MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin on Friday reshuffled the nation's top military brass following the defense minister's ouster, and instructed the new top military officer to be friendlier to Russia's defense industries.
Putin's advice to Col. Gen. Valery Gerasimov, appointed chief of the armed forces' General Staff, appeared to shed more light on the reasons for the ouster of Russia's powerful Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov earlier this week.
While Putin linked the ouster to a probe into the alleged military corruption, most experts believe that Serdyukov was sacked because of an intensifying behind-the-scenes battle for the distribution of $635 billion that the Kremlin plans to spend on buying new weapons through 2020.
Serdyukov demanded higher quality and cheaper prices from the military industry, often refusing to sign new contracts for months. He criticized arms makers for continuing to produce Soviet-era designs instead of developing new weapons, angering industry leaders with strong Kremlin connections.
Under Serdyukov, the military purchased amphibious assault vessels from France, bought Israeli drones, Italian armored vehicles and other foreign weapons.
"We have had a problem with the Defense Ministry changing its demands to the industries," Putin said on Friday. "Of course, we must seek cutting-edge items, but we need a certain stability too. I strongly hope that you will be able to develop a stable and good partnership with our leading defense plants."
Alexander Golts, an independent military analyst, said that Putin's statement sent a message to the military to "forget your demands for the industry to produce modern weapons and be happy with those the defense industries are capable of producing."
"The top military brass is expected to carefully pretend that it's getting state-of-the-art hardware, not the obsolete weapons designed 30 or 40 years ago," he wrote in a comment in the online newspaper ej.ru.
Golts added that along with angering Putin's lieutenants with links to defense industries, Serdyukov's intransigence created a political problem for the president himself by threatening to erode his core support base of blue-collar workers.
Gerasimov replaces Serdyukov loyalist Gen. Nikolai Makarov. The 57-year old Gerasimov is a career military officer who graduated from a Soviet tank academy and previously served as the commander of the Central Military District, a job that made him responsible for Red Square military parades.
As part of Friday's shakeup, Putin also sacked a deputy defense minister and promoted two other generals.
Serdyukov has been succeeded by Sergei Shoigu, who spent only half a year as the governor of the Moscow region after serving as Russia's emergency situations minister for two decades.
Serdyukov ouster came as a surprise because he had previously enjoyed Putin's support for Russia's most radical defense reforms in decades. The effort led to the dismissal of 200,000 officers and the disbanding of 90 percent of Russia's military units in a bid to turn Russia's Soviet-style military into a leaner and a more mobile force similar to Western armies.
When Putin fired Serdyukov on Tuesday, he linked the move to a probe launched last month by the country's top investigative agency into the sale of military assets, including real estate. The agency says the state suffered damages of $95 million in just a few cases reviewed.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Serdyukov is married to the daughter of one of Putin's closest allies, Viktor Zubkov, who served as prime minister in 2007-8 and continues to wield strong clout as chairman of the state-run natural gas giant, Gazprom.