20 February 2007

The New Russian Minister of Defense: Putin's "Whizkid" or Just a Useful Fool?

In the wake of President Putin’s appointment of a private-sector businessman as Minister of Defense, there appears to be wide-spread disbelief and outspoken criticism bordering on contempt. At issue is the portfolio of former Tax Service Chief Anatoliy Serdyukov. Serdyukov, a 1984 graduate of the Leningrad Institute of Soviet Trade (with a degree in economics) spent the better part of his early professional years in furniture, eventually entering government service in 2000 as Deputy Chief of Inspection – Russian Ministry of Taxes and Collections. In 2001 he graduated from the St. Petersburg State Institute with a law degree and returned to the Ministry of Taxes and Collections as Deputy Director Chief and Director Chief (for St. Petersburg). In 2004 he was promoted to Deputy Minister and followed in that year as Acting Minister and then Chief of the Russian Federal Tax Service. He did serve for 1.5 years in the army when he was drafted immediately after college.

OK, here’s where it gets interesting. The Russian pundits (yes, they have them too and yes, they have blogs) are fit to be tied. Many fail to see any validity between Putin’s challenge to the West (specifically America) in his Munich speech last week and the appointment of a novice to the position of Defense Minister. A quick sample of some of the comments – blogs and traditional press follows:

  • Viktor Alksnis, a retired Colonel and Russian ultra-nationalist, remarked in his blog that Putin's declared itinerary for challenging the US as the sole world power "can only be based on the rebirth of Russian military might." This is impossible, Alksnis opined, under a "defense minister-furniture salesman," whose appointment "spits in the face of Russian military officers and generals, who believed in Putin and hoped that now the Russian military rebirth would begin".
  • A young, former lieutenant who served in the Moscow-based ABM force noted that "The defense minister's post is now occupied by an incidental person, a get-rich-quick type from the 1990s, a furniture salesman, who found his way into power ... However, the military is not a furniture store, it is a world in itself, which needs to be learned from the inside." He added that as with the appointment of military novice Sergey Ivanov, "they spat on the military once again," because he could not imagine how Serdyukov could do anything positive for the armed forces.
  • Ekho Moskvy radio, often critical of the government, reported comments from nationalist pundit Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, who said that the military "was spat on ... and is now in mourning," adding that they should be thankful that Putin appointed a human as defense minister and "not his Labrador."
To be fair, one could well imagine what the reaction of bloggers on this side of the pond would have been if current IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson had been appointed to take Secretary Rumsfeld’s spot when he resigned.

And yet, there are some interesting twists to this scenario. Consider – perhaps no one in the Russian government has a better idea of where the money is coming from (and more importantly, going to) than the chief of collections and taxations. In the current oligarchic climate he would stand to assume a position of some (albeit, quiet) importance within the Putin administration (talk about Nixon and his “enemies list” – imagine what the head of taxation could do for Putin…). Where this becomes important is when viewed within the context of Putin’s announced 8-yr, $189B (US) military re-armament plan. Bringing in someone who is familiar with “modern” business practices and cash flow and not influenced by a parochial background would seem to be a prescient move on Putin’s part. As we in the US have had occasion to see thogh, it doesn’t always work.

On the other hand, putting someone in place who basically becomes an acquisition czar with little oversight of the operational strategic, theater and tactical employment of the forces strengthens the hands of the Russian General Staff, an interesting scenario whose subtleties appear lost on those decrying the appointment as spitting on the military. Finally, as in the US at present, the appointment must also be viewed in the context of Russian politics and the upcoming presidential elections. In other words, by appointing Serdyukov to the Defense Minister position, is Putin sending a signal that this is his intended/desired successor in spite of earlier statements that he would not do so? If yes, what does it say about Serdyukov’s background that Putin, who has led a resurgence of the state security organization (the FSB) and placed it in a very central role, by tapping someone from outside that environment? And what of Sergi Ivanov (for whom there apparently is little love lost by said pundits as well...)? Is there more here than meets the eye? Lots of questions to be sure, all of which will bear further watching…