The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The revenge of the Soviet military.


If you think Russia’s change of defense ministers last month had much to do with defense or military policy, think again. The previous and now humiliated defense minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, was put and kept in place by President Vladimir Putin — even when Putin was not technically president (during Dmitri Medvedev’s placeholding presidency from 2008-2012). Putin put him there to break the organizational resistance of the Russian military and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. His fall may affect whether the Russian military becomes a modern force, but the leadership shuffle was more about the precarious new insider situation in the Russian leadership.

Putin had previously used Serdyukov to bend the Russian tax service to his will. Although detractors referred scornfully to Serdyukov as a "furniture salesman" (he owned such a business in St. Petersburg before becoming a member of the Putin circle in part by marrying the daughter of Putin’s close associate Viktor Zubkov), he was a loyal and adept manager. Having beaten the tax police into an efficient instrument of the Kremlin, Serdyukov was not a bad choice to shatter the dysfunctional organizational structure of the Soviet defense ministry — and I mean Soviet, because that is what the Russian Ministry of Defense remained long after the U.S.S.R. was history.

The Soviet military had broken the back of the Nazi Wehrmacht and had held the United States to a frozen stalemate during the Cold War, but it long ago lost the ability to field an effective force. Organized around territorially-based divisions that were largely empty of soldiers day-to-day because the system relied on mobilizing reserves in times of need, the Russian army was a hollow force. Lots of generals and colonels populated military bases spread throughout Russia, but few of them had actual soldiers to command. Even worse, when constituted, this hollow force was barely mobile, had never learned to operate jointly among services, and was so dependent on direct orders from the top that local commanders at best relied upon inflexible battlefield set pieces, and at worst would have to call back to Moscow for instructions and authorization to cope with contemporary battlefield conditions.

To his credit, Putin recognized the problem and brought Serdyukov in to fix it. Resistance was fierce, but some Russian officers had been chastened by the military’s near-disastrous performance against the much weaker Georgians in August 2008. So, with the help of the chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, Serdyukov eliminated the mass mobilization structure and the territorially-based divisions (a move that also required eliminating tens of thousands of senior officer positions responsible for commanding empty divisions in hundreds of ghost military installations across Russia, winning Serdyukov and Makarov the undying enmity of officers thus made redundant). Russia’s new military structure is brigade-based and organized into four operational strategic commands designed to be able to respond more rapidly and flexibly.

This organizational reform was finished by about 2010, but to successfully implement a military doctrine that calls for a technologically advanced, joint, and professional force, the Ministry of Defense also needed to bring its personnel, education, logistics, and defense acquisition system into the 21st century. And it was here that Serdyukov really annoyed the Russian establishment by bringing in civilian officials (including women, if you can imagine) to change the way the military did business. By changing how business was done, Serdyukov changed how money was spent, and thus how corruption within the ministry and defense industries would be conducted. That is serious business in today’s Russia.

Until stories began to appear about the shady dealings of Serdyukov and his civilian management team, all signs were that he had Putin’s confidence and was implementing Putin’s policies. Serdyukov had reportedly asked to be allowed to resign in spring 2012, but had been refused by Putin. And even as stories emerged in late October that the company Serdyukov had chosen to outsource logistics for the ministry was a front for the misappropriation of $100 million, Putin publicly affirmed Serdyukov’s leadership as defense minister. Yet the embarrassing stories continued, and a raid on the apartment of one of Serdyukov’s young female colleagues found…Serdyukov (along with jewelry and art reportedly worth millions). On November 6, Putin announced that he had dismissed Serdyukov because of the corruption investigation and appointed Sergei Shoigu, another reliable Putin enforcer who had headed the Ministry of Emergency Situations and recently become governor of the Moscow region.

So is this about corruption and cleaning up the Ministry of Defense so that money will no longer be stolen or diverted? Not really. It’s more like Captain Renault being shocked (shocked!) to find that gambling has been going on, even as he is handed his winnings.

Or, to use an even better film analogy, think of the Russian political system as a giant Mexican standoff, where the antagonists are all holding pistols aimed at one another loaded with kompromat (a lovely Soviet short-form for "compromising material"). Everyone knows (and has evidence) that everyone else has been skimming money from government contracts and finances, and at any time anyone could be brought down by that information. The threat of revelation keeps everyone in line, and the risk of being the next target tends to prevent anyone from shooting first.

But if anyone steps out of line, they can be brought down — as Mikhail Khodorkovsky was in 2003. Clearly, this is an unstable system: How does anyone know when it is safe to shoot? Part of the answer is that it is important to have a powerful protector, and the Russian press has been rife with speculation that Serdyukov lost his krysha ("roof" or protection) when his marriage to Zubkov’s daughter fell apart (which has a convenient infidelity kompromat synergy).

So, the speculation in the Russian press goes, powerful players in the Russian leadership who did not like the financial implications of Serdyukov’s changes to the defense business placed the stories and enabled the investigations that led to the shock (shock!) that corruption was bleeding funds from defense modernization efforts. Top contenders are Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov (Serdyukov’s predecessor as defense minister, who was Most-Likely-to-Be-Tapped-as-Putin’s-Successor in 2007, until Putin tapped Medvedev), and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin.* Both have responsibility for aspects of Russia’s defense industry and military procurement and both had expressed doubts and even criticism of Serdyukov’s efforts to buy defense technology (and even entire systems, including the French Mistral-class helicopter-carrier amphibious assault ship) from abroad, rather than sticking with under-performing Russian defense firms. When Putin returned as president, he announced an increase in Russian defense procurement — to some $700 billion through 2020. Maybe that sounds like plenty to go around, but Serdyukov publicly stated that contracts would go to foreign firms if they could deliver technologically advanced systems that Russian defense enterprises could not.

With Serdyukov and his civilian management team out, and a more traditional defense minister (and new chief of the General Staff, General-Colonel Valeriy Gerasimov) in, things can get back to normal. While Shoigu and Gerasimov are not seen as particularly corrupt (to the contrary, they are generally viewed as highly professional and effective), their reversal of Serdyukov’s management innovations benefits those who profited from the old way of doing things.

This explanation is fine as far as it goes, but in the Russian system, Serdyukov was too high-ranking to have been brought down by his equals (or subordinates). Serdyukov’s protector was Putin himself — the man who had put him at the Ministry of Defense and who affirmed on television that he would remain defense minister just days before Russian television exposed him at his reputed girlfriend’s multi-million dollar apartment. In the Mexican standoff that is Russian elite politics, no one should have been willing to pull the trigger unless given the nod by the real protector — and he had sent the message to stand down.

The unthinkable happened: one of Putin’s men had to go because those below and around Putin sought to get rid of him, and they succeeded. When Serdyukov became a public liability, Putin dismissed him, and has since sought to cast the incident as the launch of an anticorruption campaign designed to ensure the success of Russian military modernization. But the sequence of events is not consistent with Putin as Master Puppeteer, and makes more sense as a case where Putin’s hand was forced — although he responded quickly and adroitly to assert control.

Far, far more serious than the shake-up’s implications for Russia’s military doctrine and modernization — and they are serious, because it is unlikely that Shoigu will succeed by retaining Soviet-era management practices — are its implications for the stability of the Putin regime and its reliance on clans, protection, corruption, and intimidation. The Serdyukov scandal is a hint that Putin is not in control, and that his political system has become vulnerable to fratricide. Russia’s political class is now abuzz with talk of an anti-corruption campaign as a way for the leadership to reestablish legitimacy before a disaffected and newly-rebellious Russian public. What happens when the shooting starts? Maybe Putin is as good as Blondie, but that was just a three-person standoff. The Russian political terrain has changed, and it’s a better bet that the other cowboys are walking around with loaded guns of their own.

* Correction: This article originally gave the wrong title for Sergei Ivanov.

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