and modernization process demands some awareness of the court intrigue surrounding the downfall of Serdyukov—as well as Putin’s effort to manage various interests and finally decide to appoint a safe pair of hands. Reportedly, in the fall of 2012, Putin told a meeting of the Russian Security Council that he believed Serdyukov and the then Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, simply did not understand the rearmament program to 2020. Powerful figures in Moscow were lobbying the interests of the defense industry, and a combination of these emerged around three individuals: Sergei Ivanov, the head of the presidential administration; Sergei Chemezov, head of Rostekhnologii and the president’s long-time friend; as well as Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, responsible for the military-industrial complex. Serdyukov and Makarov had attempted to tackle head-on the defense industry and pushed the need for greater transparency and value for money. However, since his appointment, Rogozin lobbied the interests of the defense industry and thus played a key role in Serdyukov’s ouster (, January 9).
Faced with these developments, and the evident victory for the domestic defense industry in removing Serdyukov, Putin decided to avoid appointing a defense minister who might play up the interests of any competing group; he favored Shoigu as a safe choice. Nonetheless, while Serdyukov had been granted carte blanche to manage a controversial reform process, it seems that Putin has likewise provided full backing for Shoigu to review and, where necessary, revise that confused process. That this will entail serious surgery to the “new look” reform is not only evident in some of the public statements by the new defense minister, or in his cadre policy, but also in the likely candidates to lose their present posts. According to sources speaking off-the-record to, these include Colonel-General Aleksandr Postnikov, the deputy chief of the General Staff and considered to be a protégé of Makarov. While such changes may seem superficial, it should be noted that generals such as Postnikov were at the forefront of advocating the “new look” (, January 9).
These changes may impact on some of the key elements of the reform under Serdyukov. Already there is growing clamor for a deep-seated revision of the Serdyukov reform; and its principal source is the officer corps. And it seems this may be far reaching in its scope. One example is the reformed system of military districts, with speculation that the old system of six MDs may be revived or the concept of joint strategic command altered. Moreover, the reformed air force basing structure is also now subject to further revision (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 4).
Perhaps the most remarkable crack in the edifice of the Serdyukov reform relates to outsourcing support services, including catering, to Oboronservis, the defense ministry–linked “civilian” holding company. From all regions of Russia, officers are sending petitions to Shoigu to abandon the outsourcing system. In early December 2012, Dmitry Kurakin, the new director of defense ministry property relations, said that the ministry was actively discussing the future of outsourcing. In particular, Kurakin explained that this system could not provide a universal solution for all military units. Though some form of outsourcing may be preserved, it may be abandoned in remote regions. Moreover, officers criticize the outsourcing system due to their experience of its failure to adequately feed troops in field conditions during exercises. Indeed, the outsourcing system may well be hated due to the unpopularity of Oboronservis, which in some quarters is known as “defense against service” (oborona ot servisa, a play on the name Oboronservis) (, January 9).
While Shoigu clearly faces serious policy challenges as he manages the vestiges of the reform, he is signaling his willingness to thoroughly review its progress. Shoigu’s cadre changes show no sign of representing a “reform team”; and his appetite to listen to the officer corps not only distinguishes him from the Serdyukov approach, but guarantees that the “new look” will inevitably change in tone and substance. The process of making sense of these changes, and refashioning something workable from its ashes is the core task facing the defense ministry’s new leadership.