Military Reform: Can It Get off the Ground under Putin?

By Trenin, Dmitri, V | Demokratizatsiya, April 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Military Reform: Can It Get off the Ground under Putin?


Trenin, Dmitri, V, Demokratizatsiya


Dmitri V. Trenin is deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and co-chair of the center's Foreign and Defense Policy Project.

The tale of Russian military reform is a long and sorry one. For fifteen years, the nation's political leaders, first Mikhail Gorbachev, then Boris Yeltsin, consistently and consciously avoided tackling military problems, striking a tacit pact with the generals, who were given free rein within the military establishment in exchange for political loyalty to the Kremlin. Left to their own devices and asked to reform themselves as they saw fit, the generals fell into the trap of taking traditionalist approaches to national defense; predictably, they tried to salvage as much of the existing system as they could rather than change. Not provided with adequate funding, they grew cynical.

Vladimir Putin, by contrast, immediately appeared to be someone who would be intensely interested in military reform. His background as a former KGB lieutenant colonel had something to do with that, but not too much. Putin's career "in the services" was uneventful and could hardly be called very successful. What made the difference was Putin's seemingly sincere emphasis on a strong state, which to an ordinary Russian (or a Russia-watcher, for that matter) is impossible to imagine without a strong army. The two simply go together.

Vladimir Putin owes his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of power in Russia to his handling of the Chechen campaign in 1999-2000. His attitude toward the war was so different that Yeltsin allowed him to take control of the power ministries, an unprecedented sign of trust and confidence. (When long-time premier Viktor Chernomyrdin proclaimed himself ready to assume those powers during Yeltsin's heart bypass operation, it created such an uproar in the Kremlin that the prime minister had to beat a hasty and disgraceful retreat.) Putin was also prepared to risk a lot, but in a different way. He took personal responsibility for the fateful decision in fall 1999 to move deep into Chechnya and to turn a counterterrorist operation into a second Chechen war.

The war premier turned into a war president. Putin's public relations experts helped build a macho image of him in the midst of the presidential campaign, ensuring his outright victory. Putin flew into Chechnya as a copilot aboard a Russian air force fighter. He submerged, safely, in a Northern Fleet submarine during a naval exercise. He personally watched ballistic missile launches. He visited all the armed services. When election day came, Vladimir Putin was the obvious choice of the military and their families.

Yet immediately after his accession to the Kremlin, Putin barely mentioned the phrase "military reform." His first State of the Nation speech to the Russian Federal Assembly, in July 2000, was all about economics, the legal system, and even demographics. Little was said about traditional national security issues. Military reform, which most experts regard as overdue, was conspicuously left out. When a few weeks later military issues were unexpectedly dominating the headlines, it came as a shock to the commander-in-chief.

First, there was the unprecedented public row between Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin, ostensibly about the relationship between conventional and nuclear forces, but really about the fundamentals of Russian national security and defense. Then came the Kursk disaster, which left the whole nation in agony for a week and in grief thereafter. That was followed by the now all-but-forgotten military transport plane crash that killed almost as many people as the submarine incident. In fall 2000, Putin did something he had obviously at first thought could be placed on a back burner--he laid out a sketch for drastically restructuring the military. 1

According to the sketch, the military services (both those under the Ministry of Defense and those under other agencies) are to be reduced by 600,000, or about 20 percent, with the remaining forces undergoing large-scale reorganization. …

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Military Reform: Can It Get off the Ground under Putin?
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