Sergei Shoigu’s early initiatives as defense minister all seem to have a distinctly sartorial bent. First, he decreed that the traditional portyanki foot cloths wrapped around the foot every morning, washed and hung up to dry at night, be fully replaced by socks by the end of 2013. Then it was bruited around that the traditional — indeed, iconic — ushanka fur hat with side-flaps would be phased out and replaced with new headgear. Then we have confirmation that a new set of field uniforms including these changes would indeed be issued, with 100,000 soldiers getting them this year (earlier this year it was just 70,000), the rest in 2014.
It is easy to belittle such moves. Efficient and comfortable uniforms rank with decent housing, adequate food and proper medical care amongst the kinds of quality-of-life issues taken for granted in most Western militaries yet contributing to the terrible reputation of army service in Russia (and hence recruitment of volunteers). It is also in line with the kinds of reforms Serdyukov had been trying to introduce. After all, he had wanted to phase out the portyanki and introduce new, better uniforms.
However, there is much more to being defense minister than being tailor-in-chief, and the initial omens about Shoigu’s priorities are less inspiring. After Serdyukov had spent much political capital cutting down the bloated, top-heavy officer corps, it seems that the army, navy and air force command staffs will be increased fully 2-3 times. However much this is spun as a measure to improve training and coordination, it is a victory for the top brass and a step away from creating a leaner military.
Furthermore, the notion of importing better foreign-made equipment seems out of favor, with the decision to scale back purchase of Italian LMV65 light armored vehicles and new criticism of the French Mistral deal. Regardless of the qualities of these particular deals, trying for military autarky makes absolutely no sense in terms of military reform (Dmitry Gorenburg has some astute comments on this on his blog). The only people it pleases are the defense-industrial complex industrialists, who became such an enemy of Serdyukov’s.
In other words, for the moment Shoigu seems either to be playing it safe or else lacks the political muscle to take on the two conservative lobbies — the generals and the ‘metal-eaters’ — whose interests are actually antithetical to proper military reform. He may be biding his time, but for the moment he seems content to be tailor-in-chief. Maybe because he’s already window-shopping for the kind of suit fit for a prime minister. Or even a president?