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Putin fires his minister of defense

Performance, scandals plagued ousted official

By Dale R. Herspring

Russian President Vladimir Putin has fired both his defense minister, Dmitri Serdyukov, and the chief of the General Staff, Army Gen. Nikolai Makarov. Based on what has appeared in the Russian press, Putin had reasons to fire Serdyukov; Makarov had to go because he was too close to Serdyukov.

Defense ministers aren’t fired often; it occurs only when the situation has deteriorated to the point that there isn’t an alternative. The individual is a member of the president’s team. Serdyukov had been considered untouchable, able to get away with just about anything because his firing could be seen as evidence of Putin’s poor judgement — in hiring him in the first place.

Regardless of valuable changes Serdyukov introduced to the armed forces, he made no effort to cultivate friendships in the upper ranks. He was known as an unpleasant person who one dealt with only when necessary. 

His attitude toward the generals was similar to that of former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Despite having spent only two years in uniform, Serdyukov, like Rumsfeld, was convinced that he knew more than the men who had served for 30 years and had risen to the top of the military pyramid. He fought openly with them and a number of them made it clear they had little love for him. They were reportedly delighted at his ouster.

Serdyukov’s poor judgement extended to his personal life. Married, he moved out of the apartment he and his wife shared, and rumor has it he began a romantic relationship with Yevgenia Vasilyeva, who once was his aide in charge of selling off excess military property. This sort of relationship is fairly common in Russia, so on one level it was normal.

Serdyukov was also locked in a struggle with the former Russian emissary to NATO and current First Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitri Rozogin.  Rozogin is in charge of the military-industrial complex. The two men fought over turf. Serdyukov supported those in the military who wanted to purchase higher grade weapons and equipment abroad.  Rozogin argued that it made no sense to buy foreign weapons and wanted emphasis on Russian produced weapons, in the process improving their quality.

As is often the case,, there is more to Serdyukov’s dismissal than initial reports indicate. His wife, for instance, is the daughter of Viktor Zubkov, the former First Deputy Prime Minister and a Putin ally.  Serdyukov’s behavior vis-a-vis his wife — Zubkov’s daughter — was humiliating and offensive.

When investigators searched Vasil-yeva’s apartment, they not only found Serdyukov there, but money, jewelry, pictures and antiques worth $10 million.  She reportedly asked investigators to leave her with as a souvenir, since what was confiscated included gifts from Serdyukov.

Then there is the financial scandal. It began on Oct. 25 with an investigation of “Oboronservis” (OAO), the entity in charge of selling surplus military buildings. It turns out that Vasilyeva had been in charge of the properties department in the Ministry of Defense.

The investigation revealed that she and several other individuals were involved in a scam in which they used OAO money to fix up buildings that they would then sell at bargain prices; they charged OAO for expenses and pocketed much of the proceeds. Profits from the sale of these properties were supposed to go to building housing for military officers — one of the military’s long-standing problems.

The prosecutor is planning criminal charges against Vasilyeva, but it is not certain whether the now unemployed Serdyukov will be joining her. 

Putin appointed Sergy Shoygu to replace Serdyukov. Shoygu, the former head of the Emergencies Ministry,  is well liked and has spent much of his life in a paramilitary organization well regarded for its efficiency.  Also as far as is known, he is not corrupt and is not cheating on a minister’s daughter.

The focus now is on whether Shoygu will pursue military reform with the same vigor Serdyukov did. The dismal performance of the Russian army in Georgia made clear that the military must be reformed. What is unclear is whether Shoygu will attempt to put the pieces together in a systematic fashion.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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