Angry servicemen, dependents, and civilian employees mounted three well-publicized protests against Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov’s reforms in 2009. Their demonstrations did not lead to violence or spread to other units experiencing personnel reductions and base closings. However, a mutinous action in just one military unit would be a serious sign of less than solid support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitriy Medvedev in the armed forces.
Russian-Style BRAC Pain
Defense Minister Serdyukov’s reforms have sparked discontent in the armed forces. Russia’s economic difficulties have magnified the painful effects of sorely needed and overdue changes in the military.
Serdyukov’s program amounts to a Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process. The Defense Ministry is establishing 85 fully-manned, high readiness army brigades, and eliminating large amounts of understrength force structure and unneeded infrastructure. It is cutting 150,000 officers and tens of thousands of warrant officers.
Protesters in military units in Irkutsk, Berdsk, and Shatalovo mounted demonstrations last year, and dissatisfied Navy personnel in Sevastopol are on the verge of airing their complaints in public. Unrest is clearly evident in a number of defense industrial enterprises.
- The protests did not led to violence, or spread to other units experiencing personnel reductions or base closings. The Defense Ministry ignored them, and waited for demonstrators to tire and give up.
Serdyukov made a concession to placate protesters in Irkutsk. He moved units from the deactivated Berdsk-based 67th Spetsnaz Brigade to the Irkutsk Higher Military Aviation Engineering School.
- This provided employment for some Defense Ministry civilians who lost jobs when Serdyukov closed the school in early 2009.
The greatest chance for unrest may emanate from half of the new army brigades with subordinate units that had to relocate and construct new barracks, housing, and essential infrastructure this year. To date, however, there is only one report of trouble in this regard.
Military Angry, But Unlikely to Become Violent
The demonstrations against Serdyukov’s reforms occurred without serious repercussions, and he has not slowed or altered his course.
- A range of respected Russian military, political, and economic analysts believe the anti-reform demonstrations reveal a level of anger and discontent broader and deeper than protests indicate.
Violent military protests are possible, but unlikely. Public polling shows that most Russians do not expect unrest, and do not plan to participate in protests, although their opinions could change quickly in response to fast-moving developments.
- The Federal Security Service and Defense Ministry also conduct polls of the military’s political attitudes, but the results are not publicized.
The regime has ample police power to suppress a violent military protest, but it takes any chance, even slight, of such an incident seriously. It would indicate less than solid support from the armed forces. A violent protest would put the authorities in the difficult position of calibrating a response. They could overreact, or fail to react decisively.
- Deploying police units against the army could go out of control and escalate unpredictably.
- There is also a chance that the police could fail to subdue a military unit, either by refusing to move against it or by losing a tactical engagement.