Petraeus’s Russian Double

Talk about parallels. To Russians, the adultery-related resignation of Central Intelligence Director David Petraeus looks uncannily like a scandal that recently hit their own defense minister, Igor Serdyukov.

Petraeus resigned on Nov. 9, citing his “poor judgment” in conducting an extramarital affair, apparently with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Russian President Vladimir Putin fired Serdyukov on Nov. 6 amid rumors that the minister was having an affair with his subordinate, Yevgenia Vasilyeva.

The simultaneous scandals show just how differently the political machines in Moscow and Washington work.

Petraeus's indiscretion was discovered by accident during an investigation into an e-mail harassment case, according to U.S. news reports. By then, the affair had ended, and only the incriminating messages remained. The White House was informed, and the four-star general tendered his resignation amid discussions of possible security breaches that could be caused by such behavior. Petraeus himself acknowledged the danger.

Nothing was so straightforward in Serdyukov's case. On Oct. 25, according to Russian news reports, investigators were greeted by the minister himself when they arrived to search a 13-room apartment that belonged to Vasilyeva, then head of the Defense Ministry's property department. She was a suspect in a major corruption case. Investigators said Vasilyeva's department invested vast amounts of government money in the renovation of Defense Ministry properties that were later sold off cheaply to private companies. The search turned up $3 million worth of jewelry, according to the state-controlled news service Vesti. The inventory took several days to complete.

Bloggers and some media immediately trumpeted that Serdyukov was romantically involved with Vasilyeva. After all, the investigators had found him in her apartment at about 6 a.m. Some of the information came from sources within the ministry, where Serdyukov, the first civilian to head Russia's vast military machine, was widely hated for his cost-cutting initiatives and his drive for a smaller, more professional armed force. Serdyukov has neither confirmed nor denied the affair.

Adultery would be politically perilous in Serdyukov's case. His wife is Yulia Zubkova, the daughter of longtime Putin ally and former Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who currently serves as chairman of the natural gas monopoly Gazprom. The Serdyukovs and Vasilyeva are neighbors. “Serdyukov should not have angered his father-in-law,” journalist Tatyana Netreba wrote on the website of the newspaper Argumenti i Fakti. “We are all human, but this is not just an office romance, it's an affair being conducted in plain sight of the lawful wife, the beloved daughter of a top official.”

Some commentators suspected that the sex scandal might be little more than a convenient explanation for Serdyukov's dismissal. Alexei Venediktov, head of the influential Echo Moscow radio station, pointed out that Serdyukov was not the only top defense official to go. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the general staff, also lost his job, even though “he had not jilted a former prime minister's daughter."

“Under Serdyukov and Makarov, the Defense Ministry refused the obsolete armaments offered by the military-industrial complex for untold sums of government money. Instead, it demanded modern weaponry, including soldier-protection systems,” Venediktov wrote. Defense-industry lobbyists "demanded that the military buy what was already developed and produced."

Liberal commentator Yulia Latynina noted that infidelity is rarely seen as an unacceptable offense among senior Russian officials. “If Serdyukov was fired for being unfaithful,” she wrote, “then why is he denied what others are allowed? It's been a long time since we saw Lyudmila Putina by her august husband's side, for example."

Serdyukov's ouster comes at a time when Russia is stepping up the rearmament of its military. In 2013, defense spending is projected to increase almost 15 percent to about $71 billion, or 3.2 percent of gross domestic product. The exact breakdown of the expenditure is classified, but much of it is going toward the development and purchase of new weapons systems.

Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry, gloated in an interview with the state-controlled RIA news agency, saying he hoped "the Defense Ministry will fix the planning system for ordering armaments, and the industry will resume stable, high-quality production." Rogozin said that under Serdyukov, the ministry was “fixated” on foreign-made weaponry, while local companies were “strangled” by low profit margins on government orders.

Given their rich experience of official subterfuge, many Russians find it hard to believe that Petraeus lost his job over something as trivial as cheating on his wife.

“When we're talking about a dentist, a film director, a car mechanic, we're mainly concerned with how he works on our teeth, makes movies or fixes cars,” Yulia Bushueva, an investment analyst, wrote on Facebook. “But as soon as we're talking about a CIA director, defense minister, mayor or president, we insist on marital fidelity, and it's just not important how they govern. I know nothing about Petraeus, I have no idea whether he was a good intelligence officer or not, but as an aficionado of conspiracy theories I suspect he was kicked out for some other reason. And if it's really just about the woman, then Americans are incredible jerks.”

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: bershidsky@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.

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