Given the political uncertainty which has permeated Russia since the parliamentary elections last year, tensions with the military represent a potentially dangerous liability for the Kremlin. Putin and his advisers no doubt recall that it was the military (and the KGB) that overthrew the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, not the liberal intelligentsia.
The immediate cause of former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s dismissal seems to be his falling out with top officials, up to and including President Putin, over scandals in his personal life, though behind it stands both what seems to be a renewed anti-corruption push and concern about the impact of Serdyukov’s falling out with the military leadership. The personal scandal seems to matter because it apparently alienated high-ranking patrons who gave Serdyukov political cover. Serdyukov needed that cover, however, because the military reform program he was responsible for overseeing and implementing was extremely unpopular within the armed services. Sacrificing Serdyukov at a moment when he had already become a liability thus allows the Kremlin an opportunity shore up its standing with the military, while also making a larger point about its commitment to rooting out corruption.
On one level, Serdyukov’s rise and fall was a classic example of “clan” politics in Putin’s Russia. His career took off following his 2002 marriage to the daughter of then-First Deputy Finance Minister and Chairman of the Financial Monitoring Committee Viktor Zubkov. Zubkov, a close Putin ally who briefly served as prime minister, became an important patron as Serdyukov rose to become Tax Minister and then, in 2007, Defense Minister. More recently, Serdyukov had become estranged from his wife, which undermined his relationship with Zubkov. Worse, he humiliated both his wife and his father-in-law through dalliances with other women while still legally married to Yuliya Zubkova. The fact that Serdyukov was present in the apartment of former Oboronservis board member Yevgeniya Vasilyeva—herself a suspect in the scandal over the sale of Defense Ministry property for personal profit—when it was raided before dawn on in early November was a calculated humiliation (clearly the authorities knew Serdyukov was present, since his security detail did nothing to interfere with the raid), designed to show the outgoing minister in the worst possible light and emphasize his transgression. Not only did Serdyukov’s dalliances anger Zubkov (who likely pushed for his son-in-law’s removal), they represented the kind of tawdriness for which Putin has shown little tolerance in the past.
While Serdyukov’s behavior in his private life was beyond the Putin-era pale, it perhaps could have been handled in a more discrete manner if not for Serdyukov’s complete alienation of both the uniformed military and the defense industrial sector through his role in the military reforms. The reforms, of course, were sanctioned and overseen by Serdyukov’s superiors in the Kremlin including Putin himself, but the outspoken Defense Minister became their public face and the target of the vitriol directed against them. The centerpiece of the reform program was a dramatic shrinkage and reorganization of the military (to reduce waste and enable it to better fight the small, irregular wars that have repeatedly broken out on the post-Soviet periphery over the past two decades). Serdyukov oversaw the dismissal of thousands of officers—many left with inadequate housing and pensions—who blamed the Defense Ministry for their plight. While the reforms allowed Russia’s military to begin a long overdue transition into a modern force, they challenged a view widespread within the military that Russia should remain a global power on the model of the United States, and that only a large, Soviet-style military would allow it to remain globally relevant.
At the same time, Serdyukov’s reforms put an end to many of the lucrative schemes carried out by members of the uniformed military that gave them an independent revenue source, for instance the “privatization” of military property in which Serdyukov himself was implicated. The reforms also challenged the defense industry, which continued relying on the Russian military to purchase its outdated weapons systems at a time when foreign militaries had been increasingly turning their backs on Russian planes, ships, and missiles in favor of more reliable Western models. Influential figures like Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had been lobbying on behalf of the defense industry for Serdyukov’s dismissal—even as former Finance Minister Aleksey Kudrin and other advocates of fiscal discipline have long questioned Serdyukov’s ability to manage the vast defense budget. Yevgeniya Albats reported in the New Times that Serdyukov alienated not only Kudrin, but Putin himself, by demanding more money for the defense budget in 2010, and ultimately going over Putin’s head to then-president Dmitry Medvedev to secure additional funds. While Putin has consistently backed the efforts at military reform overseen by Serdyukov, the ex-defense minister’s political maneuver and longstanding connection with Medvedev no doubt also weakened his standing with Russia’s new-old president. Finally, Serdyukov was well-known of his contempt of the professional military men, many of whom long resented the appointment of a civilian with no military background to head the Ministry of Defense. Serdyukov’s status as an outsider allowed him to push through his reforms in the face of the uniformed opposition, but only as long as he had the political cover of men like Zubkov and, more importantly, Putin himself.
Serdyukov’s ouster also appears to have been the first step in a more thorough housecleaning, which has both allowed the Kremlin to make a public statement about its commitment to fighting corruption and to move to the next stage in the battle over military reform. Chairman of the General Staff General Nikolay Makarov quickly followed the ex-defense minister out the door, as did head of the defense contractor Russian Cosmic Systems Yuriy Urlichich (Russian Cosmic Systems has been building the GLONASS satellite system, an alternative to the U.S. Global Positioning System). Like Serdyukov, Urlichich was accused of corruption going back several years, but was only pushed out now. In theory, the twin firings allow the Kremlin to make a public case for its commitment to rooting out corruption. In practice, though, the newspaper and online speculation about the personnel changes has only emphasized the Byzantine nature of Russia’s politics. As for Makarov, his dismissal had been rumored as soon as news of Serdyukov’s firing was announced. Makarov had been one of the defense minister’s main antagonists within the uniformed ranks, and his own ouster in the wake of Serdyukov’s allows the Kremlin to turn the page in this long-running battle over military and defense industry reform.
Turning the page is particularly important now. Given the political uncertainty which has permeated Russia since the parliamentary elections last year, tensions with the military represent a potentially dangerous liability for the Kremlin. On the one hand, without significant pressure from the outside, the military was never going to reform itself. On the other hand, it is dangerous to risk politicizing the military at a moment when the country’s politics appear increasingly fluid. Putin and his advisers no doubt recall that it was the military (and the KGB) that overthrew the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, not the liberal intelligentsia at the forefront of Russia’s recent protest movement. With the military reform carried out under Serdyukov having made strides already, now is an opportune moment for the Kremlin to offer an olive branch to the generals, if only to ensure its flank is covered if the political environment continues worsening—though Russia’s half-reformed military remains incapable of carrying out major combat operations any time soon.
Moreover, Serdyukov’s refusal to buy sub-standard arms from the Russian defense industry represented a threat to the survival of one of Putin’s key constituencies. With the emergence of an urban opposition over the past few years, Putin has come to rely more than ever on the non-metropolitan working class as his main bastion of support. Weakening this bastion, even in the cause of giving Russia a more effective military, has become more of a risk for Putin as his support among the intelligentsia has withered. The decision to favor political consolidation over more far-reaching reform of the military seems to indicate that the Kremlin sees its principal challenges as lying within the country, rather than abroad.
Sergey Shoygu, the new defense minister, is in many ways the opposite of Serdyukov. He is a political insider of long standing who is personally very close to Putin. He has briefly served as Governor of Moscow Oblast (Region), was the longtime Minister of Emergency Situations, and a leading figure in Putin’s United Russia Party. Shoygu also has a long, heavily decorated background in the military reserves (where he is a four-star general) and in the Emergency Situations Ministry. While it is too early to say for sure what kind of defense minister he will be, in his previous postings he has been widely praised for both his competence and his public touch. Given the scale of corruption exposed by the Oboronservis scandal and the tensions between the civilians and the brass, Shoygu will need all his talents to clean up the mess and restore trust.