The Hunt for General Shamanov

The Russian press was consumed last week with the case of General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of Russia’s airborne troops. According to reports first published in Novaia Gazeta, Shamanov ordered special forces based near Moscow to stop a prosecutor from carrying out a search of a factory owned by his son-in-law, who is wanted for attempted murder and is currently in hiding abroad.

The story was based on wiretaps of cell phone conversations between Shamanov and one of his subordinates. (Shamanov, naturally, claims that the recordings were edited to create a false impression of what actually took place. He notes that the special forces never actually arrived at the factory and the search was carried out without incident.) These recordings were leaked to Novaia Gazeta, which published an expose on September 21. The next day, the Ministry of Defense launched an internal investigation of the incident. As several Russian commentators have pointed out, this is very unusual — such incidents are almost always swept under the rug.

Writing for RFE/RL, Mark Galeotti argues that the investigation, and the concurrent distancing of top brass from Shamanov, is the result of poor timing on his part. In Galeotti’s words, “He drew attention to the misdeeds of the officer corps at the very time that they are looking forward to a boom time for corruption.” Furthermore, this occurred at a time when the military is trying to shed its image (if not the reality) of being a highly corrupt organization.

I would argue that while this is certainly a part of the story, there is more to it than that. As Russian media sources have pointed out, the order for a wiretap on top airborne troops officers had to have come someone highly placed in government. Furthermore, both the leak and the rapidity with which the decision to launch an investigation were taken point to a desire to remove Shamanov by someone highly placed either in the government or in the Defense Ministry.

As is so often the case in Russian politics, the key question is who would benefit from Shamanov’s disgrace. Writing in the weekly newsmagazine Profil, Elena Mel’nichuk argues that the most likely cause of the scandal is an effort to discredit defense minister Anatoly Serdiukov by forcing him either to defend a subordinate publicly exposed as corrupt or to remove him, thus costing him a valued ally in his efforts to reform the military.

I think the likeliest source is actually the opposite. I would not consider Shamanov a Serdiukov ally. He certainly was politically savvy enough not to oppose military reform outright. For this reason, he kept his position and was not forcibly retired like so many other top generals. At the same time, he used his direct connections with Prime Minister Putin and other top government officials to prevent Serdiukov from applying the restructuring measures to the airborne troops. This supposition fits with the speed with which the military high command agreed to investigate Shamanov after the initial publication of the story.

It may be that this whole scandal is an effort to destroy a general who, despite his outward show of loyalty to Serdiukov and the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov, is seen as too independent to be controlled. If in coming weeks Shamanov is removed and the airborne troops then subjected to the same restructuring as the rest of the armed forces, this  may prove to be the reason behind the whole story.