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Russia: Putin Dismisses Head of General Staff In Military Shake-Up

  • Jeremy Bransten --> Vladimir Putin (file photo) Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday fired the head of the General Staff, General Anatolii Kvashnin, along with three other top military commanders. The move appears to be part of the Kremlin's long-term effort to reorganize Russia's military into an effective 21st-century force. But RFE/RL reports that experts are questioning whether it will have much effect.

Prague, 20 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Few in Russia's military are sorry to see General Anatolii Kvashnin leave his post as head of the General Staff.

One Moscow-based military analyst, Pavel Felgenhauer, called Kvashnin "the most hated general in the Russian military," according to "The New York Times." He has now been replaced by his deputy, General Yurii Baluevskii, a man who is far more respected.

Kvashnin is most closely associated with Russia's two ill-fated wars in Chechnya and especially the 1995 winter offensive aimed at retaking Grozny, which ended in catastrophe and cost the lives of hundreds of Russian soldiers. That has not made him popular with the rank and file.

Kvashnin's bureaucratic battles with the Defense Ministry over control of military planning have also earned him the dislike of the top brass. Now, the Defense Ministry appears to have won the upper hand as Russia enters another phase of its military restructuring.

Although many analysts point to last month's deadly raid in Ingushetia as the catalyst for the dismissal of Kvashnin and three top military commanders for the North Caucasus region, the shake-up appears to be the result of a long-term plan.

Kvashnin's dismissal follows a decree by Putin that cut the powers of the General Staff and reduced it to a department of the Defense Ministry that will function as an advisory group, responsible for strategic planning. For years, the two institutions had existed as rival centers of power and fought a tug-of-war over operational control of Russia's armed forces.

Those opposing Kvashnin accused him of being stuck in the past, actively undermining efforts to transform the Russian military into a smaller, more technologically advanced force. Moscow-based military analyst Aleksandr Golts told RFE/RL that Kvashnin was ill-suited for the General Staff's new role, so in this respect his replacement by Baluevskii makes sense.

"The Russian General Staff is being excluded from the chain of operational command of the armed forces and will have to concentrate exclusively on strategic planning. [In this regard,] Anatolii Kvashnin was the least suitable person, due to his intellect, for any kind of planning. His first deputy, Yurii Baluevskii, has demonstrated his great analytical skills and that he is capable of such tasks. So, at first glance, everything appears very logical," Golts said.
Golts said this latest reshuffle is symptomatic of the way military reform is being carried out in Russia, which is from the top down, exactly in the wrong order.

The problem, according to Golts, is that the newly positioned General Staff is set to operate in a vacuum. Reforms at the lower levels have not been carried out, meaning that a system of regional commands -- which could provide input for the General Staff's strategic planning -- simply does not exist.

"[For example,] the Americans plan their operations in these commands. The entire war against Iraq was planned in the Central Command. In Russia, the role of the commands is performed by the military districts. But they do not have the ability to plan because their main duty is the mobilization of reservists in case of war. That is what they are trained to do. They cannot take operational planning. This is just one of many questions that come up when you analyze how this new General Staff is supposed to perform," Golts said.

Golts said this latest reshuffle is symptomatic of the way military reform is being carried out in Russia, which is from the top down, exactly in the wrong order. "In my view, what is happening with the General Staff is similar to the decision to create several rapid-reaction units made up of professional, contract soldiers," he said. "The idea is correct, but it is introduced as a first step when instead it should come as the final decision after a series of complicated reforms. So the decision is made without the requisite preparation. One can assume that it is done out of naiveness or on purpose, so that the military brass -- after a period of time -- can approach the president and tell him: 'Esteemed commander in chief, this is not working out. This [reform] is not right for Russia.'"

One thing is clear, however. When it comes to Russia's troubles in the North Caucasus, no amount of military reshuffles will end the prolonged war in Chechnya, as Baluevskii himself indicated in an interview with RFE/RL two months ago.

"How do you take away a machine gun from a young man who has held it for 10-12 years? How do you make him work, till the land, sell goods? This is a problem. And there is no military solution. The only solution is an economic recovery [in Chechnya], employment of the population, education," Baluevskii said.

Whether Putin -- who gives the orders -- sees it this way is another question.

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)