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Fog of War

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (May 20−24)

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The conflict over the Defence Ministry continues after a reshuffle at its top. This confrontation is gradually turning into an all-out war, in which rival clans and groups get destroyed. Mind you, the latest events have little to do with either Sergei Shoigu who has lost his job, or his entourage. Two prominent generals have been arrested this week. Ivan Popov, the former commander of the 58th Army, which is currently fighting in Ukraine, was detained on suspicion of fraud: he had been allegedly selling rebar to the third party, which was intended for the construction of fortifications. Vadim Shamarin, deputy chief of the general staff and head of the Russian army’s main communications department, was arrested on suspicion of corruption. All this could be attributed to internal purges carried out by the new Defence Minister, Andrey Belousov, with Vladimir Putin’s approval, and seen as a single process. However, the president has made it clear that he is satisfied with the work of the «military» part of the Defence Ministry, and what’s more, Popov and Shamarin represent different and conflicting parts of the army.

Ivan Popov is a prominent representative of the generals and officers as a whole who are dissatisfied with the state of affairs at the front, the actions of the previous leadership of the Defence Ministry and the continued leadership of the General Staff. Popov, known by his nom de guerre «Spartak», was popular with the army and the so-called war correspondents: he would arrive at the front. go down into the trenches and was not afraid to criticize his superiors. After one of such outbursts of criticisms Popov was removed from his post as commander of the 58th Army and sent from the front to Syria. The arrest of «Spartak» can be seen as a successful operation carried out by his detractors, i.e. the leadership of the General Staff and the now resigned Minister Shoigu. But that same group of malcontents has also suffered losses. The head of the communications department, General Shamarin, who was arrested, is a close associate of the head of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov.

The parties to the conflict over the Defence Ministry are engaged in a conflict that is virtually uncontrolled (or not controlled at all) by the country’s top leadership. As in the case of the arrest of Sergei Shoigu’s former deputy Timur Ivanov, the opposing groups are trying to remove key figures in the enemy camp, weakening and demoralising each other through power struggles. Critics of the General Staff leadership rejoice at Shamarin’s arrest and resent Popov’s detention. Of course, these squabbles do little for the unity of the army. The Kremlin cannot present the arrests of generals as a unified policy of necessary purges, because the people who want these purges know very well to which group this or that detainee belongs. Perhaps, that is why the country’s top leadership is not even trying to put up a good front amidst this mess.

The conflict between groups within the army and the «losses» sustained by the general corps are a kind of «fog of war». One might think that the reshuffle in the Defence Ministry was intended to ease the tensions brewing among the «army people,» who had long been dissatisfied with the policies of Sergei Shoigu, whom they perceived as an outsider from the very start. The short-term release of these tensions immediately gave rise to new sources of discontent. Some of the generals are not satisfied with the policy of the General Staff and the very fact that the top brass have retained their jobs after Shoigu’s dismissal. Another part of the army’s leadership, on the other hand, is aligned with the General Staff, and they are hardly thrilled by the arrest of Shamarin, a prominent member of the General Staff. The fact that a civilian — Andrey Belousov — has been appointed Defence Minister is unlikely to please the hardcore military cadres. In all likelihood, the army elites would have accepted the Kremlin’s policy, as they have done many times before, had they only understood what this policy consisted of. But they see no rhyme or reason to this policy, no coherent plan behind it, and so the «fog of war» is growing thicker and thicker. Vladimir Putin is only making matters worse, adding to the fog: he is praising the General Staff, and according to the previous rulebook this clear signal would have given the General Staff immunity from attack and loss. «As far as the General Staff and the whole structure of combat work is concerned,» Putin assured, «there are no changes and no plans for them. I want this to be clear to everyone».

But what might have sounded like a reassurance and a clarification, a point of reference in the thick fog, was followed by Shamarin’s arrest and a new round of disorientation. It is unlikely that the density of Russia’s very special «fog of war’ will contribute to the effectiveness of the Russian army’s actions at the front.

Payoffs instead of promotions

The State Duma and the government have decided that war veterans will not be affected by the tax increase planned by the country’s leadership. This was announced by Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and the Chairperson of the lower house of the parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin. Thus, the new front-line soldiers will enjoy another bonus: a higher net income. Tax benefits are added to discounts on housing and utilities, payment holidays, facilitated admission to universities for children of military personnel, and so on. The policy pursued by the Russian authorities is clear: they are trying to lure as many people as possible to the front in order to avoid the need to launch the unpopular nation-wide mass-mobilization campaign (or to make this mobilization less massive). Contractors are lured by high — especially by provincial standards — direct payments and benefits that should make life after the war easier. Retention of the previous tax regime is one such lure.

The perks of the «job» also include the so-called personnel lift — social mobility. Vladimir Putin called the war veterans «the new elite» and promised them prominent positions in the power vertical. In addition to these statements, the political bloc of the presidential administration quickly organized a personnel competition called «Time of Heroes». The contest is open to military personnel who are currently on the front line, and they are promised bureaucratic and deputy positions as prizes. Parties, including the «United Russia» party, also promise to promote «front-line soldiers» to positions in the State Duma. deputies. In this case, the authorities do little beyond the empty promises. Literally only a handful of war veterans have been promoted to bureaucratic posts, but those are mostly the people who had worked in administrations at various levels before they volunteered for the front. The «Time of Heroes» is also not designed for outsiders, but for participants with managerial experience.

The military themselves are not eager to enter the legislative power either. Elections to the regional assemblies are being held in 13 regions of Russia, and only about a hundred people applied for the «United Russia» party primaries in all these federal regions. It can be assumed that only a few will become MPs: the authorities are also unlikely to welcome random people in uniform in the ranks of the people’s elected representatives.

The Russian leadership is using a familiar tactic with regard to the soldiers fighting in Ukraine. It bribes those it wants to lure to the front, and buys off these people in advance with more and more benefits and perks. As a result, these «front-line soldiers» will form a strange layer between civilians and the elite. The split within the Russian society, which the authorities themselves have created by trying to lure as many men as possible to the front, will thus grow deeper and deeper.

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