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Putin shakes up military leadership

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday fired the nation’s top soldier in a security shake-up that also included dismissals of top Interior Ministry officials.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday fired the nation’s top soldier, who was blamed by the defense minister for resisting reform, in a security shake-up that included the dismissals of top officials of the Interior Ministry and the KGB successor agency.

The dismissal of Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, the armed forces’ chief of general staff, was expected after last month’s brazen attack by militants on police and government facilities in Ingushetia, a region that borders Chechnya.

Ninety people were killed in the coordinated assaults, which highlighted Russian forces’ weaknesses in and around Chechnya and undermined Kremlin claims that the situation there was stabilizing after nearly a decade of war and chaos.

Putin also dismissed the head of Interior Ministry forces, Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov; the deputy director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Anatoly Yezhkov; and commander of the North Caucasus military district, which includes Chechnya and Ingushetia, Mikhail Labunets.

The military, Interior Ministry and FSB all are involved in Russia’s campaign against separatist rebels in Chechnya. Yezhkov was the top FSB official for the North Caucasus.

But analysts said the June 21 assault on Ingushetia likely was being used as a pretext to dismiss Kvashnin, who was unpopular in military circles and had clashed with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, a close Putin ally, over military reform. Kvashnin’s position was equivalent to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States.

Putin awarded a Kvashnin an Order of Service to the Fatherland medal for strengthening Russia’s defense capabilities, state-run television reported, but Ivanov suggested the chief of staff failed to adapt the military to changing needs since taking the top job in 1997.

“The country is in a somewhat different and better state now, and in my opinion — and that of the commander in chief — the general staff should focus on the possibilities for development of the armed forces, and think about the wars of the future,” Ivanov said.

‘Focus of discontent’
Liberal politicians accused Kvashnin of undermining attempts to change Russia’s army to a professional force with fewer conscripts.

“He was the focus of everyone’s discontent,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst in Moscow.

Kvashnin also was regarded as both incompetent and overambitious, often upsetting Russian top military officials, including Ivanov, he said.

Alexander Golts, a military observer for the weekly magazine Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, said Kvashnin’s dismissal stemmed from a new law changing the functions of the military’s general staff from operational to mostly analytical. Kvashnin was not ready for that change, Golts said.

The other dismissals were aimed at “finding scapegoats” to blame for unsuccessful policies in Chechnya, Golts said.

Kvashnin’s replacement is Col.-Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the Defense Ministry’s main figure in arms control negotiations, including the 2002 pact under which the United States and Russia agreed to cut their nuclear warhead arsenals by two-thirds.

Pro-Western replacement
Although Baluyevsky was a strong critic of the U.S.-led war on Iraq and of U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield, he is seen as well-inclined toward the West.

In April, after NATO expanded its membership to include several ex-Soviet republics, Baluyevsky struck a conciliatory stance, saying Moscow would closely watch the alliance’s activities in the new Baltic member states, but it wanted to avoid taking military countermeasures.

“Baluyevsky is known for his interest toward the West ... Western diplomats and military men are likely to praise his appointment,” Felgenhauer said.

Kvashnin had rough relations with the West. In his book, “The Russia Hand,” former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott called Kvashnin the “driving force” behind Russian forces’ June 1999 takeover of a Kosovo airport after NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. That takeover dismayed alliance commanders.