Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Sergei Yolkin.

Anatoly Serdukov’s abrupt dismissal as defense minister on November 6 reminds us that personal politics are paramount in modern Russia. Ostensibly, Serdyukov was dismissed over embezzlement allegations surrounding the Defense Ministry holding company Oboronservis. But other ministers have weathered worse and until very recently, Serdyukov had seemed to enjoy President Vladimir Putin’s full support. Something had changed to make him a liability.

It was not because the high command despised Serdyukov. They have been grumbling for years and in a way the more they did, the more he could use this as proof that he was actually doing his job. Reform, after all, is usually painful.

Instead, he was laid low by personal relationships and rumors of an affair. His father-in-law, former Prime Minister and close Putin ally Viktor Zubkov, wanted his head. Serdyukov was a trusted underling, but Zubkov is a powerful figure in his own right and also one of Putin’s inner circle. Forced to choose between the minister and the chairman of Gazprom’s board, Putin sided with the latter. The moral of the story (beyond being faithful to your wife) is that a powerful personal friend of the president has much more clout than a competent minister or, indeed, the entire high command.

This marks a key crossroads for military reform. Serdyukov had only started the process, and the practical impact of many of his specific measures is open to question. The army is no longer structured in Soviet-style divisions but smaller brigades and battalion tactical groups, which should be more flexible. Inroads have been made into the bloated, top-heavy officer corps. Many problems remain. However, Serdyukov does deserve credit for beginning to drag the Russian military out of its Soviet past.

The next steps are to improve the quality of soldiers and especially junior and non-commissioned officers (which means making sure they have decent quarters and aren’t bullied), develop tactics which will allow the army to use its shiny new weapons, and make sure those weapons are the ones the military really need. After all, at the moment too much of what they get is late, overpriced, out-of-date and what the defense industries want to build.

This sets a formidable series of challenges for Serdyukov’s successor, Sergei Shoigu, the former emergency situations minister and, for six months, governor of the Moscow Region. Putin clearly regards Shoigu as one of his “go to” executives, someone on whom he can rely to sort out difficult problems. In his 18-year tenure as minister, Shoigu took a disparate and near-collapse collection of firefighters, civil defense troops and other emergency workers – and made it work.

He has the potential to be an even more effective defense minister.  Although he holds the rank of general, he is an engineer and an administrator, no more a soldier than Serdyukov. But he knows how to work with the “siloviki,” the “men of force” of the security apparatus. He also knows how to modernize conservative and dysfunctional structures. The next stage of reform will require looking beyond the ministry, taking on the defense industries and defending the military budget, even while sparring with the generals. That will require a more deft political touch than Serdyukov’s – as well as a willingness to take on powerful vested interests.

Shoigu may have the skills and the backbone for this fight, but will he choose to? With Putin looking increasingly distant, members of the elite are beginning to think the unthinkable: who might end up succeeding him. These range from the nationalist showman Dmitry Rogozin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to Putin-understudy and troubleshooter Dmitry Kozak. Shoigu is also on this list. He is perennially the most popular minister in the government, energetic and capable. As a future prime minister, even president, he makes a credible candidate.

So far, Shoigu has seemed a loyal, practical fixer – just what the Defense Ministry needs. But if he does harbor these ambitions – and no one yet is voicing any such thoughts – then it could incline him to pushing reform forward to show his modernizing credentials.

However, it’s more likely that it would encourage him to be less aggressive. After all, would he really want to be characterized as the man who shut down arms factories and bought even more foreign-made equipment (even if it may be better and cheaper)? The man who slashed military strength, even as tensions rise in the North Caucasus (even if Russia cannot man its existing units)?

In many ways, the outcome of the next stage of military reform will depend on quite which campaign Shoigu decides to fight.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read here.