If you think Russia's change of defense ministers last month had much to do with defense or military policy, think again. The previous and now humiliated defense minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, was put and kept in place by President Vladimir Putin -- even when Putin was not technically president (during Dmitri Medvedev's placeholding presidency from 2008-2012). Putin put him there to break the organizational resistance of the Russian military and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. His fall may affect whether the Russian military becomes a modern force, but the leadership shuffle was more about the precarious new insider situation in the Russian leadership.
Putin had previously used Serdyukov to bend the Russian tax service to his will. Although detractors referred scornfully to Serdyukov as a "furniture salesman" (he owned such a business in St. Petersburg before becoming a member of the Putin circle in part by marrying the daughter of Putin's close associate Viktor Zubkov), he was a loyal and adept manager. Having beaten the tax police into an efficient instrument of the Kremlin, Serdyukov was not a bad choice to shatter the dysfunctional organizational structure of the Soviet defense ministry -- and I mean Soviet, because that is what the Russian Ministry of Defense remained long after the U.S.S.R. was history.
The Soviet military had broken the back of the Nazi Wehrmacht and had held the United States to a frozen stalemate during the Cold War, but it long ago lost the ability to field an effective force. Organized around territorially-based divisions that were largely empty of soldiers day-to-day because the system relied on mobilizing reserves in times of need, the Russian army was a hollow force. Lots of generals and colonels populated military bases spread throughout Russia, but few of them had actual soldiers to command. Even worse, when constituted, this hollow force was barely mobile, had never learned to operate jointly among services, and was so dependent on direct orders from the top that local commanders at best relied upon inflexible battlefield set pieces, and at worst would have to call back to Moscow for instructions and authorization to cope with contemporary battlefield conditions.
To his credit, Putin recognized the problem and brought Serdyukov in to fix it. Resistance was fierce, but some Russian officers had been chastened by the military's near-disastrous performance against the much weaker Georgians in August 2008. So, with the help of the chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, Serdyukov eliminated the mass mobilization structure and the territorially-based divisions (a move that also required eliminating tens of thousands of senior officer positions responsible for commanding empty divisions in hundreds of ghost military installations across Russia, winning Serdyukov and Makarov the undying enmity of officers thus made redundant). Russia's new military structure is brigade-based and organized into four operational strategic commands designed to be able to respond more rapidly and flexibly.
This organizational reform was finished by about 2010, but to successfully implement a military doctrine that calls for a technologically advanced, joint, and professional force, the Ministry of Defense also needed to bring its personnel, education, logistics, and defense acquisition system into the 21st century. And it was here that Serdyukov really annoyed the Russian establishment by bringing in civilian officials (including women, if you can imagine) to change the way the military did business. By changing how business was done, Serdyukov changed how money was spent, and thus how corruption within the ministry and defense industries would be conducted. That is serious business in today's Russia.
Until stories began to appear about the shady dealings of Serdyukov and his civilian management team, all signs were that he had Putin's confidence and was implementing Putin's policies. Serdyukov had reportedly asked to be allowed to resign in spring 2012, but had been refused by Putin. And even as stories emerged in late October that the company Serdyukov had chosen to outsource logistics for the ministry was a front for the misappropriation of $100 million, Putin publicly affirmed Serdyukov's leadership as defense minister. Yet the embarrassing stories continued, and a raid on the apartment of one of Serdyukov's young female colleagues found...Serdyukov (along with jewelry and art reportedly worth millions). On November 6, Putin announced that he had dismissed Serdyukov because of the corruption investigation and appointed Sergei Shoigu, another reliable Putin enforcer who had headed the Ministry of Emergency Situations and recently become governor of the Moscow region.
So is this about corruption and cleaning up the Ministry of Defense so that money will no longer be stolen or diverted? Not really. It's more like Captain Renault being shocked (shocked!) to find that gambling has been going on, even as he is handed his winnings.
Or, to use an even better film analogy, think of the Russian political system as a giant Mexican standoff, where the antagonists are all holding pistols aimed at one another loaded with kompromat (a lovely Soviet short-form for "compromising material"). Everyone knows (and has evidence) that everyone else has been skimming money from government contracts and finances, and at any time anyone could be brought down by that information. The threat of revelation keeps everyone in line, and the risk of being the next target tends to prevent anyone from shooting first.