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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hope Glimmers for Reform

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President Vladimir Putin has ousted his defense minister, Igor Sergeyev, and replaced him with Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov. For more than half a year, Sergeyev has been a lame-duck minister, partially isolated from real decision making and openly scorned by many of his staff. His ouster may indeed lead to serious military reform being implemented here at last.

For more than two years, it has been an open secret that Sergeyev and his No.2 in the military hierarchy ЧChief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin Ч have been locked in a bitter personal conflict. Most of the time, the two were barely on speaking terms, but last summer the fray became public when Kvashnin presented a plan to drastically reduce Russia's strategic nuclear rocket forces and shift expenditures from nuclear to conventional forces. Kvashnin also proposed that ultimately the downsized strategic rocket forces should be eliminated as a separate branch and made a division of the air force.

Sergeyev, a professional strategic rocket force officer, saw this as a personal challenge and lost his temper in public. Sergeyev accused Kvashnin of "criminal stupidity" and of attempting "to harm Russia's national interests." But in the end the Kremlin supported Kvashnin and adopted a reform plan that would downgrade the strategic forces.

Last fall Kvashnin, supported by many influential generals, put forward a plan to split the present military hierarchy, creating a civilian defense ministry that would handle procurement and logistics, while a purely military general staff would command the troops. Putin in turn announced that Russia should have a civilian defense minister and, at the same time, Ivanov (a two-star KGB general) was suddenly retired from active military service. It was obvious that Putin was facilitating Ivanov's move to succeed Sergeyev. Sergeyev's days were numbered.

Alexei Arbatov Ч deputy chairman of the Duma defense committee Ч told me last week that "at present there are two totally different defense doctrines being implemented by the Defense Ministry at the same time." The one championed by Kvashnin emphasizes the conventional forces as a defense against outside threats. The other, pushed by Sergeyev, urges a return to a traditional Cold War nuclear deterrence posture. If Sergeyev and Kvashnin both stayed, they would have continued to pull the military in different directions, creating havoc and internal strife and forfeiting any possibility of meaningful reform.

Now the situation has changed: Ivanov is a close Putin loyalist. But he is also the most powerful political figure to occupy the post of defense minister since Dmitry Ustinov Ч a Politburo member and No.3 in the Communist Party hierarchy in the 1970s.

Ivanov can make decisions and can make things happen. He can implement the reforms the military badly needs and actually create a smaller, more capable, more professional army. Ivanov, fully supported by the Kremlin, can bypass Russia's corrupt and ineffective bureaucracy. He can suppress dissent within among the generals. But will this opportunity for meaningful reform translate itself into real action or, as so often happens in Russia, will we never move beyond encouraging sounding words?

During his first year as president, Putin has often promoted himself as a champion of democracy, free markets and freedom of the press, but his actual record is not as unambiguous as his speeches. Putin has announced that "Russia should be demilitarized." And, indeed, it should. The near-total militarization of the economy, society and government created during the Cold War has been the main stumbling block to market reforms in Russia.

But will Putin really dismantle the nuclear and conventional arsenals and the defense industries that still give Russia the semblance of a military superpower, but prevent it from becoming a normal modern state? Putin has said he wants demilitarization. But he has also stated many times that he wants to restore Russia's imperial grandeur and its armed forces. It is simply not possible to pursue both these goals simultaneously. But which is Putin's real aim and which is mere propaganda? We will know soon.

In any event, seeing Sergeyev and Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov ousted is an excellent thing in itself. It would have been even better if Kvashnin and several other incompetent generals also were ousted together with Sergeyev. If the Kremlin is serious about reform, they should be gone soon.

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