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WAR IN EUROPE

Putin replaces long-time defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, in surprise Kremlin reshuffle

Putin replaces long-time defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, in surprise Kremlin reshuffle
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (L) walk after a military parade on Victory Day, which marks the 79th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War 2, in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, 9 May 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / MIKHAEL KLIMENTYEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL)

President Vladimir Putin has replaced his long-serving defence minister in a surprise move as Russian forces seek to capitalise on a battlefield advantage and make advances in the war against Ukraine.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin proposed his former economy aide and First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov (65) as candidate for the post of defence minister, while Sergei Shoigu (68) is set to replace a Putin ally as Security Council chief.

Shoigu, who has served as defence minister since 2012, is to take the role of chief of the Security Council after Nikolai Patrushev was dismissed and is due to take another job, according to Putin’s order. 

The reshuffling represents the first major shake-up since Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022. It comes after Putin (71) secured a fifth term to extend his nearly quarter-century in power in a tightly managed landslide election in which he faced no serious opposition. Putin re-appointed his prime minister Mikhail Mishustin after his May 7 inauguration.

Shoigu’s replacement by Belousov is aimed at exerting more Kremlin control over military affairs as the Ukraine war stretches into a third year, said Sergei Markov, a political consultant close to the Kremlin.

“Belousov is personally loyal to Putin and he’ll sort this all out,” Markov said by phone. “There have been too many personal interests.”

The need for a new defence chief was illustrated by a corruption scandal involving former deputy defence minister Timur Ivanov, a key Shoigu aide who’s in detention facing bribery charges, and the conflict with Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin that led to a failed mutiny last year, according to Markov. 

Read More: Russian Defence Minister Shoigu Weakened by Arrest of Key Ally

Shoigu had been targeted by Prigozhin when he led his June 2023 revolt. He’s been a close confidant of Putin, accompanying him on highly publicized hunting and horse-riding trips in Siberia, and headed Russia’s emergencies ministry for nearly 20 years.

His transfer to the Security Council shows that the body has become powerless and is being used as a “reservoir for former Putin key figures”, Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik, said on Telegram.

The deputy head of the Security Council is Dmitry Medvedev, who stepped down after serving as president from 2008-2012 to allow Putin to keep the reins as prime minister while respecting term limits. Putin in 2020 changed the Constitution to allow him two more mandates, which means he could rule to 2036, when he’ll be 83.

Belousov graduated from Moscow State University in 1981 with a degree in cybernetics economics and later got a PhD. His first official job with Putin was as a director of the department of economics and finance in the government in 2008, when Putin was prime minister. He later briefly served as Economy Minister and then Putin’s economy aide. He has been the first deputy prime minister since January 2020.

“On the surface it appears like a person is being appointed who as a civilian could conduct negotiations” on ending the war in Ukraine, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. “But it could be it’s just an extravagant Putin gesture to shake everyone up — it’s his style.”

Read More: Zelenskiy Urges Calm as Russia Advances in Kharkiv Region

Russia has lately been making limited, local gains along the front line as Ukrainian forces wrestle with shortages of weapons and manpower, along with a dire need for more air defence systems. The Kremlin controls almost 20% of Ukrainian territory, but its forces are advancing cautiously as Putin has been wary of ordering another unpopular mobilisation after the call-up of 300,000 Russians in September 2022 provoked panic and an exodus from the country. DM

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