May 11, 2007 | 02:00 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Restructuring the Russian Military?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Rumors about the dismissal of Russian air force commander Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov began circulating late Thursday after Interfax news service reported the general had been fired, citing unnamed Defense Ministry sources. Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked hard during the last two years to consolidate his economic, financial, political and social power, but he has yet to rein in the military, the leaders of which have historically enjoyed much political power. Neither the air force nor the Kremlin has confirmed Mikhailov's dismissal; however, if the general was indeed sacked, the move could mark the beginning of Putin's military restructuring. The ability to fire a senior military commander belongs to the president alone. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, no Russian leader has made significant changes in the military that were not designed to appease the powerful generals. Putin changed this in 2001 by naming the first civilian to hold the post of defense minister. The appointment of Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and personal friend to the president, was meant to keep the generals under Putin's thumb by promoting someone they fear until Putin could consolidate the last piece of the Russian system and gain total control. Mikhailov has served in the military since 1975 and has held top positions throughout the air force. He commands respect in both Russian and international circles. The general, who is 63, has been set to retire on three occasions due to age restrictions, but his term has been extended repeatedly. It would not be strange for a man of his age to retire at this point. However, the Interfax report said he was "dismissed," which likely means he was fired. The timing of his dismissal is particularly strange considering the state of Putin's ongoing consolidation. In his April 26 state of the union address, Putin laid out his vision for a new, stronger Russia. Though he has been working toward this since he took office in 2000, he has moved rapidly during the past two years to increase his party's power, securing Russia's energy wealth, cracking down on dissident movements and purging members of the government's opposition. Putin also has begun advocating a new common identity for Russians, as evidenced in his May 9 Victory Day speech. The largest force Putin has had to keep in check are the generals, many of whom have plagued the military by holding it back from modernization, opposing reforms and using up massive amounts of money. Under former President Boris Yeltsin, generals were appointed by the handful. The Russian military had been demoralized by the war in Chechnya, and Yeltsin was facing an opposition backlash. To appease the middle and top ranks, Yeltsin handed out titles like food rations. Putin has had to deal with the glut of generals created by his predecessor — the main problem being that the generals can also enter the government and cause problems for him there. Putin recognized the generals' popularity and influence within the country, as well as their history of aiding revolutions. Much to the horror of the military, he appointed Ivanov as defense minister. The generals hated that a former KGB (now FSB) officer had taken the top office. It was unheard of to place a member of the siloviki — Russia's old intelligence establishment — at the head of the military. However, the intelligence establishment was the only other institution that held as much power as the military. Fearing Ivanov, the generals did not move against Putin while he turned his attention to other things. Now that Putin has consolidated all the major Russian sectors, the military is all that is left. Putin has said he would like to revamp the decaying military, but reining in the generals could be his trickiest and most dangerous task. Though during the Soviet era Russia posed a serious threat to the United States, today's Russian military is a mere shadow of what it once was. Russia ranks third in the world behind the United States and China in military spending; however, it is estimated that nearly half of this spending is unaccounted for. If Russia is serious about revamping its military — which is imperative if it wants to reclaim its status as a world power — it will have to trim the fat. Putin's Feb. 16 move to replace Ivanov with Anatoly Serdyukov, who is also a civilian and is more accustomed to heading up Russia's tax department than dictating military strategy, might have been his first step toward restructuring this dilapidated institution. Serdyukov has said he plans to purge all wastefulness from the military, and Russian tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets reported in April that Mikhailov was being investigated for misuse of funds. If this is the real reason behind Mikhailov's departure, Russia has a long road of purges ahead of it. However, if the Kremlin is successful in ridding the military of superfluous personnel and freeing up some of those funds, Russia could be on its way to seriously overhauling its military and reasserting itself in ways the West thought would never again be possible.

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