The Downfall of Russia’s Defense Minister
Ariel Cohen /
On November 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin sacked Defense Minister Anatoly E. Serdyukov, who has held the post since 2007.
Serdyukov had overseen the largest and most radical military reform of the Russian armed forces since the creation of the Red Army in 1918.
Under Serdyukov, a former furniture businessman and senior tax collection official, the Russian army went from the Soviet-style empty-shell divisions to 50 brigades, many of them rapid deployment forces and airborne units. He increased salaries and improved the living conditions of officers and NCOs, and he did his best to push the military into the high-tech 21st century.
Yet his efforts may be in vain. He was the first truly civilian defense minister—he had never served in the military. He was widely hated by general officers who are still nostalgic for a vast Soviet military with a global footprint—which Russia just no longer has the economic resources to sustain.
He was replaced by the popular Sergei Shoigu, the Moscow region governor, the former Minister of Emergency Situation (the Russian equivalent of a FEMA director).
The immediate reason for Serdyukov’s removal is the investigation of widespread corruption in the defense ministry. On the morning of October 25, investigators raided a posh apartment belonging to 32-year-old Evgenia Vasilyeva, Serdyukov’s longtime friend and a former defense ministry senior official. Reportedly, surprised investigators found the defense minister himself in the woman’s apartment at 6 a.m.
Vasilyeva is now affiliated with Oboronimushchestvo, a state-owned company that deals with the defense ministry’s real estate. Just one of the company’s transactions generated a $100 million loss to the state.
It was never a secret that Serdyukov presided over a very corrupt institution. Even Russian officials estimate that a third or more of the defense budget is pilfered. However, corruption, which is systematic, is probably not the key reason for Serdyukov’s removal. It is common for top Russian officials to have business ties and amass substantial wealth, which is typically tolerated—unless an official falls out of grace with the Kremlin.
Serdyukov became part of Putin’s inner circle in 2007. He is married to the daughter of then-Prime Minister Victor Zubkov, who is widely known as the Russian president’s mentor from his Leningrad days and still wields considerable influence.
Shortly after the marriage, Serdyukov, a businessman, became a senior tax official in St. Petersburg. Later on he became defense minister, being put in charge of an unprecedented military reform and doing away with the antiquated Soviet-style military. The disappointing performance of the Russian military in a brief conflict with Georgia in August 2008 made that task even more urgent.
This was an unpopular and thankless job. Under Serdyukov’s reforms, the defense ministry cut military personnel, sold military assets, and forced defense manufacturers to accept lower prices by threatening to turn to foreign companies. Russia made a famous purchase of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France—the first such transaction since the Bolshevik October putsch of 1917 and the lend-lease of World War II, when the U.S. and Britain became Stalin’s weapons providers.
The military reform provoked an angry opposition, especially among the conservative general officer corps, whom Serdyukov was downsizing by the hundreds. He also pensioned off many officers of lower ranks. They regarded him as an incompetent civilian endangering national security. He allegedly called them “little green men” and allowed his protégés, such as the young Vasilyeva, to occupy a three-star general’s position and yell and curse at her general officer colleagues.
No military in the world forgives such abuse. Hence the interior ministry investigation, which in the end cost Serdyukov his job and may cost him his freedom.
In the end, it is likely that the opposition to Serdyukov reached a critical mass, prompting Putin to look for his replacement.
Dmitri Titoff, a Heritage Foundation Young Leaders Program participant, contributed to this blog.