Defense and Army Chiefs Feud over Disarmament

Russian chief of staff, Army General Anatoly Kvashnin, is coming under heavy flak for his program to reform the armed forces – most heatedly from defense minister Sergei Ivanov.

The general despises the minister as a civilian bureaucrat – and a stubborn one at that.

The minister cannot see the point of the costly reform project introduced by the chief of staff. So far it has run to a six billion rubles (US$200 million), yet leaves senior officers so underpaid that they resign in droves, slashes arms acquisitions and R and D, reduces Russia’s strategic missile force from nineteen divisions to two, and leaves Moscow bereft of air defenses.

After touring northwest Russia on March 1-4 to inspect NATO’s March 1-15 “Strong Resolve” exercise in Norway and Poland, the Russian defense minister returned to Moscow with a gloomy assessment: If NATO were to attack Russia, Kaliningrad would fall on the first day and St. Petersburg on day two.

DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s Moscow sources report that neither official admits the real reason for the friction between them, namely the strategy embarked upon by President Vladimir in the wake of his understandings with US president George W. Bush.

Both are close to President Putin. They also compete for access to the presidential presence.

Putin has by and large used Kvashnin’s reform program as a vehicle for transforming the Russian armed forces in stages from a strategic, nuclear-armed force, to the largest rapid deployment army in Europe. This transformation is being financed by the United States in order to acquire the Special Forces divisions it needs in the forefront of the global war on terror.

DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s sources in Kabul reveal that, last week, Russia’s Federal Security Service – the FSB – was secretly placed in charge of the personal security of Afghanistan’s interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, and his family. Russian security officers began training 250 loyalist Afghans as the prime minister’s future personal guard detail.

This was one of the most delicate joint steps taken by the Americans and Russians in Kabul, because it effectively removes the British elite contingent of the international peacekeeping force from the charge it undertook to protect the lives of Karzai and his cabinet. This step does however strengthen Russian influence in the Afghan capital.

Not only Britain, but most other European members of NATO are unhappy too about the rising dominance of US-Russian military ties. The men in Brussels claim that NATO is being downgraded and their European rapid deployment force plan rendered redundant before it reaches the paper stage. By the time it does, Russia will have five well equipped and highly- trained divisions standing and ready for deployment. German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, stands out as supporting the Bush-Putin strategy.

The American reply to the European complaint is that the transformation of the Russian military machine removes Moscow’s strategic threat to Europe.

Another step Putin processed in line with his understandings with Bush was to make the defense minister transfer responsibility for the Chechen war from his own ministry to the Federal Security Service – FSB, where Putin is in control. The FSB may invite troops to take part in the fighting, but is ultimately responsible for its outcome, rather than the military command. The chief of staff took this as a gesture of support by the president for himself, and a reduction in the powers of his rival, the defense minister.

In another step towards deeper US-Russian military collaboration, the Pentagon this week proposed making the American commander of the European Command, Air Force General Joseph Ralston, responsible for military-to-military relations with Russia, a non-member of NATO but an associate partner. Until now, the Joint Chiefs of Staff handled those relations from Washington. President Bush has to approve the step.

Some parts of the army go along with Ivanov’s objections to Putin’s private deals with Bush, claiming that, on the pretext of budgetary constraints, he is pulling the teeth of Russian military strength. They cite the closure of key Russian bases in Vietnam, Cuba and Georgia and the liquidation of Moscow’s air defense system.

Putin, for his part, is basing Russia’s world role on the pledges he received from Bush of global mutual defense collaboration in such places as Central Asia, Afghanistan and Georgia. Putin, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly revealed last week, has decided to back the US offensive against Iraq, a step that factions in Russia’s high command do not approve of.

Ivanov and his following among Russian generals still live under the shadow of the days of the Soviet Union, when America and the North Atlantic Alliance were seen as an existential threat to their country and its world standing. They cannot digest the dramatic strategic turnabout effected last year in private understandings between the Russian and US presidents.

Ivanov argues that Bush may be here today, and gone tomorrow, while Russia meanwhile sheds its military strength. Only a year ago, the last US president, William Clinton ordered an American withdrawal from Central Asia. Who knows what the next American will want to do?

Putin, however, is looking forward to another seven good years with Bush, counting on his re-election for a second term in the White House. Therefore, Kvashnin believes that he, not Ivanov, is on a winning streak.

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