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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Civilian Control Salesman

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Sergei Ivanov's departure as defense minister might come as good news to many. Ivanov was never shy about admitting his shortcomings in public.

In front of television cameras Ivanov once told President Vladimir Putin that Russia's nuclear submarines were patrolling the oceans carrying their warheads, despite the fact that they had been out of service for 15 years. He was forever getting confused about the number of soldiers in the military that were supposed to be switched to contract service.

More important, Ivanov declared that army reforms had been completed before they had even begun. Despite an almost ideal combination of Russian foreign policy and economic conditions, he was unable to bring any real reforms to the army.

Put plainly, there's no reason to bemoan Ivanov's departure. For many, it was even better that former Federal Tax Service chief Anatoly Serdyukov was named to replace him. It had been a bit of a stretch to say that Ivanov's appointment had put the military under civilian control, considering that he was a general in the Federal Security Service.

With Serdyukov, a former furniture store director, the army would now seem to be under civilian control.

Not so fast. The current system for managing the armed forces is a distortion of civilian control, and Serdyukov's appointment is an excellent illustration. Only Putin knows for sure why he chose. The rest of us remain in the dark as to how he plans to manage the Defense Ministry -- how he plans to spend almost one quarter of the national budget. These are the kind of questions that appointees have to answer at parliamentary confirmation hearings. As nothing of the sort is planned, we will just have to keep guessing.

Making matters worse, even if there was something like this system of oversight in place, it still wouldn't help much in trying to manage today's military industrial complex.

The problem is that there has never been a division between military and political aspects in the armed forces. So, absent of political oversight civil service expertise, any defense minister is dependent on the opinions of the generals, who often have their own set of interests.

The interesting fact here is that Ivanov was named defense minister to break through these interests after the 2001 Kursk submarine tragedy, which seemed to convince Putin that he couldn't get the straight facts from the military. But as often happens, Ivanov "went native" and ended up as the spokesman for the interests of the generals. Instead of controlling the military, he became its hostage.

This put both him and Putin in awkward political positions on a number of occasions. One example was Putin's recent statement that if Poland deployed a U.S.-made missile-defense system, it would represent a future threat to Russia's nuclear arsenal. A quick glance at a map is enough to see the error. The missiles in European Russia are based near Saratov and in the Ivanovo region. Any missiles targeted at the United States would follow the shortest possible route, meaning over the North Pole. The systems in Poland would not be able to hit them.

Just as absurd are claims about a new wonder missile that could elude any missile-defense system. This claim is based on the fact that, upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, the rocket begins to maneuver. This, of course, won't be much help if the U.S. system is designed to destroy the rockets while still in space.

I suspect that these miracle warheads were developed in the mid-1980s to counter the defenses of an entirely different U.S. missile-defense system -- the one proposed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan that earned the nickname "Star Wars." It wouldn't have been too tough for the military leadership to polish the system up a bit and pass it off as something entirely new.

The problem is that there is no external oversight body to keep an eye on the military and try to ensure that it doesn't simply pull the wool over everyone's eyes. It's not in the interest of anyone involved to blow the whistle if something is wrong, so the money is spent on the system without any closer examination.

But Putin appears to still believe that civilian control of the military is achievable. A former furniture store director appears to be the answer.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.