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Armed Forces

Anatoliy Serdyukov: Five Years at the Helm

Anton Lavrov

Anatoliy Serdyukov’s appointment as Russian defense minister in February 2007 came completely out of the blue. He had served as chairman of the Federal Tax Service, where he kept tabs on Russia’s largest corporate taxpayers, and was not exactly a public figure. Putting him at the helm of Russia’s conservative MoD seemed rather a strange choice. But Serdyukov had won Vladimir Putin’s unconditional trust during his time in charge of the tax service by delivering a large increase in tax receipts. Some of that rise was wrung in bitter clashes with the country’s oil and gas giants.

Putin had long nurtured plans for a radical reform of the armed forces. To put those plans into effect he needed a civilian defense minister, someone who was not part of the closely-knit caste of professional soldiers. His vision included a drastic increase in the army’s financing, which required a minister capable of making sure that the extra money doesn’t just sink into a black hole without any trace.

For all the post-Soviet changes and cuts, the Russian army was still essentially Soviet when Serdyukov took over from his predecessor. Despite the lessons learnt during two bloody campaigns in Chechnya, it was a mobilization army geared to fight in great wars but ill-suited to face the challenges of the new century, when great wars are becoming increasingly unlikely. Another major problem was the state of technology in the Russian army, which had seen very little by way of new weaponry since the early 1990s. By 2007 almost all its hardware still in service had become decrepit and obsolete.

Serdyukov was given a free hand with regard to MoD appointments. He used that freedom to bring in his own tried and tested team. A number of key offices in the ministry, including several deputy-ministerial positions, were filled by people from the tax service. The first order of business for the new team was to audit the ministry’s finances, take stock of its assets, and optimize spending on defense procurement and other programs. The military part of the reform was delegated to a trusted group of forward-looking General Staff officers.

Contrary to popular belief, the brief military conflict with Georgia in August 2008 did not really put Serduykov’s reforms to the test. The war came barely six months after the new minister’s arrival — far too short a time for those reforms to deliver any notable results. Nevertheless, Russia’s confident victory gave Serdyukov a much-needed credit of trust with the top Russian leadership, enabling him to conduct deeper transformations and undoubtedly contributing to his political longevity.

The first round of radical transformations dubbed as the “New Look” reforms was rolled out in 2009. It introduced a completely new structure of the Army and the Air Force. The old Military Districts became Operational Strategic Commands. The Army saw the most drastic changes. Prior to the reform most of its units were staffed at skeleton-strength level and required mobilization to bring them to their full war-time strength. All of them have now been disbanded. The Russian Army now consists of permanent-readiness brigades manned and equipped to their full war-time strength. The Air Force has also undergone some serious restructuring. Its strength is now divided into airbases rather than the old air regiments; there have also been large redeployments of the actual aircraft. The Navy, the Strategic Missile Troops and the Airborne Troops have also seen some changes, but not as far-reaching as those in the Army and the Air Force.

The next stage of the structural reform was the launch of a massive rearmament program. One of the main characteristics of Serdyukov’s tenure at the MoD is the constant wrangling between the ministry and the Russian defense industry. Arms deliveries to the Russian armed forces used to be heavily discounted compared to the prices charged to foreign customers — but that discount saw a steady erosion over the years. Prices continued to spiral even as the MoD resumed large-scale arms procurement programs after a long pause. To make matters worse, following a decade of stagnation the industry went through in the 1990s, many of its pricey products have become clearly inferior to the Western competition.

That has triggered a veritable revolution in the MoD, which used to rely solely and exclusively on Russian suppliers. The ministry has started to place large orders for weaponry in foreign countries, including Russia’s erstwhile enemies in the NATO bloc. The largest and most controversial contracts include the purchase of Mistral-class amphibious landing craft from France, wheeled armor from Italy’s Iveco, and UAVs from Israel. All that being said, the vast majority of the Russian army’s weaponry is still being sourced from Russia’s own suppliers; this is not going to change any time soon.

Human resources are one of the key priorities of the latest reform, which is definitely something of a precedent in Russian history. The change, which has affected everyone, from ordinary recruits to the top generals, clearly owes much to the fact that the new minister is a civilian. Back in 2004 the Russian armed forces started experimenting with phasing out conscription in favor of professional service. The experiment affected only a small part of the forces, but it soon became clear that Russia cannot afford a fully professional army due to financial constraints. The MoD has had to reconcile itself to that fact; it has since shifted its focus to improving the conditions for conscripts and trying to overcome the universal public loathing of the draft.

The ministry has taken a number of steps to make conscription service less of an ordeal. In 2008 the length of that service was halved from 24 months to 12. Great efforts have been made to root out the old problem of horrendous bullying in the Russian forces, strengthen civilian monitoring of the army and make it more open with information. The intensity of combat and physical training has been ramped up to compensate for the shorter conscription term. Attempts are being made to create a professional sergeants corps, albeit with little to show for it so far.

The system of officer training is in the middle of a complete overhaul. Most of the higher military schools have been disbanded; their resources and facilities are being used to set up new centers with more rigorous training standards. The officer corps, which used to make up a whopping 50 per cent of the Russian army’s numerical strength, has been reduced to less than half of its former bulk. The officers who have survived the cuts are getting much better pay. Early in 2012 the minimum take-home pay of a young lieutenant was increased to at least 900 dollars, which is significantly higher than the average national wage. This should make army service a lot more attractive, and greater competition will enable the army to recruit better candidates.

It has now been five years in the top MoD job for Serdyukov. Over the years of deep and excruciatingly painful reforms he has made a lot of enemies in the Russian army, the defense industry, the media and even in the government. Neither is he much loved by ordinary Russians after abandoning plans to abolish conscription and ordering the cull of the officer corps. The only thing that has enabled Serdyukov to hold on to his job for so long is the full confidence Vladimir Putin has in him. The upcoming reshuffles in the government after the presidential election later this year may yet spell the end of the minister’s long tenure.

But no matter how things turn out for Serdyukov in the coming months and years, he has already earned a place in the history of the Russian army as a reformer who launched the greatest military transformations in decades. The consequences of these transformations, both good and bad, will be felt for the next half a century.

Serdyukov has presided over the final scrapping of the old Soviet army model and the roll-out of the radical “New Look” transformations. But the Russian armed forces are only just beginning their long and arduous march towards becoming a modern, mobile and well-equipped force, with highly trained soldiers and competent officers.

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