Substantive reshuffles of the Russian military high command tend to mean something. In the present climate, they tend to mean a purge of opponents to military reform as the unexpectedly effective (and necessarily ruthless) team of Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov push forward the next stage of their long-overdue modernisation programme. On 13 January 2010, they claimed two more exalted scalps: Colonel General Vladimir Boldyrev, commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces, and Major General Sergei Surovikin, head of the General Staff’s Main Operations Directorate (GUO).
Boldyrev retired, to be replaced by Colonel General Alexander Postnikov, former commander of the Siberian military district and perhaps more importantly a former subordinate of CoGS Makarov. Boldyrev’s departure had been long-anticipated; indeed, he reportedly tried to leave the military several times previously, but was prevailed upon to remain in post while last year’s restructuring of the army from a divisional to a brigade structure was complete. In many ways, his retirement should thus be considered a reward for a difficult job accomplished surprisingly smoothly. It also reflects the fact that Postnikov needed a little more experience to be a credible successor, and Makarov — who, after all, came into his position as something of an outsider, with only a small circle of clients and allies in the high command — now feels able to elevate him.
More interesting, though, is the situation within the GUO, which is essentially the General Staff’s ‘brain’ — its planning arm, its thinktank, its coordinating body. Previous chiefs have included such outstanding figures as Igor Rodionov, and the head of the GUO, while not necessarily an obvious heir apparent to the CGS’s role, has a disproportionately heavy weight and a role within the high command. Appointed in November 2008, the relatively junior Surovikin was regarded very much as being within Makarov’s camp, but in hindsight he was probably simply an expedient choice. This crucial position had been vacant for several months since the removal of previous incumbent Colonel General Alexander Rukshin, for his vocal opposition to reform, and a number of other candidates had refused this position, balking at the thought of being point man for a program which is completely reshaping the Soviet-model military they had served in all their lives.
Surovikin is more a fighting general than a thinker and administrator. A veteran of Afghanistan and the war in Chechnya, where he commanded the 42nd Motor Rifle Division, he seems to have been a tough, uncompromising disciplinarian, unsuited to the byzantine politics of the high command as well as the internal politics of the GUO. Analysts, thinkers and colonel-rank tacticians cannot be managed like a battalion of infantrymen. However, this move does not simply reflect the redisposition of a worthy officer who simply was not suited to his present role, but a pretty punitive act. Instead of cosy retirement or a face-saving elevation to some sinecure, he has been made chief of staff and first deputy commander of the Volga-Urals military district, a very clear demotion for someone who previously moved within the comfortable and prestigious circles of the so-called ‘Arbat military district’ — the Moscow-based military elite.
The Moscow Times linked the reshuffle to ongoing corruption investigations within the military, and other Russian commentators have tried to give his move a positive spin, suggesting either that he wanted to get back to the sharp end or that the rotation of officers between Moscow and regional commands was a great way to spread experience. (There are some useful summaries of various points of view here and here.) In general terms, there is some truth in the latter, and more general reshuffles of district command staffs are underway (two new military district commanders were also announced on the 13th), but Surovikin’s tenure at the GUO was too short to be meaningful and his move too obviously a demotion (normally he could have expected at least to have become a military district commander) to accept these more benign interpretations as the whole truth.
Surovikin was replaced by Lt. General Andrei Tretyak, former chief of staff and first deputy commander of the Leningrad military district (LenVO). Given that LenVO is based in St Petersburg, home city of both Putin and Medvedev, there is always a temptation to see anyone whose career passes through the city as in some ways connected to either or both. There is, however, no indication of any particular affiliation, and nor does Tretyak’s career — which stretches from his first command position within the old Group of Soviet Forces in Germany through to command of the 20th Combined Arms Army before his posting to LenVO — intersects meaningfully with any obvious political or military patron. However, in some ways that may be the point. If Makarov or Serdyukov do not at present have an obvious protege for the position, the next best thing is to appoint someone who isn’t anyone else’s protege. If nothing else, Tretyak will depend on Makarov’s favour for his survival, with Surovikin’s fate as a cautionary reminder.
This reshuffle further strengthens the hand of the Serdyukov-Makarov regime and will help them as they begin to tackle the next and rather more difficult stage of their programme, addressing the qualitative reform of the forces they have just organisationally redefined. However, this does also pose wider and as-yet unanswerable questions about the GUO. Tretyak may well prove an able and effective figure, but he certainly does not have the reputation of a star (or a fool; he can be defined in part precisely as nothing beyond the median). Will he grow into the job or — assuming he does not reveal hidden strengths — will the job shrink to him. The GUO performs many roles which could be handled by other departments of the General Staff or the Defence Ministry, but its key rationale is that big-picture strategic thinking and planning for major operations from the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan to the 2008 war with Georgia requires a powerful voice. The dynamic of defence politics has precisely been to downgrade the autonomy of arms of service and other ‘baronies’ within the military to strengthen political control from the top. Russia is also implicitly moving away from a doctrine predicated on ‘big wars’ of the sort for which the GUO is best-suited. So maybe the GUO, in its present incarnation, is another left-over from Soviet times likely at last to face reform and downsizing of its own.