Putin dismisses defense minister amid corruption case

Longtime ally’s ouster spawns raft of theories

Anatoly E. Serdyukov has not been charged with a crime, and Putin praised his past work.
Anatoly E. Serdyukov has not been charged with a crime, and Putin praised his past work.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin fired Russia’s defense minister Tuesday after police raided the offices and an apartment of a real estate company involved in the privatization of valuable ministry land near Moscow.

The firing of Anatoly E. Serdyukov, a longtime Putin ally, is one of the highest-level dismissals connected to a corruption case in recent memory in Russia. It was also a departure for Putin, a leader who has been reluctant to dismiss members of his inner circle. Putin announced the decision to fire Serdyukov in a meeting with another longtime political ally, Sergei K. Shoigu, the former minister of emergency situations, whom he appointed the new defense minister.

In the past, officials within the tight coterie of ministers and state company managers who have been close to Putin for years have typically circulated between jobs rather than been summarily fired.


Dmitry S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the firing was necessary to allow police to continue their investigation of wrongdoing within the ministry, which would not be possible if Serdyukov remained. Serdyukov has not been charged with a crime, and Putin praised his past work.

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Many ministers in the Russian government have secondary roles in business and even extensive property and wealth that is typically tolerated unless an official falls from favor for another reason, analysts of Russian politics say.

‘‘In Russia . . . what matters first and foremost are informal deals and relations,’’ said Maria Lipman, a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center. ‘‘We should be looking for some kind of intrigue behind this all, some kind of a clash of very important interests.’’

Lipman said that in Russia’s political environment, corruption cases could be opened as a way of settling scores. ‘‘And in an environment as corrupt as Russia, almost anyone can fall victim,’’ she said.

Why Serdyukov’s case emerged into public view is unclear. Russian media outlets have promulgated theories of a personal clash in the elite and a conflict with the generals over military policy.


Serdyukov had alienated the uniformed military during a reform that sought to thin the top-heavy officer ranks in Russia, a legacy of Soviet military hierarchy. He adopted a system of noncommissioned officers, as in the US Army. Generals were also fired.

Through these efforts, Serdyukov won no friends. He also once referred to the officer ranks as ‘‘little green men.’’

Russia’s defense industry was a crucial base of support for Putin in the presidential election he won in March. As part of the campaign, Putin pledged major increases in spending for the defense sector, promises that have been cast into uncertainty during budget negotiations.

Shoigu holds the rank of general. ‘‘He is a figure that won’t cause allergies in the military,’’ Viktor Litovkin, the chief editor of the weekly newspaper Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

The firing of Serdyukov, who had overseen a nuclear arsenal and significant conventional forces, also raised the prospect of personal disagreements within the ruling elite affecting policy. It is a potentially destabilizing element in a system tolerant of nepotism.


Serdyukov, a former furniture store manager from St. Petersburg, is married to Yulia V. Pokhlebenina, the daughter of a close associate of Putin, Viktor A. Zubkov. Zubkov is chairman of Gazprom, the natural gas company, a post in Russia with power at least rivaling that of minister of defense.

Fallen official

But the couple have recently become estranged. And a high-profile police raid late last month on the real estate company, Oboronservice, telegraphed Serdyukov’s dismissal.

That raid coincided with a Cabinet meeting, humiliating Serdyukov, who was compelled to miss the meeting.

In another raid related to the real estate case, police searched the home of a female official affiliated with Oboronservice. They found Serdyukov at that location, the newspaper Izvestia reported.