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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Caught in the Rumor Mill

Last week Moscow was full of rumors that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is soon to be removed and "promoted" to the position of chief of the presidential administration. It was also rumored that the first deputy defense minister and No. 1 in the uniformed military, General Anatoly Kvashnin, will be Ivanov's replacement.

Moscow's overblown bureaucracy is almost always overflowing with rumors of someone's impending ouster or promotion. According to the Constitution, the State Duma does not appoint ministers, nor does the Federation Council confirm them. Public opinion has no influence whatsoever on who goes up and who goes down. The fate of any high-ranking bureaucrat or minister depends solely on the whim of the president. As a former KGB spy, Vladimir Putin is a secretive person who plays his cards close to his chest. Guessing Putin's next political move is one of the most exciting games in town. Putin is known to meet with many different people offering very diverse advice and recommendations. Then one day he makes a decision that is often entirely unexpected, and commentators scramble to spin their previous opinions and predictions.

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The closed nature of political and personnel decision making in the Kremlin leads to a situation in which rumors take on a life of their own, free of any meaningful connection with what is actually going on either in Putin's head or in his private office.

Several months ago it was rumored that Ivanov would be ousted from the Defense Ministry and would return to being secretary of the Security Council. After hearing this rumor, I told some people in the so-called Moscow elite that it might be more appropriate for Putin to "promote" Ivanov to be the new chief of the presidential administration. It seems now that my careless remark has returned to me in the form of a "substantial rumor," providing me with the subject of this week's column.

In fact, there are today no genuine indications that Ivanov's ouster or promotion is imminent. Of late, Ivanov often has not been singing from the same songsheet as his boss in the Kremlin (for example, on how much to support the United States after Sept. 11), but each time Ivanov has quickly clarified his position. Thus these discrepancies seem to be more a problem of incomplete or untimely briefing (one of the results of the nontransparent decision-making process in the Kremlin) than a true political fray between the defense minister and the president.

Two years ago, Putin gave Ivanov the task of preparing plans to reform the military i.e. the Defense Ministry forces, Interior Ministry forces, border guards and so on. Ivanov got off to a promising start. Not only did he say the right thing publicly about the need to have a smaller, more professional armed force, but he also made some revolutionary public revelations.

For a decade since the demise of the Soviet Union, generals have been announcing ongoing "cuts" in the military. By 1999 it was officially announced that there were 1.2 million servicemen in the armed forces. I knew that this was a bare-faced lie, but could only cite unofficial sources and my own estimates to back up my assertion.

Ivanov officially disclosed for the first time that there were 2.3 million men in active service as of January 2001. When, soon afterward, Putin appointed Ivanov defense minister one might have expected more revelations regarding the miserable state of the overmanned, underfinanced military -- and with these revelations, a start to meaningful reform to reverse the decay.

However, after taking over command of the Defense Ministry, Ivanov stopped releasing "true" figures. Just like most of his recent predecessors, he whines in public that the Defense Ministry does not have enough money, while reform is stagnating. Disgruntled men in uniform believe Ivanov to be a total failure. Kvashnin has recently been actively undermining his boss by announcing publicly that the military is in a "post-critical state" and is swiftly turning into an armed rabble that is stealing weapons, selling them to rogues and so on.

The deepening crisis in the military means that one day Ivanov will have to go. But when will Putin decide that enough is enough and replace Ivanov with another incompetent, such as Kvashnin? Putin may have already decided the date and time, but just try and read it on his poker face.

So, in the meantime, there is only one option, and that is to track the rumors around town.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.