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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Army Braces for More Purges

With the presidential elections over, the Russian military is facing an uncertain future. The former defense minister Pavel Grachev has been ousted as a result of President Boris Yeltsin's feverish political actions between the first and second round of voting. The Grachev "gang" of generals has also been removed and new massive purges of other high and middle-ranking military officials are inevitable, as soon as a new defense minister is appointed.


The Russian defense ministry, like its Soviet predecessor, traditionally functions in a way similar to the U.S. government in Washington; when the boss goes, many others clean out their desks and go with him. At the same time, another group of officers with some connection to the new top brass moves in to fill the vacancies. There are no disciplinary commissions; the Russian army is not like the Bundeswehr. The defense minister can kick out any general or marshal he wishes, regardless of all his ribbons or stars. He only needs the consent of the president, who does not personally know or really care about his top generals. Very little has thus changed since the communist general secretaries ruled in Moscow.


The first seven generals that Yeltsin dismissed at the insistence of retired general Alexander Lebed are only the tip of the iceberg. The new defense minister, General Igor Rodionov or whoever he may be, will appoint their successors. They in turn will change many of their predecessor's subordinates. These subordinates will then pick new, close aides, and so the wave of dismissals will sweep through the military hierarchy, engulfing not only Moscow but also the provincial naval and army garrisons.


Of course, not all officers will be dismissed in such a spectacular manner as Grachev and his close associates were. Less-prominent officers will simply be offered worse jobs with uncertain career prospects.


The coming purge is obviously stirring up feelings and tensions in the military. But it is also stirring up excitement and hope, since one man's purge is another serviceman's promotion. A massive cleansing demotion and transfer of officials in the forces creates equally widespread career opportunities.


No one in defense departments is working too hard at present. Seasoned officers know better. A military friend once explained to me the main rule of Russian (Soviet) military procedure: "Never rush forward to execute orders of high-ranking superiors. There will always be plenty of plausible excuses to explain why orders did not go through the chain of command, if worst comes to worst. While you are hesitating, the original orders will probably be over-ruled and you will save a lot of personal time and effort."


This is not just a joke. This is the survival code of generations of Russian government officials, military and non-military, who, from the time of Peter the Great, experienced continual waves of radical reforms, often followed by counter-reforms, and still managed to stay in office.


However, as everybody "hesitates," the Russian army slowly disintegrates, and its loyalties become obscure and controversial. Many people believed Lebed when he said in May that "Fifteen fully battle-ready divisions would be adequate for Russia's defense." This week the newly appointed Security Council secretary again said that "cadre" units that are operating at 30 percent capacity should be disbanded in two years.


Others believed that the Communists would restore the greatness of Russia and its army. But the Communist Party's chief defense expert, the deputy chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, Mikhail Surkov, publicly supported Lebed's idea of reducing the army to 15 full divisions.


The vast majority of divisions in the army are understaffed "cadre" units. I have visited divisions that were only 1,600 strong with officers vastly outnumbering the men, and over a third of these "men" being officers' wives hired by the divisional commander as professional soldiers. Disbanding such militarily worthless units in poverty-stricken rural areas will create a lot of resentment.


If the army purge and reorganization abolish more jobs than they create, the now hesitant troops will be furious at the Moscow ruling elite. All prominent political forces in Russia promised to reform the army, but meaningful action will be very painful and unpopular. A weak and divided "coalition" government headed by an unsteady minority president could simply lose control over the troops in the process.





Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor of Segodnya.