What Putin Firing His Defense Minister Means for Russia

The Russian president is retooling his government and preparing for a long war.

The story

Russian President Vladimir Putin fired his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and replaced him with respected economist, Andrei Belousov. Shoigu’s new position is Secretary of the Security Council, while the council’s former head, nationalist Nikolai Patrushev, is a new presidential aide.

The sides

Britain’s defense minister claims that Belousov will be another “puppet.” akin to Shoigu. And a U.S. State Department spokesman said that Shoigu’s firing reveals Putin’s “desperation” to continue the war, which he framed as damaging to Russia’s economy.

Meanwhile, some geopolitical strategists labeled Putin’s shakeup a “solid strategic move” because of Shoigu's lack of military experience and suspected financial corruption. Appointing an economist as defense minister could shift Russia's focus toward addressing more traditional concerns.

Beyond the headlines

Putin’s government was long portrayed as virulently nationalist by the press and Western politicians, but that was not entirely the case. While Putin is a nationalist, many in his government — Shoigu included — just wanted to get rich from big contracts. Shortly before Shoigu was fired, his deputy was arrested for affiliation with a corruption ring. Shoigu himself may have been involved.

Many commentators are focused on corruption, failing to notice that Shoigu was one of few major Russian officials to initially oppose the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. By moving Shoigu to the Security Council, Putin sidelined him (fifth-term president Putin is above taking Security Council advice) and elevated nationalist Patrushev.

The newly minted economist-Defense Minister Belousov will likely control the ministry’s budget and clean up corruption in the armed forces while accommodating military plan assaults.

Personnel changes are apparently not desperation on Putin’s part. Russia’s economy expanded in 2023, even with immense sanctions. And the country has recently seen success on the battlefield. Progress for Russia is slow, but encouraging, which is likely why Putin dismissed questions about a ceasefire.

Why it matters

Shoigu’s firing indicates that Putin is starting to mold the Russian government in his nationalist image and is preparing Russia for a long-term war in Ukraine.

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