Russia's military reform plan falters
As the Russian state's concerns grow over the political risks to the regime presented by the current economic crisis, President Dmitry Medvedev has assured the military that an ambitious reform and modernization plan will be implemented and given a key monitoring role to its main security organ.
Medvedev on February 23 re-affirmed the government's commitment to a plan that would radically reform Russia's army and command structure, claiming that funds will be be available for new weapons programs and improved social conditions for the armed forces despite the global downturn.
"The army and the navy should be up to the level of today's threats. They should be compact, mobile and technically equipped. Despite all the difficulties of the current period, we shall do all that is needed to ensure this," he said while addressing the military to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day on February 23.
His pledge came as opposition to the reform programs is growing amongst Russia's officers corps, which fears it may cost thousands of them their positions.
Plans to reform the Russian military's structure and re-arm it with new weapons were first announced by Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov in October 2008.
Russia's top military commander, First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff General Nikolay Makarov said in November 2008 that the current command structure - inherited from the Soviet era - was "cumbersome and ineffective".
On February 19, Medvedev told tank divisions in Chita, eastern Siberia, that Russia plans to increase cooperation with its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) - Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan - and to hold joint military exercises in the near future. Moscow views this as significant in light of plans recently announced to form a CSTO rapid-reaction force.
Medvedev also highlighted Russia's need to develop "efficient cooperation" with the armed forces of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
In Chito, he invited the military district's commanders to discuss urgent tasks and the modernization of the military as a whole. He told them that while Russia had gone through a very difficult period in the 1990s, that the achievements of more recent years would not be lost. "The situation is not easy now either, especially in the conditions of the economic crisis," he said.
But Medvedev's assurances, and announcement of plans for joint exercises and military cooperation, mask the faltering nature of the domestic military modernization program.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plans is the planned downsizing of the officer corps, with reductions of up to 200,000 scheduled for the period between 2009 and 2012.
Sensitivity over the reductions is linked to the potential of some officers presenting political problems for the government after their removal from service, and some officers have already reportedly made contact with opposition groups. There is also a high level of uncertainty over how the cuts will be managed.
On February 17, seemingly in an effort to allay pressure on Serdyukov over the unpopular reforms, Makarov provided guarantees that there will be no dismissals of officers in 2009-2010. "Only those who are being discharged due to long service are subject to the reduction, and 40,000-45,000 unfilled posts," will be affected, according to Makarov.
At some point Russia's Ministry of Defense will need to form a committee to decide which officers will be discharged. The process has the potential to create new sources of corruption, as officers may exploit links with other power structures to remain in their positions. For the time being, procrastination is the most politically expedient course.
Crime and corruption
Meanwhile, so-called "officer crime" is on the increase, according to Russia's chief military prosecutor, Sergei Fridinsky. One in four crimes involving the armed forces and other security departments in Russia last year were committed by officers, causing over 2 billion rubles ($55.8 million) in losses, he said on February 25.
Sergey Devyatov, the head of the military investigations directorate at the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office in the Volga-Urals Military District, said on February 18 that 75% of all crime committed by officers stems from corruption, mostly committed by staff from enlistment offices assisting draft dodgers. Three members of draft boards are currently under investigation for allegations they helped 198 conscripts evade military service.
Procurement fraud has also cost the Volga-Urals Military District millions of rubles, with contracted soldiers often deserting their units to escape salary extortion, according to Devyatov. There are several recorded cases of contracted personnel extorting money from each other, or officers extorting from contract servicemen, as well as conscripts engaging in the practice.
Nonetheless, the timing of the release of the officer crime statistics does seem calculated to reduce the level of outcry within the armed forces over Serdyukov's unpopular reform plans.
Alongside the rising resentment to the reform plans in the officers corps, plans to improve the housing conditions for servicemen have also run into trouble. The purchase of 16,000 apartments for active and retired servicemen, hoped to tackle acute accommodation shortages for officers and stimulate the beleaguered housing construction market, was due to be completed by the end of 2008 at a cost of 32 billion rubles. To date, however, only around 3,000 apartments have been purchased.
The state and the construction companies will need to work harder if the government wants to prevent this issue from emerging as another factor delaying military reform.
New role for Russian intelligence
There are also clear signs of anxiety over the economic conditions facing the Russian state as a result of the economic crisis, and its Federal Security Service (Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti - the FSB) has now been assigned a central role in combating corruption in this context.
Medvedev announced in January that the FSB will now join the Emergencies Ministry, the Prosecutor's Office, and United Russia - the major political party in the Russian Federation - for on-going efforts to monitor state spending and pre-empt threats to national security caused by the crisis.
On January 29, Medvedev outlined the new task for the FSB during an expanded session of the FSB which, in addition to the president, was attended by presidential administration head Sergey Naryshkin, Prosecutor-General Yuriy Chayka, Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev, Deputy Prime Ministers Sergey Ivanov and Igor Sechin, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovlov, and Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergey Lebedev.
Medvedev justified the decision based on the potential for corruption coupled with the financial crisis to cripple the country's economy. "The situation in the world is difficult now. Every measure is being taken by us to support the banking, industrial, and construction sectors. The money needs to reach consumers and it needs to be spent effectively," Medvedev said.
The FSB will now oversee funds allocated to the real estate and banking sectors and closely follow spending within the defense industries. It is unclear how the FSB will monitor the expenditure of state funds, but the economic crisis has inadvertently, and greatly, extended its jurisdiction.
At the Emergencies Ministry additional rapid-reaction forces have been formed and assigned anti-crisis tasks. Officially, the forces are on standby to conduct search-and-rescue operations in conflict zones. However, given the fear of possible social unrest caused by rising unemployment and the impact of the financial crisis, these rapid-reaction forces may be earmarked for preventing or neutralizing strikes and political rallies.
United Russia has been tasked with monitoring signs of rising anti-government sentiment within industry and is reportedly forming a "white collar trade union" to offset this risk.
In short, all the signs are that the Russian state is privately very concerned about the political risks to the regime presented by the present economic crisis. In this context the plans to reform and modernize the armed forces are being slightly adjusted, not just in terms of time scale, but also in the prominence given to the officials having to promote this agenda.
Among the powerful ministries and key government officials the main concern is how to handle the integration of 200,000 officers into civilian life after the cuts are complete. The financial crisis has compelled the authorities to draw back from the brink, and handle this much more circumspectly.
Housing provision targets remain a hurdle to modernization plans. Improved social conditions ranging from housing to pay hikes will be needed if the main goal of transferring the army to permanent readiness is to be reached.
But at the moment the organs of power are concentrating not on implementing the modernization of Russia's armed forces, but on plans to control or minimize the social effects of the financial crisis which may pose a threat to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's construction of a "managed democracy".
Roger N McDermott is an honorary senior fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) specializing in defense and security issues in Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.