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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Why Yeltsin Likes Sergeyev




It will be one year this month since Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev assumed office after President Boris Yeltsin suddenly ousted his predecessor, Igor Rodionov. But if Rodionov, who served as defense minister less than a year, was clearly in limbo long before he was actually ousted, Sergeyev's position seems secure.


Sergeyev survived the recent government reshuffle and has also been allowed to continue active military service after reaching the age of 60. Rodionov was forced to resign and continue as a "civilian" defense minister. This made him a laughingstock in the army, undermined his position and helped Yeltsin in booting him out later.


Unlike Rodionov, Sergeyev does not "whine" that military reform cannot possibly happen without financial sacrifice. Instead, he tells the president and the country that military reform is on track, and, despite money problems, that a lot has been done. The air force and air defense forces, for example, have been merged and the role of military districts has been enhanced.


Sergeyev is not as unpopular with the press and public as Pavel Grachev was. He does not make belligerent public statements, as did the recently fired Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov. Sergeyev also does not have any visible political ambitions. So its not at all surprising that Yeltsin likes him and keeps him.


Of course, Yeltsin does not know anything about the military and is genuinely uninterested in real army problems. The Russian public and the political elite also have many other things to worry about. Only the renegade General Lev Rokhlin, chairman of the State Duma's Defense Committee (and a defector from the Our Home Is Russia faction) is constantly repeating that the "armed forces have broken up and the situation in the army is very serious."


But Rokhlin has been saying that for a long time and nothing has happened -- there have been no military rebellions or officers demonstrating in force on the streets against the government. Today, Rokhlin is seen by many as just another one of those Duma opposition buffoons.


Only small trifles now cloud the rosy picture and arouse public concern: the ever growing number of servicemen that kill one another in barracks and the apparent ease with which Chechen fighters (or some other unidentified armed men) attack Russian army garrisons and military convoys in the Caucasus, kill even high-ranking generals and get away scot-free.


The barracks killings and killings in the Caucasus seem to be unconnected. But in reality they are linked. The Russian army is in deep trouble, and even its best units have lost all battle readiness.


Recently Sergeyev said "there were virtually no units that were combat ready" in 1997. But now new combat-ready units are being created. Last month the Defense Ministry showed journalists one of these new "battle-ready" units -- the third motor-rifle division. The Defense Ministry says up to a dozen such "ever-ready" units will be based all over Russia to avert immediately any threat or enemy. The third division is drilling its servicemen more often than any other unit in the Moscow military district, where there is virtually no training happening at all. But does some training make this division really battle-ready?


In this new, special division, 70 percent of all the officers are fresh civilian university graduates known as dvukhgodichniki, so-called because they are mustered in for a two-year service. All platoon commandeers and some of the company staffers are conscript-lieutenants who lack any serious military command experience. And virtually all the sergeants in this "battle-ready" division are conscripts of the same age as the privates.


So the third division can never become truly "battle-ready." It can, at best, be forced into the kind of mass attack that was typical of Soviet forces during World War II. But if such an attack breaks up, the unit disintegrates, because ill-trained conscript-lieutenants cannot possibly control their men in action competently on their own. This is precisely what happened with the Russian troops who attacked Grozny in January 1995. Since so many officers are today dvukhgodichniki, they also cannot control their men in peacetime and killings in barracks are on the increase.


The Russian army is in shambles. It cannot even defend its generals from small groups of determined fighters. But it is also hardly capable of organizing an effective coup. So Yeltsin has one more reason to like Sergeyev.


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