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Vladimir Putin puts an economist in charge of the war

Vladimir Putin attends a Victory Day parade in Moscow last week. Credit: Getty

May 14, 2024 - 7:00am

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s greatest wish finally came true late on Sunday, though he was not around to see it. Nearly a year after the Wagner boss’s rivalry with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov degenerated into armed insurrection, the Kremlin announced that Shoigu had been removed from his post. First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov has taken his place, while Shoigu has been shunted into the position of Secretary of the National Security Council, replacing the hawkish ex-FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev, whose own career prospects remain unknown.

The move was not entirely unexpected, coming just weeks after the very public arrest of Shoigu’s ally and deputy Timur Ivanov on corruption charges. What’s more, Shoigu and Gerasimov won their reputations for incompetence as much through their own battlefield failures in Ukraine as they did thanks to Prigozhin’s expletive-laden tirades. Indeed, the news of Shoigu’s removal came as an apartment block in the Russian city of Belgorod partially collapsed, reportedly due to Ukrainian shelling.

While the benefits of removing Shoigu are clear, Putin was spotted giving him the cold shoulder as far back as June, raising the question of why this decision was made now. It could be a reflection of the President’s dissatisfaction with Russia’s grinding battlefield progress, or he may be seeking a radical shake-up of his military elite in anticipation of this year’s expected summer offensive.

However, the clue to Putin’s war aims may also lie in his choice of replacement. At first glance, Belousov seems an unusual choice for defence minister — a Soviet-trained economist with a reputation for technocratic competence, he is a civilian lacking in military experience. This is not wholly unusual: Shoigu himself is not a career soldier, having served as minister of emergency situations, while the role of defence minister is more administrative in nature than the military planning required of the chief of the general staff.

The nomination of an economist suggests Putin is settling in for a long and arduous fight in Ukraine, the war to be won not on the battlefield but on the balance sheet. Explaining the appointment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that the leadership wanted an economic official at the helm of the Defence Ministry after Russia’s security budget hit 6.6% of GDP.

Peskov stressed that “this isn’t a critical number for now” but nonetheless “demands special attention” and “it’s very important to put the security economy in line with the economy of the country”. As such, Belousov’s role appears to be part of the broader movement to put Russia’s economy on a long-term war footing, the new Defence Minister reining in defence spending and ensuring a steady stream of shells reaches the front line for the prolonged war of attrition to come.

That is not the only sign that Putin is putting the emphasis on efficiency. The arrest of Timurov — nicknamed “the King of Kickbacks” — and now the appointment of a man known for taking a hard line on graft both suggest that the Kremlin may genuinely be cracking down on corruption in the military. Putin may be worried that, as Moscow pours $117 billion into defence spending, the corruption endemic to the Russian Armed Forces could result in it being funnelled into the pockets of officers rather than funding the smooth, well-oiled military machinery he so desperately requires.

All the same, Belousov’s appointment is unlikely to signal any radical alteration in Moscow’s defence policy. Russian independent media outlet The Bell claims he is a hardline defender of the state, and an imperialist who supported 2014’s annexation of Crimea and shares his leader’s view that Russia is surrounded by “a ring of enemies”. That is not the only reason Kyiv should worry — with Belousov likely to want an ally alongside him, Gerasimov is set to be next out. More competent figures such as “General Armageddon” Sergei Surovikin or Commander of the Airborne Troops Mikhail Teplinsky may be promoted. While he may look more like an accountant than a general, the elevation of this bureaucrat should leave Ukraine concerned.


Bethany Elliott is a writer specialising in Russia and Eastern Europe.

BethanyAElliott

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Peter B
Peter B
13 days ago

One yes man replaces another …

A D Kent
A D Kent
13 days ago

 “Shoigu and Gerasimov won their reputations for incompetence as much through their own battlefield failures in Ukraine as they did thanks to Prigozhin’s expletive-laden tirades.”

That ‘reputation for incompetence’ is very much a construct of Western propaganda and wishful thinking. Of course they’ve made mistakes – but no one really knew how this kind of near-peer conflict would work in these days of drones, fiendish mines, layered air-defence and forensic ISR.

Of course all the usual Establishment talking head ex-General gravy-trainers were happy to promote this as incompetence and/or due to the rigid Soviet styles, but usually with very little evidence to support their self-serving assertions. There was usually some blather about NCOs and initiative, never so much about the massively detailed surveillance info the Ukrainians were benefitting from throughout.

The Russians have done about as well as any modern army could in these circumstances – they’re not incompetent, they’re learning and adapting. They also have the luxury of a not-completely-financialised-and-outsourced industrial base to rely upon now. If you want to see incompetence check out those who decided to move the West’s to China.

If you want to describe the RF performance as incompetent then how would you describe the West’s performance against the might of the Yeminis in Operation Prosperity Guardian?  

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
13 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

Aren’t you being a little generous? I mean, from what I read, the initial movements around Kharkiv were nothing short of spectacularly stupid. Russia is now fighting street to street to retake territory they could have easily held on to 18 months ago.

A D Kent
A D Kent
13 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Those claims of ‘spectacular stupidity’ could be true, but they do tend to rely on the West & Ukraine’s reports of the relative losses of either side. Anyone with a passing interest in military history will know relying on one sides estimates alone is never wise. Were they any more stupid that those the the AFU’s offensives last summer anyway? Remember the AFU had the example of the RF’s mistakes to learn from by then too.

The claims of incompetence are easily made, but attacking in this new age does look to be extremely difficult and I can’t imagine NATO would have faired any better.

I don’t trust the likes of Oryx either by the way.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
13 days ago
Reply to  A D Kent

I tend to agree with you. My source on this is Weeb Union, a really based kid from Denmark who goes through every little troop movement, compiling sources for Ciriac Maps, RMD, UMD, DeepStateMaps,… he has made mistakes in the past, but he is open and upfront about them. And he really tries to be neutral.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
13 days ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Is taking that territory the aim, or attrition of the Ukrainian manpower?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
13 days ago

I often critise badly written articles, but let me take a moment to praise Bethany Elliot for this one – this is exactly the sort of article I love to read: well-written, informative and neutral in tone.
Well done UnHerd.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
13 days ago

Does Putin have a severe attack of dandruff or is it late snow in Moscow?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
13 days ago

It seems that Putin was ready from the start to modify his plans as he went along. Even the incompetence of some of his chosen commanders won’t be allowed to faze him.
Poor Ukraine.

j watson
j watson
13 days ago

Panic. One change and one arrest will not lance the corruption boil that is rife, nor the fundamental problems growing with the Russian economy.
The Author suggests Putin settling in for the long term, and it may be right he realises he cannot win and needs to dig in for as long as he can to hold what he has. Yet the massed attacks near Kharkiv, with dreadful casualty rate for minor gains, show he recognises time is running out.

P Branagan
P Branagan
13 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Russia will win. The debauched West is now considered as an embarrassing bunch of hypocrites and a spent force by the Rest of the World.
The world has moved on.
Just get over it!

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
13 days ago
Reply to  P Branagan

I think you may well be right!