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 16 February 2009
 The Army's Chief Destroyer

The Moscow Times, February 16, 2009

By Mikhail Barabanov

It is now two years since Anatoly Serdyukov was unexpectedly named defense minister, and this has been a turbulent period for Russia's armed forces and top brass. We have seen the start of serious military reforms and the uproar surrounding them, the five-day war with Georgia in August and the transition from economic prosperity to a recession.

Now the political battle surrounding Serdyukov and his reforms might even eclipse the financial crisis. Serdyukov stirred up a hornets' nest on Oct. 14 when he announced the most radical change to the military since 1945. The defense minister's opponents, who condescendingly call him a "furniture salesman," are waging a campaign that accuses him of ruining the army.

The main idea behind the new military reforms is the transformation from a mass mobilization army to a small force of contract soldiers. In addition, the number of officers -- especially senior officers -- will be drastically reduced, and thousands more will be laid off. Military academies will merge, and the number of military bases will suffer sharp cuts. Rear support and noncombat units will also be reduced.

All of these changes naturally plunge adherents of the old Soviet military school into a state of shock. The fundamental concept behind the reforms is the reorientation of the armed forces toward fighting conflicts of a limited scale, such as the August campaign against Georgia. The job of defending Russia against major powers such as the United States and NATO is now limited to the country's nuclear forces.

Serdyukov's reforms clearly present a threat to those who still believe in the necessity of preparing for a full-scale, conventional conflict with the West.

But the most heated criticism surrounds Serdyukov's attempt to establish a fundamentally new "management approach" to running the armed forces. For the military top brass, this has become an Achilles heel. This has become particularly acute in recent years after the defense ministry finally started receiving major funding. Both the Kremlin and Serdyukov asked, "Where do those enormous sums of money go?" It is Serdyukov's task to institute effective modern management practices, above all financial transparency, in the Defense Ministry. It is therefore not surprising that for old-school military leaders who view the army as a sacred institute, any attempt to impose fiscal discipline is seen as sacrilegious.

At the same time, it would be an oversimplification to reduce the whole conflict to a struggle between "reformers" and "traditionalists." Serdyukov, one of then-President Vladimir Putin's most prominent appointments, is a classic byproduct of Putin's political system. With a career that combines work in the private sector and service in the Federal Tax Service, Serdyukov fits perfectly into the circle of Putin's cohorts.

It is now abundantly clear that Serdyukov's actions as defense minister reflect all the traits of the authoritarianism so characteristic of Putin's regime. That approach involves a secretive, manipulative and bureaucratic approach to developing and implementing what are otherwise logical and necessary reforms.

Of course, the nature of the defense department and the armed forces as a whole does not permit a fully public discussion of all the details of their reorganization. Serdyukov, in a manner befitting Russia's leadership style, disregards any need to form a consensus on his reforms, either among the armed forces or the public.

But it is this lack of a consensus that constitutes the greatest threat of derailing the planned reforms. The bureaucratic approach to the process and the absence of any real explanation of the reforms has a demoralizing impact on the military personnel.

The economic crisis carries yet another threat to Serdyukov's planned reforms, diminishing the financial cushion needed to mitigate the painful effect of the changes and complicating the implementation of radical personnel cuts. The result is that the deadline for implementing the widescale reorganization of Russia's army has once again been pushed back to an indefinite date.

Russia's military reforms are entering a critical phase, and Serdyukov's third year as defense minister will be decisive. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to retain the Kremlin's support for much longer.

Mikhail Barabanov is editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief.

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