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Book Review: The Kremlin and the High Command: Presidential Impact on the Russian Military from Gorbachev to Putin

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Note: This Book Review was originally published in Russia's St. Petersburg Times on Nov. 24, 2006

A study of civil-military relations reveals much about the state of Russia today.Dale Herspring is a professor of political science at Kansas State University and one of America's most highly regarded scholars of the Russian military. Yet, his decision to examine the impact of Russian presidential leadership on its military was provoked, not by any event in the Soviet Union or Russia during the past 20 years, but by his study of civil-military relations in the United States.After writing a book on this subject, in which he concluded that the American president's "leadership style played a major role in determining the level and nature of conflict between the White House and the uniformed military," Herspring asked himself: "Could this be the case in the U.S.S.R and Russia?"

Operating from the assumptions that Russia is a "subject culture" - one in which people wait to be told what to do - and that "Russian military culture is an even more extreme example of a subject culture," Herspring theorized that the presidential leadership style of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin was especially critical to the Soviet and Russian high commands during the period of collapse and transition from the Soviet Union to Russia.

Effective leadership was necessary to ensure the successful transition of the high command to the new polity. Without such leadership, the military would deteriorate and combat readiness would drop. And without effective leadership, a dangerous politicization of Russia's generals and admirals might emerge.

As Herspring demonstrates, all three problems came to plague the military, thanks to the ineffective leadership practiced by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. President Putin has attempted to repair the damage, with mixed results.

When writing about the rule of Gorbachev, Herspring understates the obstacles he encountered while attempting to reestablish political control over the Soviet military. As Gorbachev's chief foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, observed: "the army used to be off limits, beyond all criticism. What criticism could there be? No one even had a remote idea, nor had they any right to know, how the army spent the hundreds of billions of rubles it was unconditionally allocated."

Nevertheless, Herspring is correct to conclude that Gorbachev alternated between viewing the military as a problem - both in terms of the resources it consumed and the threat it posed in the eyes of the world - and being indifferent to its concerns.

He shocked the military with his proposal to shift from an offensive to defensive military doctrine and antagonized the high command with his policy of glasnost, which exposed previously secret military decision-making to scrutiny by civilians.

But he especially alienated the high command "with his decision to use the military not once, but three times, against the Soviet populace [in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Lithuania] and then blame them for carrying out his orders." After seeing how the undeserved blame for using force in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1989 undermined their prestige and integrity, Soviet officers became reluctant to carry out similar orders. This psychological "fettering" of the Soviet military was labeled the "Tbilisi syndrome."

Herspring credits the Tbilisi syndrome (as well as the long Soviet tradition of noninvolvement in civilian affairs) for keeping much of the military on the sidelines in August 1991, when a group of conservatives attempted to reverse the disintegration of the Soviet Union by initiating a coup against Gorbachev.

Boris Yeltsin's brave opposition to the attempted coup, his early cultivation of the military and promises of support initially impressed the high command. But as Herspring makes clear, Yeltsin's rule proved to be an absolute disaster for the Russian military - far exceeding the damage inflicted by Gorbachev.

According to Herspring, although Yeltsin talked about military reform, he "wanted a weak military and a weak Army leader," which is why he continuously slashed the defense budget, appointed the incompetent Pavel Grachev as Russia's first defense minister and subsequently detached the General Staff from the Ministry of Defense in order to weaken both.

He committed the unpardonable sin of ordering these ill-provisioned and ill-trained soldiers to war in Chechnya, thus causing the deaths of thousands of conscripts and junior officers. Moreover, when the war turned into the debacle his officers predicted, Yeltsin publicly blamed the military.

According to Herspring, "It is difficult to convey just how bad the situation inside the Russian military was when Yeltsin left the scene. Dedovshchina [extreme hazing] was rampant, crime was out of control, officers were leaving the Army in droves, equipment and weapons were falling apart, the draft was joke, the kontraktniki process [professionalization of the army] was not working, and combat readiness was at an all-time low."

Herspring credits Putin for pushing military reform, especially the development of "permanent readiness units" composed of kontraktniki and designed to fight small wars. He also returned the General Staff to a subordinate position within the Ministry of Defense, established mortgage credits, to enable junior officers to find housing, established a single purchasing agent and "worked to reform and modernize the military-industrial complex."

Yet, defense industry expert Vitaly Shlykov has disagreed, claiming that defense contracts are awarded "to the best-connected firms, not those that provide the best products or services." And Professor Steven Rosefielde recently wrote that "the military is disgruntled over Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov's FSB-influenced leadership and reforms, and soldiers' resentment of their meager pay might lead them to mutiny in support of regional secessionists."

But, unlike these analysts, Herspring attaches overriding significance to establishing stability and predictability in civil-military relations - for which he gives President Putin high marks. Moreover, "had Gorbachev and Yeltsin paid attention to Russian military culture and provided the generals with the stability they sought, the military might have avoided the hell it went through, especially under Yeltsin."

Nevertheless, for Russian military reform to work, the price of oil must remain high and Russia must have "a relatively benign external environment for the next five to ten years."

Thus, beyond effective leadership, Russia's next president will also need good luck
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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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