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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kremlin's Rank Obsession

Last week President Boris Yeltsin promoted Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev to the rank of marshal of the Russian Federation -- the most senior position in Russia's military service. The appointment was greeted with dismay and disbelief in the rank and file of Russia's military. But Yeltsin -- a seasoned, former high-ranking Communist Party official -- always believed (as many party moguls before him) that lavishly giving out state awards, decorations and rank promotions is the best and cheapest way to keep people loyal and content.


Yeltsin has also recently finished building up a system of special ranks for ministers and government officials -- on the lines of the imperial code created by Peter the Great. It is less known or officially emphasized, but Yeltsin is happily promoting civilians to ranks much the same as general and marshal. Several months ago First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais was the first to be given the topmost rank in the civil service -- "actual government adviser of the Russian Federation -- first class." Now it is Sergeyev's turn.


Marshal of Russia is the equivalent of a U.S. five-star general of the army, or a British field marshal, or marshal of France. But in the United States, Britain and France after World War II the highest military ranks were no longer given to anyone, even after victorious local wars such as in the Falklands or the Gulf.


For several years after the demise of the Soviet Union no one in Russia held the rank of marshal. In August 1994 Yeltsin's military adviser and deputy chairman of the presidential advisory commission on promotion of upper-level military personnel, the late general Dmitry Volkogonov, told me: "There should be only one full [four-star] general in active service in peacetime and the title of marshal should be awarded only in the rarest cases -- after, say, a victorious war."


In 1994 Volkogonov fought a behind-the-scenes battle to prevent then defense minister general Pavel Grachev from becoming marshal. However, Grachev was slowly taking over. From 1994 to 1996 he deliberately over-promoted hundreds of generals, so that Yeltsin would ultimately be forced to appoint a marshal to control the growing flock.


The number of colonel-generals (three-star) in active service in Russia's Defense Ministry and the "other" armed forces such as the Interior Ministry troops, Federal Border Guard Service and the Emergency Ministry forces reached 400 -- more than in Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union. This over-promotion also grossly increased defense spending, since all generals in active service needed some command or other official position in accordance with their rank. However, Grachev was mesmerized by the notion of becoming the Russian Federation's first marshal, and Yeltsin did not seem to object, providing his "best general" stayed loyal and kept the troops under control.


In 1996 Yeltsin agreed to inflate the number of active service four-star generals from two to 15. The rank of marshal appeared to be in Grachev's reach, since it was obviously inappropriate for the defense minister to be the same rank as so many of his subordinates. But the good showing of retired general Alexander Lebed in the first round of the 1996 presidential elections forced Yeltsin to take him into the Kremlin and eject Grachev.


It was Sergeyev who gathered the fruit of Grachev's plot. First receiving four-star rank as chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces during the wave of promotions in 1996, Sergeyev went on to become defense minister and was in line for further promotion. Grachev and Igor Rodionov were also promoted after assuming office, but coming in as three-star generals, they only got four stars.


As Russia's first marshal Sergeyev is assured his place in the history books. But Yeltsin's smile can change to a scowl at any time as he kicks Sergeyev out, like many other favorites before him.


The defense budget crunch is getting out of hand as pay arrears to the military rise again to the summer level of over $2 billion. Massive sell-offs of Russian government shares in several major oil companies are supposed to generate funds to repay arrears by Jan. 1 as Yeltsin has promised. But financial world market instability has flouted the auction plan.


After such an outrageous over-promotion, Sergeyev is more unpopular with the troops than Grachev and Rodionov ever were. Yeltsin made him "marshal in charge of the army," and with it, fully responsible for any foul-ups. The president may be seeking out the next scapegoat already.





Pavel Felgenhauer is Segodnya's defense and national security affairs editor.