Center for Strategic Communication

Anatoly Serdyukov during a meeting with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Photo: Defense Department

It’s been a rocky few months for Anatoly Serdyukov, the Kremlin’s top defense minister. A messy push to reform the Russian military has collided with President Vladimir Putin’s plans to expand it. He’s clashed with Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, over a plan to sell off Russia’s surplus of rundown military buildings. And now he’s out of a job, ostensibly owing to a multi-million-dollar corruption scheme related to the plan.

On Tuesday, Putin fired the minister, citing an investigation into an alleged embezzlement scheme among senior Defense Ministry officials. The scheme allegedly involves a state-owned maintenance company, Oboronservis, which was set up four years ago to renovate old military buildings and equipment, and then sell off the glut of decaying facilities to the private sector.

Instead, facilities were illegally sold below market value, the Kremlin’s investigators allege; with the profit lining the pockets of well-connecting insiders within the ministry, including at least $96,000 along with jewelry and antiques discovered in the possession of one property manager. Altogether, the Kremlin alleges the scheme pulled in more than $95 million from the illegal sales. Serdyukov had to go, “In order to create the necessary conditions for an objective investigation into all the issues that have arisen in this regard,” Putin said.

But there’s also enough dirt in the drawers of Russia’s leaders — Putin’s included — to raise questions about selective enforcement. Especially with a minister like Serdyukov. The now-former minister has pushed for reforms limiting the draft, and has been at the forefront of an effort to limit the total number of current reservists in the army.

“[Serdyukov’s] reform, if it is to succeed, sooner or later, would have meant a change not only in the military organization of the country. It would lead to fundamental changes in the relationship between the citizen and the state,” wrote Russian journalist Alexader Goltz. By moving toward ending the draft and limiting the number of reservists, Serdyukov had “increasingly come into conflict with the basic principles of the Putin government.”

A number of older officers have been dismissed, and Serdyukov has instituted a new non-commissioned officer corps along the lines of the U.S. military. The privatization of military facilities – part of a larger attempt to professionalize the Russian military — has alienated generals. Serdyukov, a civilian, has meanwhile been replaced by Sergey Shoigu, a former general and “emergency situations” minister, who has a chance of easing the army’s fears.

Nor are corruption plots involving sales of state assets all that unusual in Russia, and criminal indictments have frequently been used as a means to shunt aside Putin’s rivals, various dissidents and officials who run afoul of state policies. Putin has notably used corruption cases to imprison or exile oligarchs critical of the Kremlin. In July, the Putin’s investigators charged protest leader and blogger Alexei Navalny with embezzlement over an alleged scheme to defraud a state-owned timber company, of which Navalny was the former director.

Putin also has reason to think Serdyukov has been too slow to rebuild Moscow’s military, which has suffered from decades of neglect after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin has pushed for new tanks, warshipslong-range bombers and missiles; and has even ordered the creation of a defense research projects agency modeled along the lines of the Pentagon’s blue-sky research agency Darpa. The Kremlin potentate has also redirected military forces toward the Arctic — where there are bountiful reserves of oil and natural gas — and has pushed to massively expand Russia’s drone fleet.

That might all be too much too soon. ”Serdyukov’s military reform has been radical, but it lacked a clear strategic objective or a defined doctrine,” wrote Pavel Felgenhauer of the Jamestown Foundation, who added that Russia’s military suffers from a lack of transparency, while being spread out too thin. “The cloak of almost total secrecy has led to costly mistakes and massive criminal misappropriations of resources,” he wrote.

It’s also perhaps a little ironic, but Serdyukov was criticized in June for not moving fast enough on selling off more than 1,600 neglected military houses, mostly inhabited by retired officers. Serdyukov reportedly said his ministry had already burned through its renovation budget for the year, and was therefore unable to pay for utilities needed before transferring the houses to civilian control.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who held the post of president until Putin’s return to the office in May, assailed the minister, and said someone in the ministry should be fired. “Then fire me,” Serdyukov reportedly said. This week, Serdyukov got his wish.