‘Long War’ Drives Putin’s Cadre Reshuffling

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 77

(Source: Kremlin.ru)

Executive Summary:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven unwilling to trust anyone outside his inner circle and failed to promote younger politicians–effectively demanding that Russia’s aging political elite continue serving in government.
  • Andrei Belousov, the newly appointed defense minister, is expected to resolve military overspending issues, a duty set to make him quite unpopular within his own ministry.
  • The capricious cabinet reshuffle is set to produce more confusion and bureaucratic infighting, further weakening the Kremlin.

Russia’s political elite are facing a challenging test as they bear the burdens of the economic strain and societal stresses of Moscow’s war against Ukraine. This upper echelon had grown accustomed to a stable bureaucratic environment and the sweet rewards of rampant corruption. Russian President Vladimir Putin, nevertheless, demands continuing service from many of his loyal lieutenants. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (age 74), Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov (age 72), Director of the National Guard Viktor Zolotov (age 70), and Director of the Federal Intelligence Service (SVR) Sergei Naryshkin (age 69) have all kept their posts in the cabinet formed for the new presidential term. Two major exceptions—and big surprises—are Nikolai Patrushev (age 72) and Sergei Shoigu (age 68). The latter replaced the former as the secretary of the Security Council, while Andrei Belousov (age 65) was appointed defense minister, replacing Shoigu (Carnegie Politika, May 13; see EDM,  May 16; Novaya gazeta Europe, May 17). 

Patrushev is impeccably loyal, and his new appointment as a presidential aide supervising the shipbuilding industry is a severe demotion (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 14). He had occupied the seemingly insignificant role of secretary since 2008 and had upgraded the Security Council into a key institution with numerous staff and priority access to the president (The Insider, May 14). He had also recruited as many as 174 experts with rigidly conservative credentials into the Scientific Council, which generated ideological justifications for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine (The Moscow Times, May 17). Obsessed with this crusade, Patrushev instantly declared that the terrorist attack on Crocus City Hall was organized by Ukrainian agents and held to this claim despite evidence implicating the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (RBC.ru, March 26; see EDM, March 26, 27). Putin may have concluded that a more flexible counterpart would be better for communicating with Chen Wenqing, Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, and Jake Sullivan, US National Security Advisor.

Shoigu likely feels uncomfortable in his new position, which requires skillfully maneuvering and balancing the interests of key individuals and security services within Russia’s government. The former defense minister has always relied on his own team of devoted followers and will presumably struggle to work with staffers hand-picked by his predecessor (Svoboda.org, May 13). The main issue, however, is that the Security Council secretary’s duties are essentially about coordination. Patrushev, a former FSB director, performed this task by relying on his networks in the special services (Re: Russia, May 16). In his long political career, Shoigu always held executive positions, controlling material resources and issuing orders rather than recommendations. While intrigues in the Kremlin corridors are familiar to him, reconciling the clashing interests of powerful government actors is not his forte (Meduza., May 13). Commanding the Victory Day parade on Red Square in a star-studded uniform, Shoigu radiated the gravitas of a victorious army commander, even if the gains from the large-scale offensive have been relatively minor. Putin concluded that the time had come to cut Shoigu down to size (Carnegie Politika, May 15).

Belousov, meanwhile, cannot possibly play the role of a war leader. Russian “military-patriotic” commentators have already questioned his ability to effectively manage the Defense Ministry’s huge bureaucracy (TopWar.ru, May 14). Belousov is widely presumed to be less corrupt than his predecessor, but corruption runs deep in the Defense Ministry. The recent arrests of Shoigu’s deputies (starting with Timur Ivanov) and several resignations after Belousov’s appointment, including Tatiana Shevtsova, who has controlled the Defense Ministry’s vast financial flows since 2010, means Belousov has a lot of work to do to clean up the ministry (Republic.ru, May 17). Moreover, the newly minted defense minister will find it difficult to replace these experienced managers because he has no loyal entourage (Riddle, May 17). His experience in executive jobs is limited, and his macroeconomics expertise will be of little help in lobbying for the military to receive more weapons and supplies, as the top brass expects him to do (Forbes.ru, May 15). Logistics is an ever-deepening disaster, and Shoigu has had to replace four deputies responsible for defense logistics since the start of the war (see EDM, May 16). Shoigu may have pushed for more and better weapons too hard, angering Sergei Chemezov (age 71), the boss of the Rostec military-technical conglomerate and Putin’s long-time associate (Kommersant, May 17).

Putin took both Belousov and Shoigu in his ceremonial visit to China last week and kept them close during formal meetings (Kommersant, May 16). Trade with China is critical for sustaining the surge in output for Russia’s defense-industrial complex, but no new agreements on expanding this cooperation were signed (Carnegie Politika, May 17). Jointly criticizing the current world order and US dominance was far easier than addressing the practicalities of contracting mutual trade under Western sanctions (RIAC; Meduza, May 17). One notable absentee in Putin’s entourage was Alexei Miller, CEO of Gazprom, indicating another setback in Moscow’s long-cherished plan for constructing a new gas pipeline to export natural gas from the Yamal fields (see EDM, December 5, 2023; Novye Izvestiya, May 16; Novaya gazeta Europe, May 17).

Putin’s satisfaction with the performance of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s government and instructions to the mainstream media to praise his new appointments can hardly temper discord between the entangled branches of his regime (Meduza, May 16). Both Shoigu and Belousov are destined to fail in the tasks they are poorly equipped to perform. For the former, it will represent the end of a career; for the latter, it may be part of a broader calamity. Belousov cannot interfere in directing combat operations, which is left to Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov (age 68), who is despised by the military generals and distrusted by Putin. The new defense minister has no authority over the defense-industrial complex. He is directed by the newly promoted First Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and supervised by Shoigu and Putin’s newly appointed aide Alexei Dyumin. Belousov’s attempts to sort out the mess of military expenditures are set to make him quite unpopular within his own ministry.

Moscow’s “long war” against Ukraine demands an extraordinary mobilization of Russia’s structurally distorted, technologically backward, and deeply corrupt economy. Yet, Putin’s capricious cabinet reshuffle will likely produce more confusion and bureaucratic infighting, bringing Russia one step closer to defeat.