The firing of Anatoly Serdyukov

Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was fired this morning. The ostensible reason had to do with the corruption scandal that recently engulfed Oboronservis. But we all know that no one in the top echelons of the Russian government gets fired for corruption, unless there’s some other reason for their removal. The subtext here is that Serdyukov had made an enemy of Viktor Zubkov, the powerful former Prime Minister and current chair of Gazprom’s board, and also Serdyukov’s father-in-law and former patron.

The corruption scandal focused on Yevgenia Vasilyeva, the former head of the MOD’s property department. Various sources have indicated that when her apartment was raided as part of the corruption probe at 6am on Oct 25, Serdyukov was there. Furthermore, Vasilyeva’s apartment was in the same building as Serdyukov’s. The building had been requisitioned several years ago to serve as the reception hall for the Defense Ministry but then converted to private apartments for the two of them. It seems that the two of them had been having an affair for some time.

I don’t know why this long-standing situation became intolerable recently. It may be, as implied by today’s New York Times report, that Zubkov only recently became aware of the situation, after Serdyukov and his wife separated. Or it may be that it took time for Zubkov to receive a green light from Putin to launch the attack. In any case, we know that only five months ago, Serdyukov had wanted to leave his position and had to be personally persuaded by Putin to stay on. So whatever happened to change the situation has happened over the summer or fall.

Another interesting aspect of the situation is that two weeks passed between the raid on Vasilyeva’s apartment and Serdyukov’s removal. Initially, it seemed to me that the raid was meant as a signal to Serdyukov to sort out his personal life and that he was not in danger of removal. If he had meant to remove Serdyukov, Putin could have done so without the raid or (if he wanted Serdyukov humiliated) could have done so immediately after the raid. The delay implies either that Serdyukov was unable to come to terms with Zubkov and therefore had to be jettisoned by the ruling clan or that Zubkov was determined to have Serdyukov out despite Putin’s initial reluctance and needed the two weeks to prevail. (The latter point of view is well-expressed by Aleksandr Golts.)

Putin has appointed Sergei Shoigu, the long-standing head of the Emergencies Ministry who had been serving as Moscow Oblast governor for the last few months. This move has implications for both the military and the Russian political system at large. For the political system, it means that Putin has few people left he can trust. Serdyukov was long seen as irreplaceable precisely because there were so few people who combined his qualities of effective managerial ability and personal loyalty to Putin. Shoigu is one such person, which is probably why he was brought in as Serdyukov’s replacement even though he had only recently been appointed to run Moscow Oblast.

The burning question, though, is what happens to the military in general and the reform effort in particular with Shoigu as Defense Minister. Shoigu is in some ways like Sergei Ivanov was — someone with vast experience in the security services, but little connection the military itself. By all accounts, he did an incredible job establishing and running the Emergencies Ministry. If he can combine his managerial abilities with a manner that is less brusque than Serdyukov’s, he might succeed in maintaining momentum on the reform agenda without alienating the officer corps. Of course, this will depend on a continued reaffirmation of support for reform by Putin, but that seems in little doubt given the extent to which Putin is invested in the reform’s success. This will be especially needed to counter those officers who may be emboldened by Serdyukov’s removal and may seek to roll back some of the reform’s achievements.

Shoigu has a reputation as an honest and relatively uncorrupt official. He may end up being far more effective at eliminating entrenched corruption at the MOD than Serdyukov (who seems to have simply had his own people take over the most profitable schemes). We may get an early signal of the future of the reform effort if Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov retires (as expected) in December. If Makarov is replaced by someone who is seen as a strong supporter of reform, then Serdyukov’s reform plan is likely to continue. If he is replaced by a member of the old guard, that may be a sign that the achievements of the last four years are about to be rolled back. Of course, Makarov’s reappointment, though unlikely, would also be a signal that reform remains on track.

Serdyukov’s removal may initially be taken as a victory for the anti-reform forces. But it may turn out that his “bulldozer” methods have done as much as they could. In that case, Shoigu could turn out to be exactly the right person for the job of solidifying the changes enacted over the last four years.




6 thoughts on “The firing of Anatoly Serdyukov

  1. Nice post, but I have to take exception with a couple of your premises. First, I don’t think that Shoigu is quite the impeccable savior some in the Russian media have made him out to be. The notion that you can create and run an honest and open department within a sea of corruption is naïve and rather ludicrous. My guess is that the authorities have a couple of suitcases of kompromat on Shoigu that they will unpack should the need arise.

    Similarly, you appear to believe that that this reform effort was partially launched to remove corruption from within the MoD. This may be true, but again, is it possible for an inherently corrupt system to develop and restructure its military without infecting it with this same sleaze? The fish truly does rot from the head.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ray. I have no evidence one way or another on Shoigu’s level of corruption. That’s why I said “has the reputation,” but I don’t think I made that distinction clear enough. Whether or not he is corrupt, he did do a great job setting up and running Emercom. During his tenure, it became pretty much the only federal government agency that people actually trusted. So he could potentially be effective at running the MOD even if he steals or allows stealing. This was (to my mind) certainly the situation under Serdyukov. (I know many have a much less favorable view of Serdyukov, but whatever you might think of his methods,he accomplished a lot.)

      On your second point, I do think the reform was partially launched to remove corruption. And my (admittedly anecdotal) sense is that there is somewhat less corruption now than there was when Serdyukov came in. I don’t think anyone expected him to eliminate corruption, just to reduce it somewhat and (partially) redirect the flows away from the generals. I would argue that he succeeded at both tasks. But of course, you’re right in that he was part of a corrupt system and fully participated in that corruption, making it impossible to truly root it out…

      • A reply from Ray Finch, who couldn’t post this directly for some reason:

        Dmitry, Hi and thanks for the thoughtful reply. Yes, like you, I’m merely speaking from conjecture with no firm evidence on the allegations of corruption. I did listen to Komsomolskaya Pravda’s radio show ‘Tema Dnya’ yesterday, just after the news of Serdyukov’s dismissal was announced. During the call-in portion of the show, some listeners expressed doubts over Shoigu’s sanctity and voiced similar concerns about corruption within the MChS.

        Regarding corruption in the MoD under Serdyukov, again, I have nothing but hearsay. One of Serdyukov’s more vociferous critics (V. Baranetz), claims that corruption has indeed increased significantly under Serdyukov’s leadership. Baranetz may be something of a mouthpiece for those disgruntled senior officers who have been removed from their once lucrative positions, but his blog ( has consistently cataloged an ever-steady stream of criminal activities within the MoD.

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