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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Scourge of Militarism

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Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev is a lame duck. For almost a year now, he has been removed from any serious national security decision-making. Rumors of SergeyevТs impending ouster have been swirling. However, Sergeyev is still in office because the Kremlin has not yet decided on a successor. As long as President Vladimir Putin remains undecided, Sergeyev stays as a caretaker.

Part of the problem is that this decision involves not just naming a new defense minister, but also defining some serious changes in the organization of the ministry and the overall military command structure. Although Putin has already publicly endorsed the idea of appointing a civilian defense minister, it remains unclear what powers such a figure would have and whether he would have any operational control over the armed forces.

The General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (which today is part of the Defense Ministry and, formally at least, under SergeyevТs command) has put forward a reform plan that would make it fully independent. The Russian General Staff was modeled after the German Imperial General Staff at the time of World War I. This structure not only fully controlled all military operations, but in fact was GermanyТs real government. Today RussiaТs generals want to form a "civilian" Defense Ministry that will only supply the military with men and arms, while the armed services themselves would be under the operational command of the General Staff, which in turn would report directly to the president as commander-in-chief.

For all practical purposes, the General Staff has already emancipated itself from most controls and is already virtually independent. Last year Putin made the present chief of the General Staff Ч General Anatoly Kvashnin Ч a full member of the Security Council. Putin has also given Kvashnin the right of direct access to the Kremlin, bypassing the defense minister.

In recent years, the increasingly independent Kvashnin has on several occasions imposed on the country decisions that have greatly damaged our national interests. In June 1999, he bypassed Sergeyev and Ч after getting a nod from President Boris Yeltsin Ч marched a column of paratroopers through Serbia into the Kosovar capital Pristina to steal a march on Western peacekeepers.

At the time, this move was very popular in Russia, and many believed that the West had been snubbed and Russian influence in the Balkans enhanced. Today it is obvious that KvashninТs bravado only heightened Western suspicions and did not bring Russia any advantage. At present Russian influence in the Balkans and throughout the former Yugoslavia is virtually zero. Moscow spends millions of dollars keeping thousands of peacekeepers in Kosovo and Bosnia for no good reason. Russian soldiers did not prevent the displacement of Serbs and Gypsies from Kosovo, and even the practical experience of serving alongside NATO troops is almost fully lost as contract peacekeepers leave the ranks as soon as they return home.

The same year the war in the Balkans ended, Russian troops moved into Chechnya. In October 1999, Yeltsin and Putin (then the prime minister) approved changes in the overall plan of operation that sent Russian units across the Terek River into southern Chechnya to "wipe out the terrorists." Today many Russian generals and politicians believe that this change of plan was a major disaster that has led to the present bloody and costly stalemate. The initiative to go for immediate full victory in Chechnya that backfired so painfully came again from Kvashnin and his generals. Putin and Yeltsin only approved it, most likely not fully understanding what they were doing.

The General Staff, like its German predecessor, has been the center of aggressive militarism for decades. During the Cold War, it accelerated the arms race by grossly overestimating Western military capabilities. In the end that arms race killed the Soviet Union.

Nowadays the same General Staff is spreading its influence into the Russian government. Last week state television reported that Kvashnin was taking part in an important meeting to select a new Chechen prime minister. Such activities are a far cry from "operational control of the military." Instead of enhancing civilian control over the military, the appointment of a "civilian" defense minister may only stimulate RussiaТs traditional scourge of extreme militarism.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent, Moscow-based defense analyst.