The new defense minister won’t be able to stop military misspending

The Russian military endured Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov for almost six long years. Now it’s over at last: Ivanov has been promoted to senior deputy prime minister in charge of the military-industrial complex, the aviation industry, and “innovation technologies.”

The Russian military endured Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov for almost six long years. Now it’s over at last: Ivanov has been promoted to senior deputy prime minister in charge of the military-industrial complex, the aviation industry, and “innovation technologies.” President Vladimir Putin has replaced him at the Defense Ministry with Anatoly Serdykov, who used to run a chain of furniture stores before Putin made him director of the Federal Taxation Service. Serdyukov is almost unknown to the general public.

Ivanov is one of Putin’s old and close friends. He attended university with Putin, and those in the know say that both Ivanov and Putin were recruited into the KGB by an older friend, Viktor Ivanov (now the Kremlin’s personnel manager). Alexander Voloshin, former head of the presidential administration, says that Putin trusts Sergei Ivanov completely, “because he never lies to the president.” After raising Ivanov’s status and “expanding his range of responsibilities,” Putin publicly praised his old ally for “succeeding in the tasks I set for him at the Defense Ministry.” Thus, there’s a strong chance that Ivanov’s “range of responsibilities” will expand even further a year from now: he’ll become either the prime minister or the president.

According to some reports, Viktor Ivanov may be promoted to the Federal Taxation Service post vacated by Serdyukov; this would bring the reshuffle full circle. Meanwhile, Putin has set a special task for Serdyukov in his new role: as “a person with experience in the economic field,” he has to “organize work that entails spending vast sums of state funding” at the Defense Ministry. Putin also instructed General Yuri Baluyevsky, Chief of the General Staff, to take on a greater share of responsibility for managing the Defense Ministry’s actual military affairs.

President Putin’s concern about military economics is entirely understandable, and problems with tracking the ultimate fate of “vast sums of state funding” at the Defense Ministry are indeed pressing. Between Ivanov’s appointment as defense minister in 2001 and the present day, the Defense Ministry has spent about a trillion rubles on procurement of new hardware and research and development, but in overall terms, very little has actually been purchased – only sporadic, one-off deliveries of hardware. As Ivanov told the Duma the other day, the Defense Ministry will get a further 5 trillion rubles for rearmament between now and 2015. So one trillion has already vanished, and the future trillions are very likely to go the same way. Putin’s idea is that Serdyukov should stop this kind of privatization. But can he do it?

Serdyukov has no experience with military hardware. He doesn’t have his own team of trusted military specialists. He has no experience in running an organization like the Defense Ministry, with a total of around 2 million personnel. Sergei Ivanov was officially described as a “civilian defense minister” (actually, he was a lieutenant-general with the special services – but in 2001, contrary to all regulations, he was transferred to the reserve a couple of days before his appointment as defense minister, solely in order to describe him as a civilian). However, even after six years as defense minister, Ivanov hadn’t put together a civilian administration staff. The Russian Defense Ministry is still an entirely military hierarchical structure, as it was in the Soviet era – and it perceives Serdyukov as an outsider, an alien element.

Serdyukov, the former furniture dealer who rose rapidly at the Federal Taxation Service under Putin’s patronage, is not a politician accountable to the public and voters – he is a bureaucrat whose fate depends on Putin and Putin’s successor. Obviously, we shouldn’t expect any “civilian oversight” from Serdyukov. Besides, Serdyukov doesn’t carry nearly as much weight within the bureaucracy as Ivanov; under his leadership, the Defense Ministry is sure to experience some friction with the Finance Ministry and other agencies. Ivanov was able to sort out such problems easily, since he has direct access to Putin.

What’s more, Ivanov has not retired; he has been promoted. Although he is no longer directly linked to the Defense Ministry, he has been confirmed as the person in charge of the military-industrial complex (and the lobbyist for it, by definition). In his farewell speech at the Defense Ministry, Ivanov said: “I shall strive to support our Army and Navy from the standpoint of industry and innovation technologies.” Everyone knows what this kind of “support” means. We seem to be heading for a repeat of the Soviet-era situation: the military-industrial complex, powerful within the bureaucracy, will be able to spend defense funding without any oversight, imposing extremely expensive, unsuitable, and useless forms of military hardware under the guise of “innovation technologies.”

Think of the Project 1143 aircraft-carriers: about five were built, and all turned out to be useless cripple-ships, including the last of them – the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft-carrier, which has spent almost all its unfortunate life in dock for repairs. There were the Yak-38 vertical take-off aircraft, meant for the same aircraft-carriers; they couldn’t fly far, and could hardly carry any weapons. There were the T-72 and T-80 tanks, with weapons-loading equipment located at the bottom of the crew compartment – so that even a light hit would cause ammunition to explode, killing the crew. The same tanks had dynamic defense devices developed to defend against Russian-made shells, but easily penetrated by Western-made shells. And there’s the K-50 Black Shark single-seater strike helicopter, which the Armed Forces have been trying to avoid for the past 20 years.

Under Ivanov’s leadership, a great deal of money was wasted on the pointless “maneuverable supersonic warhead.” Costly imported equipment was purchased for the mountain brigades established on Putin’s orders. But there still aren’t any combat-capable mountain brigades, since Russia has no officers or specialists with mountain warfare skills, and nowhere to train them.

Of course, the defense industry always strives to induce the Armed Forces to buy the costly armaments it wants to produce, rather than what the Armed Forces actually need. In present-day Russia, where civil society is crushed by the Kremlin and the press is crushed by censorship, the only way to restrain sector lobbying is by using bureaucratic counterweights. Instead, as part of the process of grooming Putin’s successor, the omnipotent and non-accountable Ivanov has been placed in a position to impose costly and uncompetitive products on the military and the airlines.

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