Russian President Vladimir Putin’s firing of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on Nov. 6 likely will increase the president’s standing among the Russian military elite. Serdyukov has been linked to a major embezzlement case allegedly involving Defense Ministry officials and defense subcontractor Oboronservis, and his firing comes as part ofRussia’s efforts to eliminate corruption in the military.
Military support is a key element of Putin’s power, and that support has been eroding since Serdyukov’s controversial appointment in 2007. Serdyukov, a former Tax Ministry official with no military experience, was given the job for two reasons. First, his reported aptitude for difficult financial accounting and lack of personal ties to the military were seen as assets for making the harsh cuts and purges necessary to reform and modernize the Russian military. Second, two of the Kremlin’s key clans were engaged in fierce competition over the Defense Ministry, with the position traditionally influenced (if not held) by the more hawkish siloviki. Serdyukov was considered clanless, though powerfully protected by his father-in-law Viktor Zubkov — one of Putin’s close advisors and former prime minister — meaning he could implement these reforms without taking sides.
As defense minister, Serdyukov initiated major military reforms such as reducing the number of top-level personnel, starting a more professional class of soldiers, and reining in wasteful military spending (the last of which makes the corruption scandal even more embarrassing for him and for Putin). The Russian government has showed that it is so committed to countering such corruption that even Serdyukov and his powerful connections could not get out of this scandal.
Through his reform efforts, Serdyukov made enemies of several groups in the Russian military and the defense industry. His mass purges and reshufflings were met with resentment, and he was constantly accused of not taking military leaders’ points of view into account. Serdyukov’s accounting practices also did not always fall in line with the wishes of defense contractors, leading to bitter standoffs with people such as Rosoboronexport Director General Sergei Chemezov.
Replacing Serdyukov with Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu will help bolster Putin’s support with the military. Shoigu is considered a strong (and scandal-free) minister with only minor clan ties. He also has been popular in Russia as Emergencies Minister during the years of floods and wildfires, as well as various terrorist attacks. He also holds the rank of General of the Army, giving him credibility among the military that Serdyukov did not have. Shoigu will continue the reforms already set in motion — especially under the watchful eye of Putin — but he most likely will do so with more good will from the military elite than his predecessor.