New attack on General Staff and military reform

It seems that opponents of Russian military reform have launched another effort to derail it. Over the last week, a number of articles in generally even handed newspapers such as Nezavisimaia Gazeta have focused on the continuing problems with the implementation of reform. What’s more, these articles have been quite direct in blaming General Makarov, the chief of the General Staff. Given his close ties to Anatolii Serdiukov, this seems to be a direct attack on the defense minister himself.

The key figure in these reports is Mikhail Babich, the deputy chairman of the State Duma’s committee on defense. He has done two interviews in recent days, one on the subject of the recent housecleaning in the military’s top ranks and another on the subject of the state of preparedness of troops in the Russian Far East and the Pacific Fleet.

In mid-January, an MOD review commission found that the state of the Far Eastern Military District and the Pacific Fleet is poor. It didn’t help that on the last day of the review, a Su-27 fighter aircraft crashed in Khabarovsk during training. (The Air Force subsequently suspended all Su-27 flights until the cause of the crash is determined.) The goal of the review was to determine how prepared the region’s military forces were to work in the new command system implemented last year. While the final report of the review has not yet been issued, General Makarov publicly announced that the state of region’s armed forces was not satisfactory.

Mikhail Babich went much further, noting that practically all paratroop and infantry brigades were not battle-ready, in terms of both personnel and equipment. It appears that many of the force’s vehicles were not in condition to leave the base, a situation exacerbated by the lack of qualified mechanics and drivers. He was particularly forceful in his condemnation of General Makarov, stating that “the chief of the General Staff is continuing to deceive both the Minister of Defense and the top military-political leadership of the country about the real state of affairs [in the military].”

Actually, the poor condition of these forces is not at all surprising, given that this is more or less the same equipment and personnel as the military had at the start of the reform process 15 months ago. There has been virtually no new equipment procured in that period, and even if there had been, one could not expect a significant renewal in such a short time period. And we saw many of the same problems in the initial stages of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008. In fact, across the ground forces as a whole, 33% of brigades are considered to be at a “good” level of preparedness, while another 60% are at a satisfactory level. This leaves only seven percent at an unsatisfactory level. Yet Babich blames the situation on the reform, rather than on the decay of the military that occurred in the years of inaction prior to the reform.

The Nezavismaia Gazeta articles notes that Babich has a history of disagreements with the current chief of the General Staff, but then goes on to argue that independent military experts by and large agree with this assessment. The only expert mentioned in the article, however, is retired General Leonid Ivashov, a well known conservative and opponent of military reform, who notes that the current state of the Russian military makes it unable to counter the potential threats noted in the new draft military doctrine. He also (not surprisingly) lays the blame for this at the feet of the current leadership, arguing that the current Minister of Defense has surrounded himself with less than competent colleagues from St. Petersburg who have “brought nothing but destruction and chaos to the armed forces.”

On the topic of the recent military housecleaning, Babich is similarly outspoken. He notes that General Boldyrev, the commander of the ground forces, resigned because he understood that what was happening was pointless and preferred to retire rather than continue to implement the reforms. Babich argued that General Makarov, the head of the North Caucasus Military District, also resigned because he could not stomach the negative effects of the transition of his troops to the new operational structure.

Boldyrev, of course, is the general who was given the task of transforming the old divisional structure into the new brigades over the last year, so one might just as easily argue that the lack of preparedness in the Far East is on some level his fault. But this would ignore his long-standing opposition to this aspect of the reform, as shown by his two previous offers to resign (which were turned down).

Other analysts have argued that the personnel changes are the result of an anticorruption campaign, the replacement of unpopular generals after they were finished doing the reformers’ dirty work, or simply the belief that the generals being replaced were not up to the the job. The official explanation, of course, is that they had reached the mandatory retirement age and the military wanted to provide younger officers with experience in top command positions — which is neither here nor there, as this is routinely waived when top officials want to keep a general around after they reach 60 (for full generals and colonel generals) or 55 (for lieutenant and major generals).

It seems to me that the most likely explanation is that Serdiukov and Makarov are continuing to replace top brass who are not fully supportive of their reform program with their own proteges, who can be counted on to carry out whatever orders are given. Several of the new appointments are people who served with Makarov in the Siberian Military District…

But these appointments would not matter if the top two military officials have lost the confidence of the country’s top civilian leadership. The attack on Serdiukov, Makarov and their reform program by Babich, an important member of United Russia, implies that at least some groups in Russia’s civilian leadership would like to see a change at the top. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Defense Minister has lost the confidence of the President or the Prime Minister, but it may be that a signal is being sent to him that it is time to produce some visible results, and quickly.

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