Russian defense minister’s Washington trip brings old foes together

WASHINGTON — Early in his career, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates honed his intelligence skills practicing the art of Kremlinology. He analyzed footage of high-ranking Soviet officials as they inspected soldiers parading through Red Square, and took note of who was standing next to whom in an effort to gauge who was in and who was out.

It was, he has said, a surprisingly effective means of gathering intelligence.

This week, Gates will need to call on his considerable experience with Moscow as he prepares to welcome a Russian Minister of Defense to the Pentagon for the first time. “I mean, here is Secretary Gates, who made his career analyzing the Soviets, and here he is as the Secretary of Defense for the first time inviting his Russian counterpart to come to the building,” said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, emphasizing the historic nature of the meeting.

Russians, for their part, are fascinated by Gates, says Travis Sharp, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security. “There’s a level of respect for Robert Gates in Russia.”

US Defense officials are anxious, too, to meet the staff of Russian Defense Minister Anatoyl Serdyukov, a former businessman who Russians jokingly call “the furniture salesman.” But that moniker doesn’t fit his standing, says Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the US & Europe at the Brookings Institution. “He has very close ties to the inner circle in Russia.”

Serdyukov’s father-in-law was one of former Russian president Vladimir Putin’s most trusted deputies. Though he has no connections to the military, Serdyukov has the connections – and it appears the inclination, say defense analysts – to bring about change within Russia’s defense arm. “He’s a skilled operational manager who was brought in to clean up shop and cut through vested interests,” says Ms. Hill.

It is no mystery why the two have not met sooner. Relations between the countries took a considerable hit in the fall of 2008, when Russian troops moved into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

But the invasion, analysts say, also had the other, less intuitive effect of prompting the Russian Ministry of Defense to examine its forces and make them more accountable, says Mr. Sharp.

The reform efforts that now preoccupy Serdyukov may also have implications for the Pentagon. “What’s most interesting about this meeting is that both the Russian Defense Ministry and our DOD [Department of Defense] are in the midst of major restructuring and budget cuts,” says Hill. “The most significant thing” she says, is that the countries are “old adversaries coming from similar places.”

The Pentagon has taken pains to emphasize this common ground in advance of the meeting Wednesday, as the defense heads are expected to take up such topics as missile defense and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) – currently the subject of tense debate on Capitol Hill. “They are both taking on very bold, very ambitious reform initiatives within their respective militaries, and I think they both want to talk about how that’s going,” Mr. Morrell said in a briefing with reporters last week. “I think this will probably be a very interesting conversation as they both wrestle the bureaucracies, the institutional forces in their militaries.”

But defense officials are aware that the reform the Russians are undertaking includes, for example, buying new weapons. And they may soon have more money to do just that: A 2007 study in Russia found that auditors could not track down some 70 percent of budget funds that were supposed to go to the military. “When you get a track on that, it allows Russian leadership to try to better control its resources,” Sharp says. “That has implications for the US – for better or for worse.”

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