Avoiding Military Reforms

The word "military reform" sends terrible chills down the spines of military officers because it could mean that their alternative sources of income in the shadow economy will dry up or, even worse, that they will lose their jobs outright.

In an attempt to sugarcoat the military modernization campaign, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has recommended that the word "reform" not be used to describe the series of changes he has introduced. "We have no plans for drastic changes. We are just putting the affairs of the armed forces in order," he insisted.

To be sure, President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stated that he is satisfied with the condition of the armed forces, and Serdyukov was not appointed to make revolutionary changes to the system.

It is essential that Serdyukov establish at least some kind of control over the billions of rubles that disappear without a trace in the Defense Ministry. But for some strange reason, his attempts to establish a modicum of financial accountability and transparency in the Defense Ministry have sparked a storm of protest from the military's top brass.

Serdyukov is planning to divest assets held by the military, to make army commanders answerable to their own financial officers and to strip military lawyers, doctors and journalists of their officer status. In reality, it is clear that any attempt by Serdyukov to introduce accountability, transparency and efficiency in the military a priori runs counter to the generals' fundamental view of how the armed forces should function on a daily basis.

Among other things, Serdyukov has proposed restructuring military entities into joint-stock companies and to auction off unused land. The military is one-fourth its size at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its vast holdings have not decreased proportionally. Serdyukov would like to reorganize the management of factories for repairing tanks, armored vehicles, aircraft and naval equipment, as well as restructuring farms owned by the Defense Ministry. These various structures are referred to as state unitary enterprises, and each belongs to its respective branch of the military -- the Army, Air Force or Navy. These enterprises are structured in such a way that any factory or farm director who cultivates the "right" relationship with central command can siphon off as much money as he wants from the enterprise he oversees. Of course, even Serdyukov's restructuring plan won't guarantee an end to corruption in the military, but the current system is particularly open to graft. Converting these enterprises to joint-stock companies -- complete with boards of directors and relatively transparent accounting practices -- at the very least will decrease the opportunities available for skimming off budgetary funds.

Serdyukov's initiative to strip the military's journalists, lawyers and doctors of officer rank is a clear attempt to decrease the number of officers. The army now has 400,000 officers out of a total 1.2 million service personnel. That comes out to one officer for every two soldiers. In most countries, officers constitute not more than 16 percent of a military's total personnel. In Russia, the bloated number of officers resembles an inverted pyramid, with nearly as many colonels as lieutenants.

But the generals argue that a large number of officers is necessary to maintain a mass-mobilization army -- one that could call up millions of reservists to fight a war against NATO. In answer to the charge that the number of colonels has nearly outstripped the number of lieutenants, the generals counter that someone must be available to lead the divisions of reservists.

Regarding the military's enormous property holdings, generals argue that, while these assets might be superfluous in peacetime, they will be essential in the event of a major conflict with NATO. In defending their mass-mobilization strategy, which is still stuck in an old Soviet mindset, the generals complain about the incompetence and ignorance of civilians running the Defense Department.

This is why attempts by Serdyukov and his advisers to put financial and accounting controls on military spending have led to a serious conflict with the entrenched military establishment. In the end, this will probably mean that the military brass will succeed in fending off the implementation of fundamental reforms, and Serdyukov's attempts to modernize the armed forces will largely be a fruitless exercise.

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