MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin fired his powerful defense chief over a corruption scandal Tuesday, but a heady mix of sex, power struggles and military vendettas dominated talk in Russia about what was really behind the downfall of the man who has overseen the nation’s most radical defense reform in decades.
The dismissal of Anatoly Serdyukov was a surprise because the burly politician was widely regarded as having the president’s blessing for a military modernization that has won the enmity of generals and arms makers with connections to members of Putin’s inner circle.
Adding intrigue was the fact that Serdyukov is married to the daughter one of Putin’s close allies, a former prime minister who wields enormous influence as chairman of state-run natural gas giant Gazprom. Media reports suggest that Serdyukov’s alleged philandering angered Viktor Zubkov and may have been a factor in the sacking.
But most experts see a behind-the-scenes power struggle.
Serdyukov has masterminded a campaign to drastically cut the ranks of officers and overhaul an antiquated military structure to create a leaner, meaner force that might restore Russia’s faded military glory.
In particular, he has aggressively demanded higher quality and cheaper prices from the military industry — ruffling powerful business interests. That is seen as having set off an internal struggle in which Kremlin allies of leading arms makers have conspired to bring Serdyukov down.
“He angered the leaders of defense industries, refusing to sign new contracts until they make their prices fully transparent,” said Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based military expert. “And he told them that the military will buy the weapons it needs, not the weapons they want to sell.”
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Associated Press that Serdyukov’s moves to “replace the very foundation of the Russian military system” won him powerful enemies.
Putin made the announcement in a meeting with Moscow regional governor Sergei Shoigu, whom he appointed as the new minister. Some observers predict that Shoigu may take a less radical approach to military reform.
While giving few details, the president linked the move to a probe announced by the country’s top investigative agency last month into the sale of military assets, including real estate. The Investigative Committee says the state suffered damages of 3 billion rubles ($95 million) in just a few cases reviewed.
The corruption case surfaced last month and involves Oboronservice, a state-controlled company that services military aircraft and arms and builds military facilities.
In the course of the probe, investigators carried out an early morning search of the apartment of Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, a senior Oboronservice official who was once a close aide of Serdyukov in the Defense Ministry. Serdyukov reportedly was alone with Vasilyeva when police turned up — fueling rumors of an affair.