Dale R. Herspring. The Kremlin and the High Command: Presidential Impact on the Russian Military from Gorbachev to Putin. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006. xix + 242 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1467-7.
Reviewed by Donald Wayson (Department of History, University of Texas at Arlington)
Published on H-War (June, 2008)
The Red Army in Transition
The year 1991 marked the end of a Communist Soviet Union and the vaunted Red Army. What happened to this army, once regarded as one of the most powerful military forces on earth? In The Kremlin and the High Command, Dale R. Herspring, a political science professor at Kansas State University, seeks to answer that question as he explores the army's demise beginning with the rule of Mikhail Gorbachev through the presidencies of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. This study is the first volume to cover the Russian military, and its failures, under their leadership. In this well-written and quite readable book, Herspring breaks new ground and provides a useful tool for anyone interested in the current state of the Russian military.
In seven chapters, Herspring presents handy introductions and great summaries of each leader, including a description of their respective leadership style, as it pertains to the military. Herspring also brilliantly details the main events in Russian military history. For example, he discusses the problems that Yeltsin faced in Chechnya and the manner in which he backed out of responsibility for the debacle. He shows that generals received the blame for the failure in Chechnya since Yeltsin did nothing to deflect criticism from them. As Herspring writes, "Instead of praising the military for its sacrifices in fighting the war in Chechnya, Yeltsin criticized it sharply" (p. 104). Herspring is also quite critical of how both Yeltsin and Gorbachev handled the transition from a Communist state to the current "democratic" state of Russia. Since a transition of this magnitude had never been attempted, Gorbachev faced the greatest difficulties. Due to a struggling economy, the Soviet military and its budget had to be cut; and it was Gorbachev's job to inform the military of these cuts. Not surprisingly, this task was not easy and the military obviously did not take well to these changes. This was an organization that had been fully funded under Soviet rule and was inexperienced in seeking additional funds or facing the prospect of cuts.
Herspring examines perestroika and glasnost and their effects on the military. Gorbachev introduced demokratizatsiya in which "subordinates would not be afraid to criticize the actions of superiors" (p. 35). Once again, this was a shift that the military could not easily understand; in the Soviet past, when an order was given, subordinates followed it without question and surely did not question it publicly. Under perestroika, this questioning became the backbone of the new military, and under glasnost, Gorbachev made all information available to the public. The military, and its high command, was forced to work under the public radar; programs were broadcast on television criticizing the high command and its leaders; and details were made public putting the high command under a microscope. This turn to glasnost was obviously a new manner of functioning for the military.
Yeltsin and his relationship with the high command is a topic on which Herspring spends significant attention in the book. Yeltsin, according to the author, used the military in taking control of Russia by offering incentives to the high command with which he did not follow through. Yeltsin did whatever it took to keep generals on his side and "promise[d] them almost anything" (p. 65). He was also able to get military support against the Russian parliament by offering to raise salaries, something he had difficulty achieving.
The chapter on Putin is less extensive for obvious reasons. Most of his history is not yet written; several years may pass before we learn his true impact on the military. After the confusion left by Yeltsin and a leadership that felt burned by its leader, Putin's goal, Herspring writes, was to "reintroduce stability and predictability into the military" (p. 155). While Putin had his low moments (the sinking of the submarine Kursk and the Beslan school incident, for example), he was able to centralize the power of the president and accept accountability for failures instead of blaming the military. Herspring believes, as his sources also show, that Putin was a much better leader than Gorbachev or Yeltsin, because he "introduced a sense of order and predictability" to the office (p. 192).
Herspring's use of Russian sources is well conceived. He utilizes a wide variety of sources for this historic volume. The author admits that he does not fully agree with all of his sources, but does not shy away from inserting them in his book. He combines the sources relating to the three different leaders masterfully and gives readers one complete volume on the Russian military. Herspring pursues his thesis by answering questions concerning each of the three leaders by asking "what kind of leadership does the president exhibit and how is it perceived by the military" (p. 16). Herspring also does a great job of comparing the Russian army to armies of the Western world and the current army to that of the former Soviet army.
The conclusion includes a synopsis of each leader and his role with regard to the military. Herspring details the troubles that the Russian military currently faces and summarizes how the military has reformed itself under the leadership of these three men. He maintains that the military under Soviet regimes was accustomed to direction from its leaders. Under Yeltsin and Gorbachev, it was asked to play a more directly political role, and now is returning to its comfort zone under Putin, a leader who provides explicit directions to the military. Herspring is less critical of the presidency of Putin, as compared to Yeltsin and Gorbachev, but, in his defense, the military leadership did not care for Yeltsin or Gorbachev and the Russian military is in much better shape under Putin than it was under his two predecessors. In any event, as Herspring points out, whether the generals "like" Putin (or any other president) is not relevant to his study. He set out to determine which of the three leadership styles worked, if any, and where the Russian military would proceed. It is obvious to Herspring, as it will be to the reader as well, that Putin's conservative, straightforward approach better serves the Russian military.
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