Putin replaces Russia’s defense minister with a civilian as Ukraine war rages and defense spending spirals

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Putin replaces Russia’s defense minister with a civilian as Ukraine war rages and defense spending spirals RUSSIA – Russian President Vladimir Putin has replaced his defense minister and a long-time close ally Sergei Shoigu with an economist, a major reshuffle of military leadership more than two years after Moscow’s grinding war against Ukraine has sent defense spending soaring. Andrey Belousov, a civilian who served as former first deputy prime minister and specializes in economics, was appointed to the top defense post, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. Peskov tried to downplay the move, but the reshuffle comes amid speculation about infighting at the highest echelons of power. Just last month, one of Shoigu’s long-time protégés at the defense ministry was arrested and charged with corruption. Shoigu was “relieved” of his position by presidential decree, Peskov said, but he will remain an influential part of Putin’s administration as secretary of Russia’s Security Council, replacing Nikolai Patrushev, a former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), who would “transfer to another job.” Shoigu will also become the deputy in Russia’s Military-Industrial Commission, Peskov said, as Putin embarks on a fifth term as president.

The timing of Shoigu’s exit is notable, coming off the back of several significant advances by Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Russia has launched its most serious cross-border ground assault since Ukraine recaptured the northern Kharkiv region in the late summer of 2022. There have been several months of increased Russian air attacks on the city of Kharkiv amid a grinding advance in Donetsk in the east that has seen incremental but significant progress.

Shoigu had helmed the country’s defense ministry for 12 years and led the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Russian troops initially caught Kyiv by surprise but were soon beaten back, exposing the weaknesses of Moscow’s corruption-riddled military and its willingness to send waves of poorly trained and equipped soldiers into what Ukraine and Russian troops have both dubbed a “meat grinder.” His critics have frequently described Shoigu as remote and out-of-touch with the realities of the conflict. His most forceful critic was the late Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin who accused the Defense Ministry of starving his fighters of resources and bureaucratic incompetence before launching an unsuccessful mutiny last year and dying weeks later in a plane crash.

Despite the criticism, Shoigu has remained a popular politician in Russia. Having spent two decades as the minister of emergency situations, he cultivated an image of a helpful official who brings help when it’s needed.

Belousov was selected by Putin because of a need for “innovation,” Peskov said in a press call, during which he highlighted the ministry’s rising budget, saying it was approaching levels last seen during the Cold War.

In a reference to the war in Ukraine, Peskov said that due to “well-known geopolitical circumstances, we are gradually approaching the situation of the mid-80s when the share of expenses for the security bloc in the economy was 7.4%. It’s not critical, but it’s extremely important,” Peskov said. The budget currently amounts to 6.7% of GDP, he said. Peskov highlighted Belousov’s previous leadership experience and economic background. “This is not just a civilian, but a person who very successfully headed the Ministry of Economic Development of Russia, for a long time he was aide to the president on economic issues, and was also the first deputy chairman of the government in the previous cabinet of ministers,” Peskov said. Much has been made of Belousov’s civilian status, even though Shoigu himself has limited hands-on experience with the military. He holds a rank of a general as a result of his official roles and has never served in active service. Peskov added that the new appointment did not signal a shift in Russia’s current military system. “As for the military component, this appointment will in no way change the current coordinate systems. The military component has always been the prerogative of the Chief of the General Staff [Valery Gerasimov], and he will continue his activities. No changes are currently envisaged in this regard,” he said. In his new role, Shoigu will oversee Russia’s military industrial complex, Peskov said.