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Putin tightens up his war machine with cabinet shakeup

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s post-inauguration cabinet reshuffle and military purge has raised speculation that he’s looking to consolidate power as he prepares for a much longer war in Ukraine.

Putin named economist Andrei Belousov as Moscow’s defense chief, replacing long-serving Sergei Shoigu. Shoigu, in turn, was made secretary of Russia’s security council, replacing ousted security chief Nikolai Patrushev — a key player in Putin’s security apparatus who will now serve as the Russian president’s aide.

Also included in the reshuffle was Lt. Gen. Yuri Kuznetsov, a high-ranking military official responsible for personnel matters who was arrested “on suspicion of criminal activity,” according to Russia state media.

Taken together, the shakeup promotes economic over military minds to sustain Putin’s war machine across several years, as well as stamping out any threat of a possible usurper, experts told The Hill.

“We will see more arrests, really as a signal more than anything else, saying ‘Look, doesn’t matter what the old rules were new, the new rules are different,’” said Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert and head of Mayak Intelligence consultancy firm in London. 

Galeotti also said the changes indicate that Putin is “digging in for the long term” on Ukraine, already more than two years into fighting.

“Essentially, this is pointing to a strategy of attrition and a willingness to take risks, take losses, while waiting for Ukraine to no longer have the capacity to fight and the West no longer the will to keep supporting it,” he said.

Putin earlier this week was sworn in as president for a fifth term, ensuring he will be Russia’s leader until at least 2030.

Among his first orders of business was replacing Shoigu, the defense minister since 2012, a shake-up of the Kremlin’s national security team for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Replacing him is Belousov, a deputy prime minister and economic advisor to Putin who has never served in the military. The changeover has been portrayed as a move to streamline the country’s defense spending.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow’s security budget had swelled to more than 6.5 percent of GDP and officials were looking to bring it back down under Belousov. 

“This demands special attention,” Peskov said. “It’s very important to put the security economy in line with the economy of the country, so that it meets the dynamics of the current moment.”

He added that Putin also decided a civilian should run defense matters because “on the battlefield, he who is more open to innovation . . . wins.”

Shoigu’s reassignment is notable given his close relationship with Putin, with the two in the past going on fishing and hunting trips.

Likewise, outgoing security chief Patrushev has long been seen as a close confidant of the Russian president, and his move is widely viewed as a demotion. Patrushev, a former K.G.B. colleague of Putin, was a key player in the assassination of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin last year, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Retired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman told NPR this week that he interpreted the “sidelining” of Patrushev as being more about consolidating power in the Kremlin, rather than directly related to Ukraine war efforts. 

“I see the fact that the second most powerful person in the country, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the National Security Council, was removed and replaced with another loyalist, both weakening, let’s say, opposing factions,” he said. 

“I think this is a way to insulate Putin more concretely in his second term, give him a freer hand,” added Vindman, who now heads the Institute for Informed American Leadership think tank. 

Shoigu, along with the head of the Russian military Valery Gerasimov, have drawn the ire from Russian officials over Moscow’s failures on the battlefield in Ukraine, even as it’s slowly gained ground in recent months. 

“Shoigu was not exactly performing to the standard that was needed. He’d been a good civilian peacetime minister but as a catastrophically bad wartime one. And so I think it was time for him to be moved on,” Galeotti told The Hill.

There has also been a public charge to stamp out corruption within Russia’s defense apparatus, with Russia’s security services last month arresting one of Shoigu’s deputy defense ministers, Timur Ivanov, on corruption charges.

But that was also viewed by the West as a ploy to weaken Shoigu.

Asked Monday about Russia’s personnel changes, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh declined to comment beyond a dig at their current war effort.

“Given where the war has started that Russia launched, you know, over two years ago, they’ve certainly not had successes on the battlefield and had some pretty big defeats. So I’ll let the Russians speak to their own personnel changes,” she said.

Others see the timing of the changeovers — ahead of Putin’s arrival in Beijing this week for the first state visit of his new term — as an aim to further integrate Russia’s economy more deeply with China for the sake of long-term military capabilities.

“Putin has brought this delegation of both cabinet members and the heads of Russian banks and energy companies — and shaken up his cabinet just before his visit to the economic patron of his war in Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party,” Jonathan Ward, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C., told The Hill.

“This suggests that Putin is trying to bring China deeper into his war effort and trying to align the Russian and Chinese economies in such a way that would enable him — with China’s help — to win the war.”

War said China’s economic support for Russia has already “laid the foundations for their war in Europe,” and that making an economist the defense minister shows Putin’s determination to the “further transformation of Russia into a wartime economy.”

Cumulatively, the cabinet shifts mark a turning point in Russia’s more than two-year war in Ukraine, essentially militarizing the whole structure of government and turning it into a warfighting institution.

Unlike Russia’s war effort, its economy has defied expectations over the past two years. Even under the cloud of major economic sanctions imposed by the West, as well as being cut off from most global markets, the Kremlin in 2023 outpaced both the United States and Europe in terms of growth. That gain seems to have been largely driven by increased military spending, with significant ramp ups of Russia’s defense industry, according to economists.

Belouso’s appointment appears to be an acknowledgment of that new normal, shoring up Moscow for a long-haul conflict with Ukraine as Russian forces mount a new offensive in the country’s northeast. The battle plan looks to be a slow push forward to retake smaller towns, rather than major assaults on big cities as Moscow attempted unsuccessfully at the start of the war.

“Russians learn lessons,” Galeotti said of the shift. “Sometimes their responses are not the same as ours, ones we would expect or they’re sluggish or wasteful, but the Russians do learn and I think this is what we’re seeing. It’s actually a lot of the lessons of the past couple of years, particularly in terms of how you manage your system for a long-term war of attrition beginning to be applied.”

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