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Putin replaces Sergei Shoigu as Defence Minister in surprise move, appoints civilian economist in his place

Shoigu, 68, has been in charge of defence since 2012 and a long-time ally of Putin, who came under fire after his deputy was arrested last month on bribery charges. Putin has appointed him to lead Russia's powerful Security Council, replacing Nikolai Patrushev.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Moscow Published on: May 13, 2024 10:27 IST
Russia, Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu
Image Source : AP (FILE) Russian President Vladimir Putin with ex-Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Moscow: Days after his glittering inauguration, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise move by replacing his long-term ally and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu with a civilian economist as he began his fifth term, ostensibly to prepare Russia for economic war by trying to better utilise the defence budget and win the two-year-long war in Ukraine. Putin appointed former deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov, 65, who specialises in economics.

The changes, which parliamentarians will certainly approve, are the most significant Putin has made to the military command since sending tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022 in what he called a special military operation. The entire Russian cabinet resigned on Tuesday in line with law and most members have been widely expected to keep their jobs.

Belousov's candidacy will need to be approved by Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. Meanwhile, Putin has introduced proposals for other Cabinet positions but Shoigu is the only minister on the list who is being replaced. Several other new candidates for federal ministers were proposed on Saturday by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, reappointed by Putin on Friday.

Shoigu's new role as head of Russia's Security Council

Putin had other plans for Shoigu, in charge of defence since 2012 and a long-standing friend and ally, as he appointed the 68-year-old former minister to become the secretary of Russia's powerful Security Council, replacing incumbent Nikolai Patrushev, and to also have responsibilities for the military-industrial complex, according to the Kremlin. 

The announcement of Shoigu's new role came as 13 people were reported dead and 20 more wounded in Russia's border city of Belgorod, where a 10-story apartment building partially collapsed after what Russian officials said was Ukrainian shelling. Ukraine hasn't commented on the incident.

Shoigu's fate had been uncertain after his deputy, Timur Ivanov, was arrested last month on bribery charges and was ordered to remain in custody pending an official investigation. The arrest of Ivanov was widely interpreted as an attack on Shoigu and a possible precursor of his dismissal, despite his close personal ties with Putin.

Shoigu was also heavily criticised by Russian military bloggers for a series of retreats the Russian military was forced to make in 2022. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group and one of Shoigu's fiercest critics, led a short-lived mutiny he hoped would topple Shoigu last year before agreeing to call it off. Prigozhin was later killed in a plane crash.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sunday that Putin had decided to give the defence minister role to a civilian because the ministry should be “open to innovation and cutting-edge ideas.” The shake-up, which caught the elite off-guard, indicates Putin is doubling down on the Ukraine war and wants to harness more of Russia's economy for the war after the West sought, but failed so far, to sink the economy with sanctions.

Who is Andrei Belousov?

Belousov held leading positions in the finances and economic department of the prime minister's office and the Ministry of Economic Development. In 2013, he was appointed an adviser to Putin and seven years later, in January 2020, he became first deputy prime minister. He is also considered to have played a crucial role in overseeing and developing Russia's drone programme.

According to Peskov, the increasing defence budget “must fit into the country's wider economy,” and Belousov, who until recently served as the first deputy prime minister, is the right fit for the job. "The one who is more open to innovations is the one who will be victorious on the battlefield," said the Kremlin spokesperson.

Russia's economists have so far largely ensured economic stability and growth despite the toughest sanctions ever imposed on a major economy, even though the failings of the Russian military were laid bare shortly after the invasion. According to the Kremlin, Russia is now approaching a situation like the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, when the military and law enforcement authorities accounted for 7.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Putin's strategy in the war

The shake-up gives Shoigu a job that is technically regarded as senior to his defence ministry role, ensuring continuity and saving Shoigu's face. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia's General Staff and someone with a more hands-on role when it comes to directing the war, will remain in post. Shoigu has replaced Nikolai Patrushev, who will be given another job, although the details have not ben disclosed.

Shoigu spent over 20 years directing markedly different work before becoming the defence minister in 2012. In 1991, he was appointed head of the Russian Rescue Corps disaster-response agency, which eventually became the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The job also allowed him to be named a general even though he had no military service behind him as the rescue corps absorbed the militarised Civil Defence Troops.

Mark Galeotti, director of the London-based Mayak Intelligence consultancy, said the defence minister's job in Russia at a time of war was to ensure the military had everything it needed, while Gerasimov's job was the "key one" as he now reported directly to Putin, the commander-in-chief. "In that context, having an economist, someone who has been speaking about the need to basically subordinate much of the economy to the needs of the defence sector, makes a certain amount of sense. It is now essentially a financial administrator's job and Belousov can do that," he said.

Meanwhile, thousands of civilians have fled Russia's renewed ground offensive in Ukraine's northeast that has targeted towns and villages with a barrage of artillery and mortar shelling, officials said on Sunday. The intense battles have forced at least one Ukrainian unit to withdraw in the Kharkiv region, capitulating more land to Russian forces across less defended settlements in the so-called contested grey zone along the Russian border.

(with inputs from agencies)

ALSO READ | Russia: At least 13 killed, 20 injured as apartment building collapses after shelling in Belgorod city


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