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Russian defense minister's sacking suggests political infighting (+video)

Anatoly Serdyukov is mired in a corruption scandal, but some experts say that he was driven out by conservatives unhappy with his military reforms.

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Conservatives argue that the once great Soviet military machine, which won World War II, has been destroyed.

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"Military science has been ruined, our military intelligence has all but disappeared," says Anatoly Tsiganok, an expert with the Moscow-based Strategic Culture Foundation, which generally expresses a deeply conservative and nationalist point of view.

"During Serdyukov's tenure, nepotism became standard practice at the defense ministry. Corruption grew; for example, the cost of replacing the engine in one Sukhoi fighter jet almost quadrupled.... No new weapons were created for the army. Oboronservis was a completely non-transparent outfit. As for Serdyukov, he was Putin's man, married to the daughter of Viktor Zubkov," Putin's former prime minister and now top official of the state natural gas monopoly Gazprom, he adds.

Was it revenge? 

Alexander Golts, a former military officer, outspoken liberal, and columnist with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal, says he smells revenge by conservative forces behind Serdyukov's firing.

"When the corruption scandal first broke, Putin demonstratively met publicly with Serdyukov. That suggested support, because Putin never receives officials who are about to be dismissed," Mr. Golts says.

"It seems that bureaucratic clans began working, without Putin's permission, just informing him.... Now he's fired the minister who carried through the most painful phase of military reform, the only real reform that's taken place in Russia in the past decade," he says.

"And Serdyukov, who had offered to resign before but wasn't allowed to by Putin, now has to leave without honor. Now he's not a successful reformer, but an embattled man at the center of a corruption scandal."

Pervasive corruption

The scandal around Oboronservis has shed rare public light on the kind of corruption that experts say pervades Russian government agencies. The company, on whose board of directors Serdyukov served until last year, has monopoly contracts to service Russian military buildings and bases, repair military equipment, and is often used as a go-between in real estate dealings involving the Russian armed forces.

Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Kremlin's powerful Investigative Committee, told journalists last week that Oboronservis had been selling off prime Moscow real estate belonging to the military at prices far below market rates. He cited several well-known buildings in Moscow, including the famous Soyuz Hotel, which were allegedly sold for as much as 30 percent below market value.

The Investigative Committee has opened five criminal cases, including one against long-time close Serdyukov aide Yevgenia Vasilyeva, alleging that the difference – about $100 million, it says – was embezzled and distributed among top defense ministry officials.

"Yes, the army is bogged down in corruption, the stealing of state money, just as our whole society is," says Valentin Rudenko, director of the independent Interfax/AVN military news agency.

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