WASHINGTON, June 9 (UPI) -- Russia's defense minister and the nation's new armed forces chief of staff want to dramatically improve the living conditions of Russian servicemen to fulfill a vital policy plank for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov last week rocked Russia's traditionally set-in-its-ways and monolithic defense establishment by squeezing out veteran Armed Forces Chief of Army Gen. Yury Baluyevsky -- who officially "resigned" -- and replacing him with fellow four-star Army Gen. Nikolai Makarov.
Makarov is another highly respected commander, but he is also into "soft" social issues in the military such as educating soldiers in ways that Baluyevsky and his allies in the Russian defense establishment were not.
Current Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin, on the very day he took over as premier, pledged as one of his priority policy goals to improve the living standards of Russian servicemen and their families.
Financial resources, the usual bugbear of military establishments when they are fighting for better conditions for their troops, are not the problem. Russia is awash in oil and gas money. As respected Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer noted in an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington last week, "Under Putin, the defense budget has multiplied as petrodollars have poured into the country. In 2000 it was $6 billion; this year it has been approved at $42 billion and may increase to $50 billion by year's end."
But as Felgenhauer also noted, Putin is incensed because none of that investment has resulted in any tangible improvement in living conditions for troops, or in improving their education, professional capabilities or morale.
"Contract soldiers today get on average $315 a month, while officers get $470 to $590. A recent official Defense Ministry report says that 60 percent of the 1 million servicemen in Russia are discontent with pay and service conditions," he wrote.
Putin and Serdyukov picked Makarov because he stood out from other senior Russian generals by paying so much more attention to the training of his men. As Russian military commentator Ilya Kramnik wrote for RIA Novosti last week, Makarov's emphasis on troop training "is seen as one of his best traits. As commander of the Siberian military district, he organized classes for soldiers and contract sergeants, as well as officer graduates from military colleges, to improve their professional qualifications."
According to Felgenhauer, citing a May 28 report in the newspaper Vedomosti, Baluyevsky even fought Serdyukov's efforts to sell Defense Ministry-owned land near Moscow that in the current economic boom attracts prime prices. Felgenhauer said such sales have already generated $156 million in revenues that Serdyukov wants to use to buy better housing for Russian officers.
But much more is at stake than an obscure, bureaucratic catfight over selling property and land and building improved military accommodations with the money: Although Putin has stepped down as president of Russia, he continues to run the government as prime minister. Putin retains his old base of support in the security services that he ran before being appointed prime minister for the first time by President Boris Yeltsin in 1999. And he has greatly boosted the power of key security service allies -- the so-called siloviki -- by giving them key command roles in government and the energy industry, which is the foundation of Russia's revived wealth and power.
But Putin knows the regular armed forces in Russia are important, too. They are essential to maintaining his secure power base, as is maintaining the strength of the revitalized Russian state he has worked so hard to rebuild. Ignoring the material well-being of the officers and men of Russia's armed forces therefore outrages Putin's sense of social obligation and his clear understanding about the dynamics of politics and power at the same time.
Dropping Baluyevsky and replacing him with Makarov is therefore a vital victory for Russia's leader in his own ongoing struggle with outmoded thinking in his defense establishment.