A Military Coup for Putin’s Russia?

A terrific report in the Washington Post exposes the fundamental weakness of Russia’s crumbling, corrupt, impoverished military establishment:

When one-time furniture salesman Anatoly Serdyukov was suddenly named Russia’s defense minister, many career military officers smirked. Now after tens of thousands have lost their jobs under his reforms, the mockery has turned to rumbles of possible mutiny.

A union of veterans from the Airborne Forces, considered the most professional and proud branch of Russia’s military, has set a protest rally against Serdyukov for Sunday. It is unclear whether any serving officers will take part, but the rally in a Moscow park down the road from the Defense Ministry has raised fears of an uprising in one of the world’s largest armies.

Some observers say that the veterans’ campaign against Serdyukov, the first civilian defense minister in 90 years, may have been orchestrated by members of the top military brass and weapons industries who have lost power and money because of his reforms.

“It’s the most radical reform of the Russian military in 150 years,” said Vitaly Shlykov, a retired military intelligence officer who advises the Defense Ministry on the reforms. “And it touches upon huge resources.”

Serdyukov’s reforms have cut six out of every 10 officers, disbanded nine of every 10 army units and introduced a two-year ban on the recruitment of new cadets into military academies. Shlykov and other backers of Serdyukov’s efforts say that the painful cuts are necessary to turn the bloated and inefficient military into a meaner and leaner force. The reforms have been strongly backed by the Kremlin but have angered many officers and military veterans who see them as destroying Russia’s armed forces.

“Serdyukov and his supporters have directly threatened the security of our nation,” retired Col. Gen. Vladislav Achalov, the head of the Airborne Forces union, said in a video announcing Sunday’s protest that was posted on the Internet.

Viktor Kremenyuk, a prominent Moscow security analyst who has closely followed the Russian military reform, said the cuts in the officers corps were long overdue but as a result 200,000 people “trained to kill” will be jobless.

“It’s a rather cruel experiment with people who wanted to defend their country,” he said. “I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of some military leaders being inclined to carry out something like a military coup.” He added, however, that he believed a mutiny unlikely as Russia has no strong tradition of the military taking power.

Shlykov shrugged off fears of a military uprising, saying that officers long have grown accustomed to the government failing to fulfill its promises.

Among those promises was one to give apartments to all 200,000 officers being discharged and help them get new civilian jobs. Achalov said the Defense Ministry has not come through – and has also denied basic benefits to many officers.

“They even reject giving disabled status to officers who were wounded in combat,” he told Associated Press Television News.

Achalov supported the August 1991 botched hardline coup that briefly ousted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union. Two years later, he joined a parliamentary rebellion against Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin. After spending several months in prison, he was freed under an amnesty.

While Achalov stopped short of criticizing the Kremlin and rejected talk of a coup, he insisted that Serdyukov must step down. “The military reform has been a failure,” he said.

The rally planned by Achalov’s union was triggered by Serdyukov’s visit to the Airborne Forces Academy, where he gave a harsh dressing down to the head of the academy over the unauthorized construction of an Orthodox church on its grounds.

Shortly afterward, Russian news reports claimed that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had fired Serdyukov. The claim was quickly and angrily rejected by Putin’s office.

Last week, the Airborne Forces commander, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov – seen by some as an intermediary between Serdyukov and the angry military brass – was badly injured when a car in which he was a passenger was rammed by a heavy truck.

One general was killed when he fell on a railway track near Moscow last month, and the body of another was found in central Moscow on the same day. The strange deaths of these generals and two others, as well as Shamanov’s accident, have fueled conspiracy theories about an operation to sideline potential troublemakers, but no evidence of foul play has appeared.

In the face of the criticism, Serdyukov has made some concessions to the brass, including last month shelving a plan to transfer the navy headquarters from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

Serdyukov’s supporters say that most of the military units disbanded as part of the reform existed only on paper and the number of officers in the military almost equaled the number of enlisted men. They argue that the bulky military structure inherited from Soviet times was diverting resources from a long-overdue modernization.

Nearly two decades after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the military continues to rely almost exclusively on Soviet-built weapons. Efforts to upgrade the aging arsenals have been stymied by rampant official corruption and a steady degradation of Russian industries.

Serdyukov himself has expressed shock at the scope of theft in the military and initiated the creation of a new agency in charge of ordering weapons for the military in order to combat graft.

He has been more discriminating in choosing weapons for the military than his predecessors and further angered the military industrial complex by starting to shop for weapons abroad, breaking with a tradition of complete self-reliance.

Serdyukov, 48, worked for 15 years in the furniture trade before joining the government tax service in 2000 when Putin became president. Four years later, he took over as head of the tax service and in 2007 Putin named him defense minister.

The weaknesses of Russia’s military machine became apparent in the August 2008 war with Georgia, during which dozens of Russian armored vehicles broke down before reaching the combat area, while a lack of modern communications and satellite-guided weapons resulted in military losses from friendly fire and strikes on civilian areas.

Two years after the start of the reform, its organizers are still facing an uphill battle in trying to modernize weapons and raise troop readiness.

“The military hasn’t become more capable yet, rather the other way round since it’s in a state of transition now,” Shlykov said. “But at least there is hope that it will become more capable after the reform is over.”

8 responses to “A Military Coup for Putin’s Russia?

  1. OMON has no balls!

    OMON only attacks rallies with babushkas!

  2. The failures of the Putin regime must result in difficulties somewhere. Why not the military itself?? All in all a positive development. Killing people will take you only so far.

  3. Here’s a funny comment as to Putin in George W. Bush’s new book;

    He writes of a visit to Russia, when Putin showed him his black Labrador, Koni. “Bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney,” Putin bragged.

    Later, when W. recounted this to Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, Harper drolly noted, “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.”

  4. There are a lot of strange deaths of the Russian generals last year.

    The strangest yet was of the GRU deputy head who was washed away dead on a sea beach in… Turkey.


    Major General Ivanov’s body was found on 16 August but was only identified last week. Russia’s Red Star newspaper confirmed his death on Saturday in a brief obituary. Russia’s defence ministry declined to comment further.

    Today, however, the Russian media questioned the official version of his death – that he had died while going for a swim – and pointed out that, as a top-ranking spy, he would have been accompanied everywhere by bodyguards.

    The news portal Svobodnaya Pressa also pointed out that Ivanov was the second top GRU agent to die in unexplained circumstances. Another senior agent, Yuri Gusev, was killed in 1992 in a “car accident”. His fellow officers later established that he had been murdered, the paper said, adding: “Spies of that rank are well protected. As a rule, they don’t die by chance.”

    After finding the body, Turkey’s foreign ministry approached neighbouring countries for further information, with Damascus reporting that Ivanov had gone missing while on assignment in Syria.

    • (I meant, of course, this year.)

    • According to a usually well informed Polish agency Polska Web News, which received insider information from the Polish military, the GRU general “Ivanov” was drowned in the bathtub of his Moscow apartment between August 24 and August 26. The official obituary appeared in the Russian military newspaper Red Star on August 28.

      • It would hardly explain his body being found in Turkey…

        …and more than week earlier.


        “Several days ago General Yuri Ivanov died while swimming,” reported RIA Novosti, the official Russian news agency. Ivanov had disappeared on August 6, but it wasn’t until ten days later that his badly decomposed body washed up on a Turkish beach at Hatay close to the border shared by Turkey and Syria. Ivanov supposedly had been visiting the new Russian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus.

        The official announcement of the intelligence chief’s death was not made public until a brief obituary appeared in the Russian army newspaper, Red Star, on August 28. The government version was that Ivanov drowned in a swimming accident at a resort near the Syrian port of Latakia, and that his body was carried by the current on to the Hatay beach. The entire event has been made more mysterious by the lack of further clarification from the Russian government.

        A longtime military intelligence officer, Major General Yuri Ivanov was the second-in-command in Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie(GRU), the Russian foreign military intelligence arm. He was, in effect, chief of operations for that service. It was Ivanov who was personally charged with the responsibility for the project overseeing the assassination of top Chechen operators abroad. During the coldest days of the Cold War such activities were known as mokrye dela (wet affairs).

        In 2004 this highly sensitive activity resulted in the Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev being blown up in his SUV in Qatar. Two GRU agents were caught by the Qatari, who then allowed them to be extradited to Russia the following year supposedly to serve out their sentences. Not unexpectedly, they have since disappeared. The entire operation was denied by the Kremlin, and Maj. General Ivanov found himself on Putin’s preferred list. There is no question that the 52-year-old Ivanov was on his way to even higher posts.

        • Some European press sources have speculated that the Israeli Mossad might have a strong motivation to kill Ivanov to prevent further development of the facility planned for Tartus. While that is a bit of a stretch, the Israelis may have some other more direct reason for wanting Ivanov out of the way. The Chechens had a clearer motive in revenge for the campaign led by Ivanov against their leadership, and have the Shia Islamic connections in Syria to assist them.

          Other press reports suggest a possible connection with the murder also in August of a British analyst from GCHQ in Cheltenham, seconded to MI6. Nothing further has been divulged on this matter by the British, though considerable speculation exists regarding a possible connection with the poisoning in London of the Russian defector, former KGB and FSG officer Alexander Litvinenko.

          Ivanov’s high rank is the factor that tends to muddle the intelligence ramifications of his assassination. An additional confusing element is the common nature of his name. A “Yuri Ivanov” who was a deputy in the Duma charged Putin with being behind the deadly Beslan school hostage incident for which the Chechens were blamed. Initially some reports in the European press suggested that General Ivanov was actually the Deputy Ivanov and he was killed on Putin’s order. It took a while before that mistaken identity was cleared up.

          In the meantime, the insider crowd in Moscow has the heaviest bets on the Chechens. The second highest number of punters is convinced the operation had all the earmarks of Mossad. Intriguingly, a small but well-placed group of professional sources swear it was all an inside GRU vs. SVR (former KGB) conflict.

          Still unanswered, however, is the fact that Ivanov would have had a security detail with him. Where were they? If the Chechens or Israelis had done the job, why would they go to the trouble of tossing their victim in the sea? His disappearance alone would have raised security attention. Why hasn’t Russian officialdom made a greater effort to publish supporting facts relative to the supposed “swimming accident.”

          Interestingly, no one is talking about the possibility that Maj. Gen. Yuri Ivanov slipped away from his security detail, swam off into the sea heavily dosed with his own chosen tranquillizers, and simply committed suicide by becoming unconscious and drowning. It wouldn’t be the first time a top intelligence official — Russian, American, British — “offed” themselves for personal reasons after a career in the black arts. Of course, he simply could have been drunk and drowned!

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