An interview with Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov

Sergei Ivanov has headed the Russian Defense Ministry for five years. In this interview he talks about the changes in the Armed Forces since then, current priorities, and the outlook for the military’s future, including progress on military reforms.

Exactly five years ago, Sergei Ivanov became the first “civilian” to be appointed defense minister. Of the three security and law enforcement chiefs appointed by President Vladimir Putin in 2001 and called the “political ministers” back then, Ivanov is the only one still in office. What’s more, he has even gained status: in late 2005 he was appointed deputy prime minister responsible for state arms procurement. In this interview, Sergei Ivanov tells us how he sees his achievements as defense minister.

I settled into my new job with no particular trauma

Question: What were President Putin’s reasons for offering you the office of defense minister? What were the tasks he set you? Did you have any apprehensions about this appointment?

Sergei Ivanov: I wasn’t afraid. I did experience some inner qualms, of course – but it wasn’t the kind of uncertainty one feels when being appointed into an unfamiliar organization. And here’s why. Firstly, as head of the Security Council I did a lot of work with the Armed Forces, since it was absolutely clear they needed modernization. I deliberately avoid the term “reforms,” since it has rather negative connotations for normal, ordinary people who lived through the 1990s, and mentioning that word is politically damaging. So it’s modernization, not reforms. Secondly, I’m a colonel-general in the reserves, after all, having served 25 within the state’s military organization – and the specific operations of any organization – whether the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, or any of the special services – is based on a single center of command, orders, and a strict subordination hierarchy. Thus, I had no psychological difficulties in getting accustomed to the new system.

Question: I don’t know how you experienced it, but when I first saw you visiting a military unit, I got the impression that officers were deliberately talking over your head.

Sergei Ivanov: Yes. At first, that’s probably what happened. But I’d go further: there are also certain advantages to being a “civilian.” Firstly, I have no established ties, like any military officer would have. For example, let’s say you have to serve in the Armed Forces for at least 40 years to rise to the office of defense minister. During that time, you establish a chain of relationships. If you started out in the Air Force, you give your former Air Force colleagues special treatment. If you’re from the Strategic Missile Forces, they get special treatment. But I – and everyone acknowledges this – do not and cannot show that kind of favoritism to any arm or branch of the Armed Forces. I treat everyone objectively. I’m not biased. And I consider this a great advantage. The disadvantages affected the military more than myself. I agree on that point. At first, they simply couldn’t see the defense minister as a civilian. But that stage didn’t last long – a year or 18 months. Secondly, if we’re a civilized, democratic state, it’s normal to have a civilian as defense minister. So we’ve already overcome a kind of psychological barrier, so to speak, and even forgotten that it ever existed.

Thus, on the whole, I was aware of what was happening at Defense Ministry headquarters on Arbat Square as well as in the troops. I settled into my new job with no particular trauma or any major problems.

The state spends exactly as much as it can afford on defense

Question: Your appointment as defense minister in 2001 was viewed by many experts as the start of a radical solution to the problem of military reforms. As an outsider, you weren’t connected to the military structure. But there was no surge in reforms. These days, liberals often blame you for the fact that military reforms aren’t making rapid and obvious progress. Given the size of the Stabilization Fund, they say that military reforms could be pursued more resolutely and on a larger scale. For example, conscription could be abolished entirely, with all soldiers serving under contract; the troops could be re-equipped with modern arms and military hardware; officer salaries could be raised. And housing could finally be provided for all military personnel in need of it. Why isn’t all this happening?

Sergei Ivanov: I’m generally opposed to any radical or hasty moves. In my view, before taking a single step, you need to choose the right direction and watch your step, so you don’t end up falling over and being unable to move at all. In military development, that’s why I support gradual, steady progress toward a set goal, avoiding any drastic moves or fluctuations as much as possible.

But I do understand, of course, that in any undertaking, everyone – both those involved and outside observers – wants to see some evident results as soon as possible. However, the difference between these two categories of people is that the former do all they can to turn the objective into reality, while the latter can only give advice, without being accountable at all. What’s more, some of the more “progressive” advisors are incapable of anything other than demagoguery. When the federal targeted program for transition to contract service in certain military units was being discussed, I remember some right-wing leaders arguing that it would be enough to pay the contract personnel $100-200, and “nothing else would need to be done.” In general, the problem of the so-called right wing is that they don’t know how the state’s military organization really works, and they don’t want to know.

And now let’s look at additional funding for the Armed Forces. Naturally, I’m all in favor of it. Given present-day economic realities, however, the state is spending exactly as much as it can afford on defense. And the Stabilization Fund’s main purpose is to prevent a sizeable influx of petrodollars from leading to uncontrolled inflation, which would have an extremely negative impact on the national economy. Without steady economic growth, there can be no progressive growth of the military budget.

Question: Your mission is really an unenviable one, for a politician. Reforming the state’s military organization is a process that’s not only complicated, but contradictory as well. Some politicians see you as a potential successor to President Putin, but the fact that you have to deal with some fairly unpopular matters – revising the number of deferments from military service, cutting military cadet faculties – might be described as political suicide.

Sergei Ivanov: First of all, my work as defense minister is aimed at reinforcing the defense capabilities of our state, not self-promotion in the lead-up to the presidential election of 2008. That’s why I always focus on the utility of the tasks entrusted to me, rather than aiming to please or appeal to anyone.

As for the unpopularity of some Defense Ministry initiatives – such as revising the number of conscription deferments and grounds for exemption, and cutting the number of military cadet faculties – it should be understood that we have made an informed decision to do this. For a number of objective and subjective reasons, the Defense Ministry has been experiencing serious difficulties in calling up civilians for military service. Of the total number of conscription-age citizens on military lists, only 9.1% were conscripted in 2005 (compared to 27% in 1994).

All the other potential conscripts were exempted from military service on lawful grounds, or had the right to deferments from conscription. This reminds me of “A Dog’s Heart,” when Sharikov said: “I’ll be on the list, but I won’t serve.” Little has changed since then. We’ve promised the public to halve the duration of conscription service to 12 months from January 1, 2008, and to stop sending conscripts to hot-spots (for that purpose we have permanent combat readiness units, made up of contract personnel). So having said that, we also need to make it clear that the transition to one-year service terms will make it necessary to conscript twice as many people.

We support reducing the number of grounds for exemption from military service and conscription deferments. At present there are 25 of them, and they can be divided into four basic groups: deferments for education, social reasons, employment reasons, and medical grounds. Some of the social deferments will be retained. All of the deferments for health reasons will be retained. I’d go even further: I support tightening health requirements for conscripts. As for deferments for employment reasons, I think there should be almost none of those – and the first steps toward abolishing them are already being taken.

However, there won’t be any sweeping abolition of grounds for exemption from military service or conscription deferments. I’d like to point out that we’re only planning to abolish or change nine out of 25 grounds and deferments.

Public attention is fixed on what happens behind the fences of military towns and the walls of barracks

Question: There’s an odd change taking place in public opinion. The military used to be accused of being “unable to fight a war” – lackin modern arms and military hardware. That was considered the chief sign that reforms weren’t happening. Now all this is being addressed, more or less, but problems with law and order have arisen. And now people are saying that all the efforts of previous years have been in vain if dedovshchina (abuse of new conscripts by older soldiers) is flourishing in the barracks and commanding officers have an interest in covering it up. Ordinary citizens still think everything remains unchanged in the military: no reforms are happening.

Sergei Ivanov: You’re right to point out that the criteria for military reforms used to be readily-apparent things like the state of combat training and the degree to which troops were provided with arms and military hardware. Everyone could see that exercises weren’t being organized, ships were sitting in port, fuel shortages kept planes grounded, and all new hardware was being exported. But the situation has changed fundamentally in recent years, and now public attention is fixed on what happens behind the fences of military towns and the walls of barracks. This is the next stage, so to speak.

I’d like to point out that despite isolated incidents of breaking regulations and military discipline, the Armed Forces are still the most law-abiding institution in our society. Thus, the average crime rate nationwide is 246 crimes per 10,000 people, but in the Armed Forces that figure is 167. And the latency percentage in the military is an order of magnitude lower than in civilian society. This is still unacceptably high, of course, and we’re doing all we can to minimize crime in the military.

Now let’s look at dedovshchina. It happens in the Russian Armed Forces, as it happens in the armed forces of any other country. We’re fighting it and will continue to fight it. There’s no magic wand solution here – an integrated set of measures is required. We are working on compiling all proposals, including some from civil society, and will make an announcement about them soon. But in future, people will still make judgements about the state of affairs in the Armed Forces based on the presence of some other problems. And as our military grows stronger, those problems become less significant. In the United States, for example, the fighting ability of military personnel is affected substantially by the availability of cold orange juice and portable toilets at the front line. I hope Russian critics will be saying similar things some day, and coming from them it will sound like the highest praise for the results of reforming Russia’s military structure.

Question: You invited representatives of non-govenmental organizations to attend a Defense Ministry meeting last year. Some of them are fairly negative in their assessments of your performance. At the time, you attributed the invitation to the need for dialogue with all layers of Russian society. But this practice has been stopped of late.

Sergei Ivanov: Why do you say it’s been stopped? The Defense Ministry aims to pursue a policy of maximal openness, so that citizens will understand what we’re doing. In shaping our relations with Russian society and its institutions, we are guided by the principles of objectivity, constructive dialogue, and mutual responsibility. We’re cooperating actively with the Public Chamber, the Presidential Council for Assisting the Development of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, and other organizations or movements concerned with the Armed Forces and national defense in general.

Last year we signed a memorandum on cooperation between the Defense Ministry and the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation. I think anyone who takes an interest in these matters would also notice the changes in the Defense Ministry’s public relations style. Now citizens can receive first-hand information about the issues of greatest concern to them, rather than using sometimes deliberately distorted information from biased sources. We now hold regular press conferences and briefings involving senior Defense Ministry officials and senior commanders from the Armed Forces. We have a fully-functional website, where we are even posting monthly casualty figures.

My task is to determine development and modernization strategy for the Armed Forces

Question: You’ve been at the helm of the Defense Ministry for five years. What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Sergei Ivanov: In short, I can say that the Armed Forces are now in a condition that enables them to perform their intended tasks effectively, and their existence has been normalized. Their structure and personnel numbers have been optimized over the past five years.

New models of arms and military hardware, destiend to become the foundation of our weapons systems in the period to 2020, have not only been designed, but mostly delivered. We are already buying them in bulk and delivering them to the troops as full sets of arms and military hardware, re-arming entire units at a time. And one reason for this is that the funding allocated for the National Defense item in the federal budget and directed at developing the Armed Forces is being increased with every year.

What’s more, we have substantially increased the intensity of combat and operations training for troops and forces. Last year alone, for example, the Ground Forces held 31 regimental tactical exercises, 12 of them involving artillery, while Russian Navy vessels made 28 long-distance patrols. We also held a number of international exercises with the armed forces of China, India, and Uzbekistan.

Another program that is being implemented successfully is the transition to contract service in certain units and formations. Within this program, 60,623 soldiers and sergeant jobs in 42 units and formations have been filled by contract personnel.

Also on the list of important results is a series of measures to improve the military education system. The best evidence that these measures are effective is the fact that the situation with military college students and new lieutenants is gradually stabilizing. Thanks to the work we are doing, the drop-out rate is steadily declining. In 1998, one student in three dropped out, for various reasons; in 2005 this was down to one student in six. Fewer and fewer new lieutenants are breaking their contracts straight after graduating and being assigned to a service location. Compare the figures: 102 people did this in 2003, 89 people in 2004, and 74 people in 2005.

Officer salaries are also rising (not inflation-adjusted): a lieutenant with five years of service, commanding a platoon, now earns 3.69 times more than five years ago; a captain with eight years of service, commanding a company, earns 3.56 times more; a lieutenant-colonel with 15 years of service, commanding a battalion, earns 3.45 times more; a colonel with 22 years of service, commanding a regiment, earns 3.08 times more.

Over the same period, the Defense Ministry has built or bought 60,500 apartments for military personnel. Defense Ministry housing stock has been increased by 121,600 apartments. The waiting list for officers who are entitled to apartments has been reduced by over 15,000 people in the past five years. It should be reduced by almost 10,000 more by the end of this year, down to 71,000. With the aim of speeding up the process of solving the housing problem for military personnel and raising these efforts to a completely new level of quality, we have started to introduce a mortgage system.

Question: Do you think you’ve succeeded in raising the Armed Forces to a new level of quality, as compared to the Soviet Armed Forces?

Sergei Ivanov: I wouldn’t compare the Armed Forces of today with the Soviet Armed Forces. There are too many differences: troop strength, objectives and battle plans changing over time, a different organizational structure, and so on. But one thing I can say with full confidence: just like in Soviet times, the state’s military organization is capable of guaranteeing our country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, effectively defending its national interests.

I’d like to emphasize that the realities of our time are such that the threat of a large-scale, possibly nuclear, war breaking out has been minimized. However, even though the current doctrines and strategic concepts of most countries regard war as a national disaster and a threat to human civilization, military force still remains – whether we like it or not – a traditional means of achieving political goals. We are presently seeing a steady trend: the use of military force is expanding, including military force as an effective means of countering international security threats.

In military planning, we are guided by geopolitical requirements and the principle of defense sufficiency. Based on this, the priorities for the Armed Forces at the present stage of military development are as follows: supporting the nuclear forces at a level guaranteed to deter aggression against Russia or its allies, and improving the combat capacity of the conventional forces, especially formations and units of permanent combat readiness.

Therefore, while maintaining a firm commitment to unconditional implementation of all international treaties we have already signed and ratified, we are also proceeding with balanced development of all components of our Strategic Nuclear Deterrent Forces, and maintaining their capacities at required levels.

In pursuing the second task, we aim to achieve a result that would enable us to efficiently establish mobile, self-sufficient groups of troups, capable of ensuring the state’s military security effectively, in any strategic direction under threat. In other words, this could be compared to the children’s game in which blocks are used to form a certain figure. Even so, we strive to have the necessary quantity of forces and resources to be always ready to assemble them into a military group for achieving any specific objective.

Question: Will your successor be a civilian as well?

Sergei Ivanov: I don’t know. All defense ministers are appointed by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief. But I don’t rule out the possibility that the next defense minister might also be a civilian. I’m not saying that it’s sure to happen, but I don’t rule it out either. What’s more, it’s not a problem that I don’t know how a howitzer works, for example. I really don’t need to know. There are generals and colonels for that, those who need to know – and they do know, believe me. My task is to determine development and modernization strategy for the Armed Forces, the defense budget, social provisions for military personnel. That’s my job. And here, of course, I always go all the way to ensure that the Armed Forces have everything they need. That’s my objective. As for knowing how a plane or a tank works… Defense ministers in other countries don’t know that either. This is another area where there’s no difference between us and the civilized world.

Question: So our defense minister is a politician, after all.

Sergei Ivanov: Of course. Not a military leader or a general. A strategist.