'Red Dawn' redux: Russia begins massive military modernization effort
Some 36,000 officers are expected to be cut this year and many Soviet-era 'phantom divisions' eliminated. But will the economic crisis undercut reforms?
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A 'complete outsider' is leading the reformsSkip to next paragraph
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The Kremlin's point man in this effort is Anatoly Serdyukov, the former head of a furniture company, who was appointed as defense minister by Mr. Putin two years ago. Although Mr. Serdyukov's immediate predecessor, the former KGB general Sergei Ivanov, was technically Russia's first-ever civilian defense minister, experts say that Serdyukov's advantage is that he's a pure politician, with no ties to any segment of the former Soviet military machine.
"Attempted military restructurings failed in the past because a minister would come into office, start favoring his branch of the service at the expense of others, and call that 'reform,' " says Mr. Shlykov, who was a war planner for the GRU intelligence service in Soviet times. "That's why a minister who's a complete outsider was the right idea."
Another difference is that Serdyukov is open to fresh ideas, Shlykov says. "In the past, to mention US or German experience was anathema" to the military brass, he says. "But we need to learn from the experience of other countries, and Serdyukov is willing to listen. That's a big change."
No end to conscription
One reason the Kremlin has waged a low-key battle for military change, without attempting to mobilize public support, is that most Russians view abolition of the hated military draft as the most urgent priority of reform, and that does not appear to be in the cards anytime soon. Like his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin reneged on pledges to end conscription, though he did shorten the length of obligatory service to just one year.
Supporters of the current reform argue that conscription will have to remain until all the preconditions of a professional army have been put in place, though they admit this is unlikely to attract much popular support. "The task right now is to make structural changes, equip the military with modern arms, and improve social welfare of army people," says Valentin Rudenko, a military expert with the independent Interfax-Military news agency. "It's still too early to say how it's going to work, because we don't see any results yet."
Paying for the reforms?
One glowering threat on the horizon is the growing economic crisis, which could force the Kremlin to scale back its ambitious $200 billion rearmament program, thus validating critics who argue that the army is simply being gutted, not rebuilt.
Another threat is that some of the officers to be let go – an estimated 36,000 this year – might fail to find new jobs in Russia's economy, where unemployment now tops 10 percent, and end up turning to crime. Following the collapse of the USSR, thousands of trained military and KGB specialists poured into the private sector, many of them going to work for the notorious Russian "mafia."
"The economic crisis has broken the plans for military reform," says Viktor Baranets, one of Russia's best-known military experts who has a regular column with the popular Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "My computer is literally burning with all the letters I get from officers complaining. We see serious reductions in supplies, procurement of modern equipment, and cutting off of social programs for officers" due to the economic downturn, he says.
"Military officers seem to lack any confidence in the future, and if this continues the army is going to go into shock and nothing else."