A near catatonic trance descended upon the Russian media in the aftermath of President Vladimir Putin sacking his controversial Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on November 6, with a preoccupation on issues of corruption and speculation on the fallen minister’s private life. However, a number of critical decisions taken by the new defense ministry leadership appear to signal that the “new look” is effectively dead. Following the removal of Serdyukov, media rumors concerning his fate have concentrated on a possible advisory role in the state-owned high-tech company Rostekhnologii, though it is clear that the president has no immediate wish to revive the disgraced minister (Interfax, November 12).
An early sign that Putin had granted the new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu carte blanche to repair the damage done to the officer corps’ confidence in the defense ministry leadership was aptly denoted in the latter receiving the military rank of Army-General. Shoigu is no military man, but bestowing the high military rank to the man in charge of the defense ministry is a symbol for the officer corps of both identification with their interests and a clear breach from his civilian predecessor. Russian military experts soon picked up on the importance of Putin’s decision, but missed the interconnection with rapid reshuffling and the liberty granted to Shoigu to kick Serdyukov’s reforms into the long grass (Yezhednevnyy Zhurnal, November 12).
On November 15, Putin dismissed the deputy defense ministers, Yelena Kozlova and Dmitriy Chushkin, appointing Yuriy Borisov and Ruslan Tsalikov to these posts. Tsalikov, the deputy premier of Moscow Oblast is a long-term associate of Shoigu, and Borisov, who held the post of first deputy chairman of the government’s military-industrial commission, will be responsible for the execution of the national arms program. Deputy Defense Minister Tatyana Shevtsova, one of the individuals Serdyukov brought to the ministry from the tax ministry, has also reportedly resigned (Interfax, November 15, 14).
Putin’s decision to appoint Colonel-General Valeriy Gerasimov as the Chief of the General Staff on November 9, sacking Army-General Nikolai Makarov, also revealed that change was imminent. Gerasimov’s relations with Makarov were known to be turbulent. On November 14, Gerasimov put on hold the creation of the Aerospace Defense Forces (VKO) and the merger of higher educational establishments with the Mozhayskiy Military Academy. Colonel-General Anatoly Khyupenen, the former air defense deputy commander-in-chief, told the Duma Defense Committee: “I have just been to the General Staff, where I discussed VKO issues with Colonel-General Valeriy Gerasimov. He said plainly and clearly that all the activities relating to the Aerospace Defense Forces and the merger of the Air Defense Military Academy in Tver, [and] a number of [other] higher educational establishments, with the Mozhayskiy Military Academy in St. Petersburg have been put on hold” (Interfax, November 14).
The General Staff has reportedly ordered a working group to study the forces and means involved in the VKO and draw up proposals for forming an integrated aerospace defense system and its higher educational establishment. Also on November 14, Shoigu acted to distance himself from some of the initiatives linked with the previous defense minister, by first suspending the liquidation of 20 military hospitals. Shoigu visited the 442nd Military Hospital at the Plesetsk cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Region and announced the suspension of closing military hospitals, adding that a meeting would take place on December 1 to explore military medicine and its budget (Interfax, November 14).
It is not just that the deputy defense ministers are being reshuffled, but the powers assigned to these posts are under review. Sources familiar with these radical plans told Interfax: “Under a decision taken by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the deputy defense ministers’ official responsibilities and powers will be gradually reviewed as new deputy defense ministers are appointed and current deputy defense ministers are reappointed.” On the official website of the Russian defense ministry, the structures subordinated to the deputy defense ministers have been removed from the organizational charts. “The defense ministry website currently lists command-and-control structures subordinated to the new defense minister and Chief of the General Staff Colonel-General Valeriy Gerasimov only,” according to the anonymous Interfax source. The same source added that under Serdyukov the General Staff had received many functions that were unnatural to it, such as command over the VKO, and these will now be revised (Interfax, November 14).
On the same day, the Chief of the Main Operational Directorate, Deputy Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant-General Vladimir Zarudnitskiy explained that the General Staff had requested amendments to the State Defense Order. The State Defense Order was amended on the basis of General Gerasimov seeking the views of the main commands of the branches and arms of service. Zarudnitskiy stressed that Shoigu has suspended all reforms linked to military education, military science and the transfer of military facilities; it is unclear what these changes may involve (Interfax, November 14).
In the clearest signal from the political elite that sweeping changes are underway to distance the defense ministry from the four years of the “Serdyukov” reform, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin expressed hope that Shoigu will review some decisions made by the previous leadership of the defense ministry. “There are some decisions already about the reinstatement of Suvorov and Nakhimov [military schools] cadets’ possible participation in the [May 9] Victory Parades. This is a long-awaited decision. I think there will be some other very important symbolic, and not only symbolic decisions, which will show that the ministry of defense is starting to turn directly to its duties to restore patriotism, loyalty, motivation to serve in the Armed Forces, to serve the Fatherland. Let us hope so,” Rogozin told a meeting of the Russian Pobeda [Victory] organizing committee in Moscow on November 14.
According to Gaydar Institute expert Vasiliy Zatsepin, the new defense leadership wants to take time out to adjust the pace and methods rather than the essence of the reform; however, few among the officer corps understand what the essence of reform really means (Vedomosti, November 16). Now the new defense ministry leadership has apparently two main tasks from the Kremlin; to heal divisions with the domestic defense industry and to smooth over relations with the battered officer corps; it is unclear whether the plan to create modern combat capable and combat ready forces with C4ISR will survive the impact of treading the line between pleasing industry and officers.