When the axe falls, it falls with abandon. Serdyukov’s dismissal as minister of defense has been followed by the retirement of his Chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, and a series of other dismissals, with more likely to follow. Overall, I feel Serdyukov deserves great credit for being the first Russian defense minister to go beyond just talking about reform, but Sergei Shoigu could well be a worthy successor given his great success building and developing the MChS and doing so in the teeth of both budgetary pressures and internal conservatism. However, there are grounds for caution and concern:
1. What is Shoigu’s game plan? Is Shoigu just the enthusiastic and efficient troubleshooter or might he have higher ambitions now that Putin’s position seems a little less certain and the behind-the-scenes discussions about who should be Medvedev’s successor as prime minister have undoubtedly begun. As I comment in my first column for Russia Beyond the Headlines, if Shoigu has more than just military reform in mind, he might well be tempted not to pick the fights that taking that project to the next level will demand, above all with the defense-industrial lobby. (And it it worth noting that the lobby’s current champion, Dmitry Rogozin, might also be eyeing the prime ministerial slot, muddying the waters further.)
2. What are Shoigu’s orders (and limits)? It was striking that when Putin met Shoigu and his new CoGS Gerasimov, he stressed the importance of new equipment and good relations with the defense industries. I think that Alexander Golts is right to interpret that as an injunction not to follow Serdyukov’s line — he was openly (and justly) critical of the defense industries for producing poor weapons at high prices, too late and too little reflecting what Russia’s military actually needed. Hence the decisions to buy French ships, Italian armored vehicles and Israeli drones — both to provide capabilities lacking and also to make a point. It sounds as if Shoigu is being told to make nice to the metal-bashers, who after all are a powerful, hungry political lobby. If so, then his room actually to use his budget usefully becomes much more confined.
3. What is Gerasimov going to do? One lesson of the Serdyukov era was that it was crucial that a civilian defense minister (and though Shoigu technically holds a general’s rank, he is a civilian) needs a tough and local chief of the general staff as his adviser and, if need be, enforcer. Makarov was in many ways a good choice as he had reputation and rank, but was an outsider from the ‘Arbat Military District’ circles of the Muscovite military elite, as well as a specialist on training (a key problem needing to be addressed). His successor, Valery Gerasimov, 57, comes from Kazan and was a career army officer, a tank commander, who was commander of the 58th Army in Chechnya 2001-3, but nonetheless managed to earn the praise of Anna Politkovskaya for his role in the arrest of Budanov. He was Makarov’s deputy 2010-12, but the word is they did not get along and this helps explain his appointment this year to head the Central Military District. Gerasimov is described as a “conservative” but it is sometimes hard to know what that actually means — very few generals in any armies are free-thinking hippies, after all.
As a veteran tank commander, he may well be lobbying for that arm of service, which would actually place him on the same side as the defense industries. (And, I’d suggest, the other side from logic: Russia needs good light infantry, airmobile forces, and wheeled tank destroyers/fire support vehicles.) Beyond that, it is hard at this stage to know for what he stands. However, I suspect that he is much more of an insider and a shop steward for the generals’ lobby than Makarov ever was and I don’t think he’ll be pushing for further troop reductions and other radical steps. On the other hand, he was responsible for all those parades through Moscow, so even if Russia is going to squander the opportunities Serdyukov has opened up and return to a notion of ‘reform’ that really meant little more than ‘buying shiny new stuff,’ then at least we can be assured that they will be prettily showcased rumbling through Red Square…
4. Is anything going to be done about corruption? In many ways this is more a ritual observation more than a real question, as it is hard to see any great evidence that it will. Serdyukov’s downfall had everything to do with personal (very personal) politics and little to do with allegations of embezzlement. One slight shred of optimism is that it seems Main Military Prosecutor Fridinsky — who has done more than anyone in uniform to shed light on corruption and fraud within the MoD, saying that 20% of the State Defense Order disappears through theft and kickbacks — seems to have been the main figure behind the decision not to appoint macho order-more-than-law General Surovikin to head the new military police, which may suggest he has more traction than I realized. And if the Russian arms industries are still to be paid for their junk, then the MoD might need to find the money somewhere. But overall, it is still hard to be optimistic on this point.