Quiet on the Reform Front

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On Saturday, Kommersant reported the sensational news that on Nov. 11, the head of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, apparently signed an order barring officers from publicly discussing military reforms. According to the article, after military leaders encountered strong resistance from top generals over planned reductions to the army, they decided to classify all information related to the reforms as top secret. What's more, anyone violating the directive was threatened not only with military discipline, but even criminal prosecution.

Kommersant also reported that some "dissenting" top-ranking officers have already submitted their resignations, including: Vladimir Isakov, chief of logistics of the Armed Forces; Valentin Korabelnikov, head of the main intelligence directorate of the General Staff; and Vladimir Goshkodera, head of the Central Command.

Without delay, the Defense Ministry denied reports of these resignations, and its spokesman, Alexander Drobyshevsky, called the Kommersant piece a "brazen lie," saying that the head of the General Staff never issued any kind of gag order. On the contrary, Drobyshevsky claimed that Makarov had been demanding night and day that his subordinates explain the particulars of the reforms to the military.

Drobyshevsky's statements are not convincing at all. Whether there was an official directive to keep quiet or not, every military department -- including the information service -- behaves as if it is dutifully obeying the order. In the two months since Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced unprecedented reductions in the Armed Forces, nothing has been explained to the military regarding the reforms. For example, it has been announced that more than half of all Russian officers will be dismissed within the next three years, but nobody has explained the criteria that will be used to determine who will be let go and who will keep their jobs. And those who will be fired have been left completely in the dark regarding whether they will receive any benefits, such as severance pay or apartments.

Instead of using the military's internal media outlets for disseminating information about the changes for rank-and-file soldiers, the Defense Ministry chose an unusual approach. Deputy defense ministers were dispatched to the various field commands to explain the imminent cutbacks and other reforms to the officers. At most, each "commissar" was able to meet with 100 or 200 senior officers in each military district and naval division. In all likelihood, at least half of the officers who heard the presentations will themselves soon lose their jobs, so you can imagine the enthusiasm with which they explained the "benefit" of Serdyukov's reforms to their subordinates.

The pathetic way the Defense Ministry provided information internally and externally and the purported gag order are vivid illustrations of the obstacles facing the reformers. In considering the proposed cutbacks to the military, which are the largest in the past 100 years, I have often asked myself whether the "power vertical" can effectively reform one of the biggest pillars of state -- the Armed Forces.

On one hand, it is obvious that with the degrading treatment toward military personnel, the Armed Forces' ability to fight effective campaigns will always be called into question, as was shown by the war with Georgia.

On the other hand, this is exactly the type of authoritarian organization that most fully conforms to the Kremlin's ideology, which believes that from the moment of his birth, every Russian male has an automatic, immense debt to the state. Conscript military service is the way young men pay back their debt. If this ideology prevails, we will never see a professional army in Russia. On the contrary, only a mass-mobilization army, manned by hundreds of thousands of conscripts, can feed the Kremlin's superpower ambitions in opposing the United States and NATO.

The type of Armed Forces Russia actually needs is a small, professional army that reflects the country's declining population and is capable of utilizing advanced technology. But this 21st-century military model contradicts the Kremlin's ideology and definition of a superpower.

For this reason, those who are guided by selfish motives to maintain the current ineffective mass-mobilization army can easily and publicly criticize Serdyukov and his reforms on the grounds that they will undermine the foundation of Putin's regime. Finding itself in this uncomfortable situation, the Defense Ministry has decided that being silent on all reforms is the best policy.

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