19 May 2004
I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that for the first time in 12 years the government appears poised to push forward with meaningful military reform. The bad news is that this major step forward may result not from strategic planning but from a clash between warring bureaucratic factions.
In late April, just before the country went on holiday for two weeks, the State Duma passed a bill on the structure of the military at a first reading. The bill, introduced by President Vladimir Putin, met with no opposition.
This came as something of a surprise. The draft law is nothing short of revolutionary, after all, as it makes no mention of the General Staff. The current law states that "the defense minister directs the armed forces through the Defense Ministry and the General Staff, which is the operational command body of the armed forces."
Gone from the draft law are the articles stating that in a state of war the General Staff becomes the operational command body not only of the armed forces, but also of the "other forces" attached to the dozen or so militarized government agencies not part of the Defense Ministry.
Should the bill become law, it would entail a radical departure from the Soviet model of military organization. The current situation, in which the General Staff combines both command and military planning functions, is nothing short of dangerous.
History shows that no sooner does the institution charged with planning the conduct of future wars gain command and management powers than it begins to draw the state into exactly the sort of wars it is planning for.
Recent history is full of such examples. Take the decision to send federal troops across the Terek River in 1999. The generals lobbied hard for this advance, and it started the second Chechen war. Beyond this, in its resistance to changes in the draft and its insistence on retaining universal military service, the General Staff today is the ideological and organizational center of opposition to military reform.
Clouds began to gather over the General Staff back in February. At the annual meeting of the Academy of Military Sciences, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov proposed that the General Staff relinquish operational and administrative control of the armed forces. It should instead become a genuine military brain trust and concentrate on strategic planning. Ivanov did not explain why during his three years in charge of the Defense Ministry he has consistently allowed the General Staff to expand its powers.
In September 2003, for example, Putin issued a decree with Ivanov's full approval that put the General Staff in charge of coordinating the actions of all government agencies with troops at their disposal.
Putin and Ivanov are probably fed up with the endless scheming of General Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the General Staff, a man as limited as he is ambitious. It is well known that Kvashnin got the better of his former boss, Marshal Igor Sergeyev. The proposal to reorganize the General Staff could therefore be nothing more than a way to get rid of Kvashnin. After all, the very notion that Kvashnin, who has trouble formulating a coherent thought, would be in charge of the military's brain trust is an affront to common sense.
But if the Kremlin really intends to create an organization capable of analyzing threats to security and devising strategies for meeting those threats, this is another thing entirely. There is reason to believe that such an attempt is doomed to failure, just like the attempt to create select units of professional, volunteer soldiers within a Soviet-style conscript army.
A truly modern General Staff is impossible without officers of a specific kind. Intelligence, military knowledge, experience and suitability to "command culture" are crucial, of course, but another quality is even more important in such an officer: professionalism.
The truly professional officer not only believes that his knowledge and experience give him the right to his own opinion; he is certain that this opinion will be taken into account by his superiors. To produce such officers would require fundamental changes in the current system of military education and service.
Today's officer finds himself in a relationship of almost feudal dependence on his immediate superiors. His entire career is filled with humiliation and servility.
The top jobs in the General Staff are currently held by the people who in 1997 insisted that merging the Strategic Missile Forces with the Space Forces and eliminating the central Ground Forces command were essential steps along the road to military reform. Three years later the same people insisted just as sincerely that military reform meant separating the Space Forces from the Strategic Missile Forces and restoring the central Ground Forces command. Their task, clearly, had nothing to do with long-term planning and everything to do with divining the wishes of their most powerful superiors. Yesterday they maintained that the General Staff should have total operational control of the armed forces. Tomorrow they will be riding the brain trust bandwagon.
Whatever the Kremlin may have in mind, the proposed law now moving through the Duma would radically alter the structure of the armed forces.
Operational functions taken away from the General Staff would have to be transferred to the Defense Ministry. This would mean relocating the agencies in charge of organization, mobilization and intelligence. Otherwise these crucial agencies would be left without a central command. Removing the General Staff from the chain of command would also entail changes in the functions of military districts, which would need to be converted into strategic commands capable of integrating troops from all branches of the armed forces. To do this they would have to give up their mobilization functions.
The process now under way is reminiscent of perestroika. Mikhail Gorbachev set out to modernize one aspect of an outdated system, but in doing so he brought down the entire system. Any attempt to modernize a single aspect of Russia's outdated military structure would likely have the same effect.
We will soon know what the people who drafted the new law on the military have in mind. If their only aim is to get rid of Kvashnin, they will be scared witless by the chaos their actions could unleash and put a stop to the process. But if the bill becomes law, enormous changes in the military are inevitable.