Volume III, Number 2 (October 2014)


Volume III, No 2                                                                                            October 9, 2014

Putin’s Civil-Military Cipher

By Susan J. Cavan

On October 10, 2008, then Prime Minister Putin called Russian television and print reporters out to his Novo-Ogaryovo dacha late in the evening. He kept them waiting until after midnight, when they were ushered into a room where the former president sat stroking a tiger cub—a rare Ussuri tiger cub—that he had been given days earlier as a birthday present. Videos showed bleary-eyed reporters giggling and trying to take in the scene Putin had set for them; their reports later focused on Putin and his “cuddly cub,” but the story also got across another message. (1) Five months after Dmitri Medvedev had been inaugurated as president of Russia, Putin was signaling that he retained the real authority in Russia’s leadership. Rousting journalists from Moscow late at night to wait upon the pleasure of the prime minister for a bit of Putin birthday fluff sent a strong signal about just who was in charge to anyone familiar with old-school Sovietology. Years of analysis of the Medvedev-Putin tandem rule provided no clearer image of the power relationship between the two, regardless of the castling maneuver.

Putin understands the power of Kremlin signaling and its importance in communicating among the elite. In sharp contrast to his predecessor for example, Putin’s personnel maneuvers aren’t a reflection of a desire to shake things up or inject fresh blood into his administration. Putin’s moves telegraph the relative importance of the individual or organization at the center of the changes and, perhaps, his concerns. Leadership changes in the Russian military have been particularly transparent indications of Putin’s intentions. Early in his first presidential term, Putin selected his trusted associate FSB Colonel General Sergei Ivanov to head up the Defense Ministry. Ivanov seems to have been tasked with evaluating the state of the military and its leadership. He was likely entrusted to provide an early warning for overly independent activity on the part of military, and particularly General Staff officers. Putin had experience with General Staff Chief Anatoli Kvashnin in the Kosovo/Pristina Airport maneuver and may have been wary of the General’s penchant for independent action. That Putin was apprehensive about the military was clear not only from his personnel choices but also from a decree issued in February 2000, which mandated the deployment of FSB teams into Russian military units. (2) There is little evidence that this decree was implemented at the time (perhaps another cause for concern), but Ivanov’s presence in the Defense Ministry ensured high-profile attention and vigilance.

Putin’s decision to replace Sergei Ivanov with Anatoli Serdyukov signaled the onset of military reform and had the added benefit of emphasizing Putin’s confidence in his new prime minister (later his first deputy prime minister), Serdyukov’s father-in-law, Viktor Zubkov. These reforms were timed to coincide with the Medvedev presidency and were approved by Medvedev in September 2008. The main thrust of the reforms focused on reductions in numbers of personnel, units, and even military academies. “Our army is today like an egg,” Serdyukov commented, “swollen in the middle.” (3)  When Putin resumed the presidency in 2012, Serdyukov found himself caught in an embarrassing corruption sting, involving Oboronservis and the sale of military property. (4) Putin’s new Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, was a steadfast ally during Putin’s first presidential election and has remained a close associate. Shoigu was awarded the military rank of General in 2003, but he seems to have few connections to the armed forces and likely has no actual constituency among the Russian military services or among the officer corps. Shoigu’s appointment apparently signaled an end to the Serdyukov reforms (there is some debate on that point), but not to anti-corruption measures. (5) These personnel moves in the Defense Ministry, and more so at the General Staff and GRU, raise some questions about civil-military relations in Putin’s Russia.

Changes in the General Staff and to the leadership of military intelligence during Putin’s presidencies have demonstrated initial caution in his approach, followed by something remarkably like contempt. General Kvashnin retained his post until 2004, when it seems his contentious relationship with Sergei Ivanov coupled with a move by Putin to subordinate the General Staff to the Defense Ministry precipitated his retirement from service; Kvashnin next was appointed Putin’s representative to the Siberian Federal District. It is unlikely that the message inherent in this form of exile was lost on any of Kvashnin’s erstwhile supporters. Kvashnin was replaced with his deputy, Colonel General Yuri Baluyevsky. Replacing Kvashnin with his deputy signaled both individual and institutional changes: the removal of a troublesome general and the downgrading of the General Staff itself. Baluyevsky was replaced in 2008 by Army General Nikolai Makarov, who joined Serdyukov’s team to undertake reforms. The Serdyukov reforms included a “radical personnel renovation” in both the Defense Ministry and General Staff. One analyst noted that it “is alarming that top-ranking vacancies in the Defense Ministry and General Staff are filled with the people who have never worked there before.” (6) In 2012, when Serdyukov was dismissed as Minister of Defense, General Makarov also was dismissed from his post and appointed as an adviser to the new Defense Minister Shoigu. (7) Makarov was replaced in November 2012 by his deputy, General Valeri Gerasimov, who was simultaneously named First Deputy Defense Minister. In December 2012, the Duma passed legislation introduced by Putin (Bill No. 143899-6 on improvement of the system of state and military governance in peacetime and in wartime) that was seen to increase the “status of the General Staff because henceforth its functions will be determined not by the Defense Minister but by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief.” (8) Despite Putin’s popularity, it seems unlikely that officers of the General Staff feel honored to answer to an FSB Colonel, rather than keep Genshtab business within the military hierarchy.

Putin’s signals regarding GRU (Glavnoye razvedivatel’noye upravleniye)—Russia’s military intelligence agency—have been few but fairly transparent. Traditionally, GRU operated under the auspices of the General Staff and Ministry of Defense, rather than having direct interaction with the political leadership. (9) This, of course was a blurred line during the Soviet period. In Yeltsin’s administration, while many of the security services were brought under direct presidential administration, GRU remained under the control of the General Staff. In April 2009, the long-serving head of GRU, Valentin Korabelnikov resigned/was dismissed. According to reports at the time, Korabelnikov had submitted his resignation repeatedly in connection with military reform. On this occasion, Korabelnikov offered his “retirement in protest at the ongoing disbandment and re-subordination of elite GRU divisions and also some steps to streamline the GRU structure.” (10) Korabelnikov was replaced by his first deputy, Colonel General Anatoli Shlyakhturov. Shlyakhturov proved somewhat more quiescent vis a vis reform schemes. He also was apparently in rather poor health and left office on extended medical leave before his retirement was accepted by President Medvedev in December 2011, leaving GRU newly “reformed” and leaderless. Some reports suggest that Shlyakhturov was dismissed “after completing a sweeping staff purge that his predecessor refused to conduct.” (11) The GRU reforms included Shlyakhturov’s having “fired some 1,000 staff members, cut the number of agency divisions from eight to five and implemented other classified personnel reforms.” (12)

In December 2011, Major General Igor Sergun took over as Chief of GRU from Shlyakhturov. Some analysts see this as a run of the mill, deputy takes over from chief transition, while some note that GRU had never before been headed by such a junior officer. (13) In either event, the reforms that the political leadership wanted to see completed were apparently accomplished. As President Medvedev noted in an address at GRU headquarters in January 2012, “, we have reorganised the entire system of military intelligence. These changes have already been made.” (14) It is unclear whether reforms touched GRU’s spetsnaz units, which were critical in Russia’s Ukraine campaign. (15) If they continue to be administratively part of GRU, then it is likely that Putin considers military intelligence to be sufficiently responsive to his political control.

Putin’s current relationship with the Russian military may have benefitted from the “new patriotism” generated by the annexation of Crimea, but there is little evidence of this reflected in Putin’s personnel decisions. The announcement in September of the re-animation of the State Military Industrial Commission under direct presidential purview (and with the provocative Dmitri Rogozin as its deputy chairman) suggests an effort to alleviate concerns that western sanctions would have an overly deleterious effect on military supplies. The commission previously was under government control. (16) Putin, in discussing the rearmament program to be supervised by the commission declared that “the matter concerns sophisticated weapons that will become a nasty surprise for our partners.” Rogozin noted that the focus would be on upgrades to the resources of the Strategic Rocket Forces. The Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Techniques, Ruslan Pukhov, concluded that “it must have finally occurred to the power-that-be that a powerful nuclear arsenal is the only guarantee of our sovereignty.”   (17) Well, that message is clear enough.


There also have been significant changes developing in the leadership of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where Putin’s longtime bodyguard and Chief of his security service, Lt. General Viktor Zolotov, was appointed First Deputy Interior Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Interior Ministry forces in May. (18)   His appointment as a deputy Interior Minister last year brought speculation over an impending shake up in the Interior Ministry as Zolotov was brought inside and given some time to get “up to speed.” (19) While speculation has centered on the possibility that the Interior Forces will be transformed into a sort of “national guard,” it seems that a former bodyguard’s specialty would be personal protection. Given his fixation on public political protests and their resounding consequences, perhaps Putin is inadvertently signaling that he senses a need for a much larger contingent—with a much broader writ—of personal and political presidential protection.

There are those who view the long, rolling “reform” of GRU and military structures as another form of insurance policy for Putin. To these minds, “Putin doesn’t fear crowds in the streets. Putin fears the ones who – having at their disposal a sufficient arsenal and experience – can make use of the massive protests to overthrow him. … This power is the Main Military Directorate of the General Staff which is the military intelligence – GRU.” (20)

There are signs to be read in Putin’s military and security moves, but the whole message is yet unclear. Except, perhaps, for a certain unease in the Kremlin.


Source Notes:

1) “Russia’s Multipolar Disorder,” By Susan J. Cavan; The ISCIP Analyst, An Analytical Review, Volume XV, Number 5, 20 November 2008 and Associated Press video uploaded to YouTube 10 October 2008, via http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCXoJq5kW7s.

2) Statute on RF Federal Security Entities in the Troops, approved by Edict (No. 318) of Acting President V. Putin, 7 February 2000; Moscow Rossiyskaya Gazeta in Russian 12 Feb 00; FBIS-SOV-2000-0220.

3) “A Profound Change in the Russian Military will be Happening as the Power of the General Staff is Undermined,” by Pavel Felgenhauer, Perspective, April 2009, Volume XIX, No. 1, via http://www.bu.edu/iscip/vol19/felgenhauer1.html.

4) The Serdyukov Affair and Its Wider Implications,” By Stephen Blank, Eurasia Analyst, 112 December 2012, Vol. 1, No. 5, via http://eurasiaanalyst.org/eurasia-analyst/archives/volume-i-number-5-11-december-12/.

5) ”New Russia defence minister Sergei Shoigu set on charges,” by Alexander Bratersky, Jonathan Earle, The Moscow Times, 10:52AM GMT 28 Nov 2012; Rossiyskaya gazeta, via http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sponsored/rbth/politics/9706169/sergei-shoigu-russia-defence-minister.html. On possible continuation of reforms, see Dmitri Gorenburg, “Impressions from Moscow,” 10 June 2013, via http://russiamil.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/impressions-from-moscow/.

6) “General Staff was beheaded: Anatoly Serdyukov is going to fully renovate the top-ranking personnel of the Defense Ministry of the country,” by WPS Observer 11 July 2008, Nezavisimaya gazeta; Defense and Security, via LexisNexis Academic.

7) RIA-Novosti, 4 March 2012 via http://en.ria.ru/military_news/20130304/179804307/Russian-Ex-Chief-of-Staff-Gets-Defense-Minister-Aide-Job.html)

8) “Supreme Commander-in-Chief puts General Staff under his Personal Control,” by Vladimir Mukhin, Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 17, 2012, p. 1; What the Papers Say Defense and Security 19 December 2012, via LexisNexis Academic.

9) Main Intelligence Directorate, Agentura.ru, via http://www.agentura.ru/english/dossier/gru/.

10) “The chief of Russia’s military intelligence (GRU), Gen. Valentin Korabelnikov,” Russian News Room, 25 April 2009, via http://news.russiannewsroom.com/details.aspx?item=26404.

11) 28 September 2011, “GRU Spymaster to Lose Job, Report Says,” By Alexander Bratersky. The Moscow Times, via http://www.themoscowtimes.com/sitemap/free/2011/9/article/gru-spymaster-to-lose-job-report-says/444434.html.

12) Ibid.

13) “New GRU Chief: Igor Sergun,” by Mark Galeotti, In Moscow’s Shadow blog, via http://inmoscowsshadows.wordpress.com/2011/12/26/new-gru-chief-igor-sergun/. Also, see “Putin’s Secret Weapon,” By Mark Galeotti, 7 July 2014, Foreign Policy, via http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/07/07/putins_secret_weapon_military_intelligence_gru_ukraine.

14) “Visit to Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU) headquarters,” Kremlin official website, 19 January 2012, via http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/3346.

15) See, for example, “Special Purpose Turmoil: The Elite Military Structure that has not been normally created yet is reformed again,” By Irina Kuksenkova, Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 16, 2012, p. 4; What the Papers Say Defense and Security, via LexisNexis Academic. Mark Galeotti notes in his “In Moscow’s Shadows,” blog that “[Gru] has lost the Spetsnaz special forces,” as cited by Brian Whitmore, The Power Vertical, “Resetting the Siloviki,” 21 October 2011.

16) Meeting on drafting the 2016-2025 State Armament Programme, via http://eng.state.kremlin.ru/commission/41/news/22930.

17) “Rogozin will Strengthen Nuclear Shield,” by Oleg Vladykin, 23 September 2014; What the Papers Say, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, No 204, September 23, 2014, p. 1, via LexisNexis Academic.

18) Viktor Zolotov has been appointed First Deputy Interior Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Interior Ministry Forces, 12 May 2014, via http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/7171 and “GUARDIA DEL “PAPA”; Putin is building the last line of defense for himself?” By Andrei Kolesnikov 19 August 2013, Defense and Security; Novaya Gazeta, August 16, 2013, p. 2, via LexisNexis Academic.

19) “Chief of Security Service transferred to high post in Interior Ministry,” By Aleksandr Grigoriyev (Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick), Izvestiya, 3 July 2013; The Interpreter, 9 July 2013, via www.interpretermag.com/viktor-zolotov-appointed-deputy-commander-of-interior-forces/.

20) “GRU and the Military Putsch Scenario,” By Anton Rybczynski, 2012-01-03, Freepl.info, via http://freepl.info/1475-gru-and-military-putsch-scenario.


By Susan J. Cavan


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