Leadership: Off With Their Heads

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October 9, 2011: So far this year, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has been firing generals and other senior officers at an unprecedented rate. The latest to go was two-star army general Andrei Tretyak, who was the deputy chief of the Stavka (the staff that controls the entire armed forces). Tretyak was that latest senior officer to oppose Medvedev's military reforms, and get fired for it. Earlier, the general in charge of electronic warfare, along with the head of the Mobilization Directorate, the head of the Space Forces Academy and senior military prosecutors were fired. Other senior military leaders are under pressure to perform or lose their jobs, and Medvedev made it very clear that this is not an empty threat.

This all began when, earlier this year, when Medvedev announced that conscription would be phased out as quickly as possible (a decade or so) and the armed forces (especially the army) would change into a smaller, more professional, all-volunteer force. There is actually little choice, as the number of young men answering draft calls keeps shrinking. This new policy means abandoning the use of massive number of troops and tanks to win battles, as was done during World War II. Many generals disagree with the new program, but they have been ordered to shut up and make the new program work (or lose their jobs). Such dismissals can be the equivalent of social and economic "death" because so much social stature, and economic benefits, comes along with being a general on active duty.

Despite over a year pushing the new reforms, Medvedev has often encountered officials who apparently did not get the message. For example, earlier this year Medvedev fired half a dozen senior (generals, colonels and equivalent civilians) and procurement officials for not doing their jobs. Medvedev promised to fire more if there was not significant improvement in Defense Ministry performance.

In this particular case, Medvedev was upset at the delays in spending money for new weapons and equipment. The military has been asking for this stuff since the 1990s, and had been quite specific about what it needed. But the Defense Ministry bureaucrats were not able to get the purchase orders out to cash-starved Russian defense firms. Medvedev demanded to know who was responsible for this mess, and made mention of how in the bad-old-days, such people would be sent to labor camps. This reference to Stalin era brutality (especially towards officials who failed) is still popular in Russia.

This was not the first time Medvedev has had problems with the Defense Ministry leadership, and the senior officers who came up during the Soviet days. His message (reform or get fired) keeps running into resistance, despite the growing list of dismissed generals. Lots of defense ministry bureaucrats are getting the boot as well. For example, at the beginning of the year, two senior managers of the Russian Space Agency, plus some lesser managers, were fired. The reason was the loss of a Proton satellite launcher due to poor management and supervision. Last December 17, Russia lost three GLONASS navigation satellites when the Proton rocket carrying them malfunctioned and caused the satellites to crash into the Pacific. The Proton rocket had been fueled incorrectly, causing imbalance and failure to achieve orbit. Medvedev means business, and will apparently keep dismissing senior officials until everyone gets the message.

The prompt dismissal of so many senior managers is an ancient practice in Russia. There has been a long tradition of the "vertical chop", where several senior leaders in the same chain of command are dismissed (or even executed, at least in the old days) when there was a screw up in their area of responsibility. This approach has fallen out of favor in the West, where the tendency is to fire as few people as possible when there is a major failure. After September 11, 2001, for example, no one got fired.

But the vertical chop still lives in some areas. The U.S. Navy, for example, will fire the captain of a ship, and often several other officers as well, when there is an accident. This recognizes the fact that accidents with ships can be very expensive, and get a lot of people killed. While the officers fired don't like it, most naval officers accept the vertical chop as a necessary evil. There are always plenty of capable officers available to replace those dismissed, and the replacements have the fear of the vertical chop to encourage them to do better.

Medvedev is following this policy secure in the knowledge that there are many younger, and more able, officers and managers ready to move up. And when they do, they will have no illusions about what happens if you don't get the job done.

 

 


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