Russia's Putin Ousts Defense Minister Amid Security Overhaul

Major shifts unfold in Russia's top military command

by Zain ul Abedin
Russia's Putin Ousts Defense Minister Amid Security Overhaul
© Matt Cardy/Getty Images

In a significant reshuffle within Russia's military command, President Vladimir Putin announced on Sunday that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu would be replaced by Andrei Belousov, an economist and former deputy prime minister.

This move marks the most substantial overhaul in the Russian military's leadership since the onset of the Ukraine conflict in February 2022. Belousov, who has previously served as Putin's economic advisor and as deputy prime minister in charge of economic development, steps into a role typically reserved for individuals with extensive military backgrounds.

His appointment signals a strategic shift, emphasizing the increasing intertwining of military objectives and economic policies amidst ongoing conflicts. Shoigu, who has been at the helm of the Defense Ministry since 2012, will transition to become the secretary of the Security Council, replacing Nikolai Patrushev.

This change comes amidst growing criticism over Shoigu’s handling of the Ukrainian invasion, particularly his initial strategy aimed at swiftly capturing Kyiv, which faltered early in the conflict. His tenure also faced scrutiny following the arrest of Timur Ivanov, a deputy defense minister, on bribery charges linked to defense contracts last month.

Strategic Leadership Reshuffle

The reshuffling also reflects a broader strategy by Putin to maintain control over the political and military landscape in Russia, especially during a time when the war’s toll - both human and economic - is escalating.

Despite official reports of approximately 5,937 Russian military casualties, U.S. estimates suggest the numbers could exceed 300,000, including wounded and killed personnel. This leadership change is not merely a demotion for Shoigu but a repositioning, indicating that proximity to Putin remains a crucial element of influence within the Russian government.

According to Konstantin Sonin, a Russian politics expert at the University of Chicago, the dynamics of power in Russia today hinge significantly on one's closeness to Putin rather than mere official rankings. Belousov’s advocacy for increased government intervention in the economy, especially in the context of military spending - which has surged to over 6% of GDP from 2.6% pre-war—is expected to further integrate economic strategies with defense tactics.

His economic policies have been instrumental in sustaining Russia's industrial output, thereby cushioning the impact of Western sanctions. The appointment of an economist as defense minister also underscores a strategic pivot towards what Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described as a necessity for innovation and efficiency in military operations.

Belousov's perspective on a war economy reflects a broader shift towards a militarized societal structure, where state needs overshadow individual interests. Putin's reshuffle of his defense leadership, therefore, is not only a response to the immediate challenges posed by the ongoing war but also a strategic maneuver to align Russia’s military and economic policies more closely, ensuring the sustainability of its military efforts and the centralization of governmental control.