Military Service in Absentia

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As Moscow's political analysts turn into charlatans who do nothing but guess how the new power vertical will function with two chiefs, we occasionally hear a couple of questions reminiscent of the "cursed 1990s." For example, how will the military establishment conduct itself in a crisis? Or can the military play an independent role in modern Russia?

The Russian media recently announced that General Yury Baluyevsky, head of the General Staff, might resign over an apparent disagreement with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. Baluyevsky allowed himself to disagree publicly with the Serdyukov over his plan to move the Navy headquarters to St. Petersburg. According to news leaks, at the heart of this conflict is Baluyevsky's firm belief that the military brass should make the most important defense-related decisions and not a civilian minister who surrounds himself with civilian advisers and managers with business backgrounds.

The General Staff has always insisted that military problems are best solved by military personnel. If this is the case, why would the military's top brass agree so easily to Serdyukov's initiative to sell off assets, when it should be developing a mass-mobilization plan during this period of "heightened threat" to the country? After all, the minute war breaks out, all of those things could become necessary again. And why would the General Staff give in to Serdyukov's plan to turn various factories owned by the Defense Ministry into more transparent joint-stock companies -- particularly when this would make it somewhat more difficult for military personnel to filch from these enterprises? It is not part of the generals' job description to worry about cutting military waste when they are responsible for the country's national security. What is most surprising is that the General Staff is on the losing end of this battle with Serdyukov.

In recent days, the General Staff has suffered still another serious defeat. Two years ago, when the Defense Ministry realized that it had an urgent need for recruits, it proposed radical reforms to the system of higher military education. It was suggested that all universities with reserve-officer training departments, which provide male graduates with exemptions from the military draft during peacetime, be divided into three categories. The first category would consist of 35 "elite" educational institutions that would retain their officer-training departments. The second category mandates the creation of educational military centers in 33 universities and institutes. Upon matriculating, male students would have to sign a contract that gives them approximately the same rights and obligations as a military academy cadet; they must serve as a lieutenant in the military for not fewer than three years after graduation. The third category is the largest, as it calls for liquidating existing officer-training departments in 180 institutions, which means that the male students of these colleges will now have to be drafted into the army as privates once they graduate.

It was obvious from the start that the 35 so-called elite colleges that still have officer-training programs would soon be filled with the brilliant sons of top bureaucrats. (Their sons are brilliant much in the same way that their wives all seem to be amazingly successful and wealthy.) In reality, however, the number of these gifted sons of bureaucrats turned out to be far greater than the limited number institutions that still offer exemptions from the military draft. Not surprising, two years of cutthroat, backroom fighting ensued for the limited seats in these elite colleges. As a result, the government on March 6 inconspicuously issued a new decree, which expanded the number of elite schools to 67. Now, such prestigious institutions as the Ivanov State Power University, the Kuban State Agricultural University, the Rostov State Construction University, the Automobile and Road Academy of Siberia have become members of the superelite group of colleges that provides graduates with lifetime military draft exemptions during peacetime.

In the end, the military establishment lost out to the bureaucrats, who prefer that their children experience the country's venerable military institution in absentia.

If the Kremlin truly believed that there were military threats to the country's security, they would undoubtedly have taken the opinion of the General Staff more seriously than the opinion of the top government officials from Ivanov or Krasnodar. But it turns out that the loyalty of those bureaucrats is more important to Putin than the military's ability to ward off a fabricated threat.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.