Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Putin reassigns defense minister Shoigu in Kremlin shakeup

MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JUNE 24: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu takes part in the Victory Day military parade in Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia. The 75th-anniversary marks the end of the Great Patriotic War when the Nazi’s capitulated to the then Soviet Union. (Photo by Ramil Sitdikov – Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)  (GETTY IMAGES)
By Mary Ilyushina Washington Post

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has removed Sergei Shoigu from his longtime position as defense minister and appointed him to lead the country’s security and defense council, a consultative body that advises the president, in a major shakeup of the Kremlin’s security team, the Kremlin said Sunday.

To replace Shoigu as defense chief, Putin nominated former Vice Prime Minister Andrei Belousov, an economist who previously served as economic development minister, according to a statement posted by the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, on its official Telegram channel.

The choice signaled Putin’s desire for a defense chief who would assert tight control over giant increases in military spending to finance Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, and to curb endemic corruption in the agency, which had appeared to hobble Russian forces early in the invasion when new conscripts often seemed ill-equipped.

The appointment, announced on the Sunday of a four-day holiday weekend in Russia, was carefully calibrated in tone to not suggest seismic changes amid the protracted war in Ukraine or to signal the reassignment of Shoigu as a demotion.

Shoigu is a longtime Putin confidante who had served as defense minister for 11 1/2 years, since November 2012, and was emergency situations minister for 21 years from 1991 to 2012. Over the years, Shoigu has been speculated about as a potential successor to Putin but he also faced blistering criticism over the military’s disastrous stumbles following the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Some of the harshest criticism came from Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the catering billionaire known as Putin’s chef, who was also the head of the Wagner mercenary group. Last year, Prigozhin led his mercenaries on a brief rebellion in an attempt to oust Shoigu and to prevent the defense ministry from taking over the Wagner private military company. The rebellion failed, an Prigozhin died in August in a mysterious plane disaster.

In April, Russian officials opened a ground-shaking criminal case into one of Shoigu’s deputies, Timur Ivanov, who oversaw military construction projects, including the rebuilding of the destroyed Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which is now occupied by Russia. Ivanov was accused of taking a $11 million bribe.

Corruption cases against high-profile officials are rare and often signal an impending power shift. In Russia, news of the probe was widely regarded as an ominous sign for Shoigu. The case also showed a new imperative to fight graft, long tolerated in Russia, to make sure crucial military resources reach the front lines.

Minutes after the public posting of Putin’s list of cabinet appointments, showing Shoigu’s reassignment, the Kremlin announced that he had been reassigned to the Security Council, previously led by Nikolai Patrushev, a former head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who had held the security council post since 2008.

The Kremlin said that a new job for Patrushev – a powerful figure widely seen as wielding more authority than any official other than Putin – would be announced within the next “few days.”

Even some veteran Kremlin watchers were left guessing on Sunday night about the fate of Patrushev. Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, said, “No one knows what’s happening with Patrushev.”

“There are rumors that he could be appointed head of the presidential administration; or perhaps he has been fired,” Markov said, adding that Patrushev’s age – 72 – and his health could also be factors.

Markov said that Putin’s decisions on the reshuffle were being taken in absolute secrecy. “It may be because [Patrushev] overstepped his authority,” Markov added.

Former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who swapped jobs with Putin from 2008 to 2012 to circumvent term limits, has served as deputy head of the security council since his removal as head of the government in January 2020.

“The Security Council is becoming a reservoir for Putin’s ‘former’ key figures – ones that cannot be let go, but there is no place for them anymore,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, the founder of R. Politik, a Russian political consultancy, who is now based in France. “For Patrushev, it seems, they will create something new.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, while briefing reporters on the changes on Sunday, stressed that Shoigu will remain in close cooperation with Putin while simultaneously overseeing the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, which handles weapons procurement and military exports – an important body as Russia increasingly relies on China and several other countries for sustaining military production under the constraints of Western sanctions and export controls.

Peskov sought to portray a level of continuity and stability in the defense ministry. He said that Belousov’s appointment would not change the “system of coordinates in the military component of the department,” because the head of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, is responsible for it and remains in his post.

Belousov has no previous military background. Rather, he is an experienced economist who is considered a member of Putin’s closest circle, having served as a presidential aide and in key economic posts over several decades.

Belousov made a name for himself as a proponent of squeezing funds from the state’s top earners – mining and metallurgy giants – to increase government reserves.

More than two years into the difficult invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin cited a need for a “civilian” appointee at the helm of the defense ministry who can “introduce innovation” and manage the war economy as military spending has ballooned.

“On the battlefield, the one who shows more innovation and its prompt implementation wins,” Peskov said. “And therefore, at the current stage, the president decided that the Ministry of Defense should be headed by a civilian. And this is not just a civilian, but a person who very successfully headed the Ministry of Economic Development of Russia.”

“The new changes – Belousov instead of Shoigu at Defense, Shoigu instead of Patrushev in Security Council is a perfect illustration of our ‘degenerate autocracy’ theory,” Russian economist Konstantin Sonin, who is now a professor at the University of Chicago wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Sonin, a fierce critic of Putin’s regime who has known Belousov personally for many years, said described the appointment as a little more than a game of musical chairs among Putin loyalists.

“Things are not going according to Putin’s plan, but he will endlessly rotate the same small group of loyalists,” Sonin wrote. “Putin has always feared to bring new people to positions of authority – even in the best of times, they must have been nobodies with no own perspectives. Toward the end of his rule, even more so.”

The shake-up comes five days after Putin’s inauguration for a fifth term, and as Russian forces have launched major new attacks in northeast Ukraine.

- – -

Robyn Dixon and Catherine Belton in London and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.