Putin Swaps Out Longtime Ally for Civilian Economist as Defense Minister

Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

In a surprise shake-up to his cabinet, Vladimir Putin has sacked his defense minister Sergei Shoigu in favor of a civilian economist with no military experience, according to the Kremlin.

The 68-year-old Shoigu was “relieved” of the position he has held since 2012 on Sunday, moved over to become secretary of Russia’s Security Council. He will also oversee Russia’s Military-Industrial Commission, a Kremlin spokesperson said.

In his stead, Putin has appointed Andrei Belousov, a 65-year-old former deputy prime minister whose impressive resume as an economic adviser seems to be a signal the president is looking to reassess spending as Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a press call on Sunday that Belousov had been selected because of the need for change, according to CNN.

In an oblique reference to the war in Ukraine, Peskov explained that “well-known geopolitical circumstances” had inflated the security budget to levels not seen since the Cold War.

“Today on the battlefield, the winner is the one who is more open to innovation,” Peskov said. “Therefore, it is natural that at the current stage, the president decided that the Russian Ministry of Defense should be headed by a civilian.”

What’s more, the move “allows Putin to keep Shoigu on the side, while bringing in someone who may be able to deal with the impact of corruption across the Russian Ministry of Defense,” Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence colonel and NATO planner, told Politico.

Shoigu’s reassignment meant the ousting of the former secretary of the Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, who was not immediately named to a new position. Peskov told Russian state media late Sunday that a role for him would be announced in the “next few days.”

One of Russia’s longest-serving officials, Shoigu was previously the country’s emergency situations minister from 1991 to 2012. His tenure as head of defense has been rocked by setbacks in the years since the Feb. 2022 invasion of Ukraine, as he’s struggled to modernize Russia’s military and deal with allegations of widespread corruption occurring on his watch.

Last year, a public feud with Yevgeny Prigozhin escalated when the mercenary leader of the Wagner unit launched an armed uprising and called for his arrest. The mutiny was eventually put down, but not without significant loss of face for Shoigu. (Prigozhin died in a jet crash north of Moscow under unclear circumstances two months later.)

Less than a month ago, one of Shoigu’s 12 deputy ministers was arrested on a bribery charge, further jeopardizing Shoigu’s political future. The minister, Timur Ivanov, has denied wrongdoing.

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