Putin replaces defense minister in rare cabinet shake-up

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin replaced his defense minister with an economist on Sunday, shaking up his national security team for the first time since invading Ukraine and signaling his determination to put Russia's war effort on a economically sustainable basis.

Putin has kept the minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, in his inner circle, placing him in charge of the country's security council — a position that gives Shoigu close access to the president but little direct authority. Shoigu will replace Nikolai P. Patrushev, Putin's former colleague in the KGB, who the Kremlin says will be moved to another position to be announced in the coming days.

Andrei R. Belousov, an economist who has served as first deputy prime minister since 2020 and who has long been considered one of Putin's most trusted economic advisers, has been nominated to become the new defense chief.

The Kremlin said the exponential increase in Russia's defense budget justifies appointing an economist to command, and that Belousov would help make the Russian military “more open to innovation.”

The cabinet changes represented a rare overhaul for Putin, who tends to avoid rash changes, and could mark a turning point point in Russia's more than two-year war in Ukraine.

He removed from the helm of the army a man who both pro-war Russian commentators and Western analysts held partly responsible for Moscow's numerous failures early in the invasion. And by installing an economist, he tacitly recognized the importance of industrial might to any military victory.

Shoigu's potential dismissal has been the subject of speculation since the early days of the war, when Russian forces appeared unprepared for Ukraine's determined resistance.

Last summer, mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin staged a mutiny to try to remove Shoigu, defense minister for more than a decade. But Putin, who analysts say values ​​loyalty, remained loyal to Shoigu.

Now, with the Russian military having taken the initiative on the battlefield, Putin is signaling a greater willingness to make changes and to demonstrate that Russia has the discipline and economic capacity to wage a long war. A possible change in Shoigu's stature was telegraphed last month, when Russian authorities arrested one of his top deputies on corruption charges.

But the Kremlin said Sunday that another frequent target of critics of the Russian war effort — General Valery V. Gerasimov, Russia's chief of staff and Russia's highest-ranking military officer — will remain in place.

It is unclear how much authority Mr. Shoigu will retain over the war. Although his new role parallels that of national security adviser to the American president, analysts say the role has limited influence in Putin's Russia because he does not directly control the military or a security agency.

Shoigu was “too big to fall,” wrote Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. But in his new role, he added, Shoigu would be “without real command powers and without cash.”

Belousov, 65, the Kremlin's economic adviser before being named first deputy prime minister in 2020, hails from the government's so-called economic bloc, which has won plaudits within the Kremlin for its nimble response to Western sanctions and success in stabilize the country's economy.

The government's security bloc, by contrast, has faced recriminations after the Russian military pursued a flawed strategy in the early months of the war and faltered on the battlefield.

Russian commentators have expressed surprise at the appointment of an economist to oversee Russia's sprawling military. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov told reporters that Putin made the decision as Russia was once again approaching Soviet-era levels of military spending due to “geopolitical circumstances.”

“This is extremely important and requires special attention,” Peskov said.

He added that Putin wanted his Defense Ministry to be under civilian leadership because of the need to modernize the army – an implicit message that Shoigu was not up to the task. (Mr. Shoigu held the rank of general due to his previous role as minister of emergencies.)

“Today on the battlefield, the winner is the one who is most open to innovation, most open to the fastest implementation,” Peskov said. “So it is natural that at present the president has decided that the Ministry of Defense should be headed by a civilian.”

However, despite his knowledge of economics, Belousov has relatively little management experience. He was the country's economic development minister for just over a year, from 2012 to 2013.

The change comes less than a week after Putin was inaugurated into his fifth term as Russia's president, a ritual that many expected would set the stage for some kind of cabinet reshuffle. The Russian leader's entire cabinet was dissolved as part of the government transition. Many, but not all, of his ministers were reappointed to their positions.

Shoigu was the longest-serving minister in the history of the independent Russian Federation and a mainstay of Russian politics after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Originally from the Republic of Tuva in southern Siberia, he developed a national profile as a man of action while serving as Russia's emergency minister for more than two decades, from 1991 to 2012. He could regularly be found on television responding to disasters natural resources of the country. unlike other ministers portrayed as paper pushers.

Shoigu's tenure as Russian defense minister, starting in 2012, was marked by Putin's military intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015. Then, in 2022, Shoigu became a lightning rod for criticism as the Russian army faltered. the first months of the war.

For months last year, Prigozhin railed against him in videos posted online, attacking him for incompetence in a struggle for influence that ultimately ended with the mercenary leader trying to oust him in a failed uprising last year. last summer. Prigozhin later died in a plane crash that U.S. officials believed was likely a Kremlin-sanctioned assassination.

Sunday's leadership changes could also signal a change in stature for Patrushev, a hardliner with a KGB background who has long been seen as a member of Putin's inner circle.

This year, nearly a third of Russia's federal budget was allocated to national defense, a huge increase over previous years. Heavy government spending on the military has turbocharged the Russian economy but raised the risk of overheating, as a weakened workforce drives up wages and inflation.

One of Shoigu's top deputies, Timur Ivanov, was arrested by Russian authorities in April and charged with corruption. Mr. Ivanov has long been responsible for military construction projects.

His arrest, Shoigu's removal and the installation of a trusted technocrat at the helm of the Defense Ministry may also be a sign that the Kremlin, having turned a blind eye to the corruption that has blossomed alongside military spending, will now launch a campaign to curb corruption in the sector.

“Belousov's first task will be to fight corruption,” Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, wrote on the Telegram messaging application, referring to the new defense minister. For Belousov, he added, “the position of defense minister during a hybrid war against the entire West is the most important challenge of his life.”

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