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Shifting Shadows: A Closer Look at Putin’s Latest Government Reshuffle

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On the night of Sunday, May 12, 2024, the political landscape in Russia underwent a remarkable shift as news broke of the replacement of the long-standing Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, by the economist Andrey Belousov.


Shifting Shadows: A Closer Look at Putin’s Latest Government Reshuffle

On the night of Sunday, May 12, 2024, the political landscape in Russia underwent a remarkable shift as news broke of the replacement of the long-standing Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, by the economist Andrey Belousov. After 12 years at the helm of the Defence Ministry, Shoigu will now assume the role of Secretary of the Security Council, a position Nikolai Patrushev held for sixteen years. This reshuffle is significant, given that both Shoigu and Patrushev are staunch supporters of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, known for their hardline anti-Western stance and close ties to Vladimir Putin. This move begs the question: What dynamics are at play within the Kremlin? In this brief commentary, we delve into some initial reflections on this remarkable political event.


Putinism at work

Before delving into the intricacies of this reshuffle, it’s crucial to provide broader context on Russia’s political landscape, often termed as Putinism. Since 2012, the regime has visibly hardened, now unequivocally resembling a full-blown autocracy, particularly in the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict and Putin’s fifth presidential term. This hardening coincides with increased regime opacity, rendering it challenging to decipher. Consequently, we face a political system shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to discern the motivations, intentions, or mechanisms driving its inner workings. As commentators, our task is complicated by the dearth of concrete insights, necessitating navigation through hints, rumours, and comparative analyses to arrive at the most plausible interpretations. Essentially, our reflections often amount to educated guesses or outright speculation.

Moreover, inherent to this autocratic regime is its adeptness at maintaining strength by suppressing any opposition, whether from within its inner circle or society at large. This suppression constructs a facade of power, obscuring the structural vulnerabilities lurking beneath. Each day presents potential challenges that could threaten the regime’s survival. Thus, every action taken by Putin, including the recent government reshuffle, is geared towards fortifying the regime’s endurance and solidifying its hold on power. Undoubtedly, there is a tacit rationale behind the move—a rationale of survival—yet only time will reveal the success of the replacement in ensuring the regime’s longevity.

When discussing government reshuffles in Russia, providing context is essential. Specifically, such reshuffles are routine following the inauguration of a new Russian president. By law, the Russian government resigns at this juncture, with the president—typically Putin—appointing the key positions of a new administration. This transition provides an opportune moment to address any perceived issues without sparking undue speculation. This is especially pertinent given Russia’s current recapture of initiative on the Ukrainian front and the ongoing development of a counter-offensive, fostering a positive atmosphere. For instance, consider Shoigu’s hypothetical dismissal in the summer of 2022 due to tactical setbacks or in 2023 amidst the Prigozhin uprising. While such scenarios would logically justify Shoigu’s removal, Putin’s action at these pivotal moments could incite significant political unrest, hinting at a crisis and undermining the regime’s facade of strength.


The Mishustin government reconfirmed

Upon examining Putin’s anticipated government reshuffle, the absence of spectacle stands out. Most politicians holding key positions prior to Putin’s fifth presidential inauguration on May 7th remain unchanged, including key figures in power ministries. Notably, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, and Minister of economic development Maxim Reshetnikov retain their posts. The only notable development is the promotion of Dmitry Patrushev, son of Nikolai Patrushev, to vice prime minister while overseeing agriculture and ecology. Furthermore, power institutions exhibit stability rather than change: Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, SVR Director Sergei Naryshkin, Chief of Russia’s National Guard Viktor Zolotov, and Federal Protective Service (FSO) head Dmitry Kochnev maintain their positions. Thus, it’s crucial not only to focus on spectacle and elements of change but also to recognize aspects that remain stable and unchanged.

Does this imply that the replacement of Shoigu, the transition involving Nikolai Patrushev, and Belousov’s assumption of the role of Minister of Defence lack importance or signalling value? These longstanding key players within Putin’s inner circle hold immense significance, although their impact may not be immediately evident upon first glance.


Old soldiers never die…

Regarding Shoigu, one might characterize his replacement as Minister of Defence as a form of soft landing rather than a dramatic fall from grace. Historically, speculation has surrounded the Security Council as a means to quietly sideline individuals from the political limelight without causing significant loss of face. However, the recent arrest of Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov, a close ally of Shoigu, on corruption charges in late April, may have cast a shadow over Shoigu’s position. In hindsight, this event could be interpreted as a precursor to Shoigu’s eventual replacement. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to exercise caution with such speculations, especially given the opaque nature of political events in Russia, particularly concerning military relations with Putin.

Regarding Patrushev, one can only speculate on his future. Currently, it remains unknown which position he will assume within Russia’s power establishment. However, as the Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov suggested, it is evident that Patrushev will experience a graceful transition rather than a sudden ousting from Putin’s power structure. Furthermore, while speculative, the promotion of his son may serve to mitigate the blow of his own diminishing political influence.


The economist, Russia’s silent force

Regarding Belousov, it’s intriguing that a civilian economist, known for his unwavering support of Putin’s policies, is now at the helm of the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD). This move prompts us to consider whether it aligns with the regime’s survival logic, which relies more on economists than on siloviki. Unlike the notion of a militarized bureaucracy (also known as a militocracy), where siloviki are favoured to maintain the system, it’s the economists and ‘liberals’, such as Elvira Nabiullina, the governor of the Russian National Bank, finance minister Anton Siluanov, and minister of economic development Maxim Reshetnikov who sustain the system amid challenging economic conditions imposed by the regime’s war aims. Could this appointment aim to enhance the ministry’s efficiency, known for its corruption and wasteful expenditure? This seems a logical inference, particularly with the substantial increase in the defence budget, heightening the risk of misuse and abuse of resources, coupled with the historical risk of overburdening leading to collapse, as witnessed in the Soviet Union. It’s worth noting that Russia’s genuine attempts at modernization and reform occurred under Anatoly Serdyukov from 2007 to 2012, another civilian who initiated sweeping reforms within the MoD. Whether Belousov will pursue similar reform endeavours remains to be seen.


The longevity of stagnation

In the study of elite attitudes and behaviours, a distinction often arises between the ‘bears’ [medvedi] and ‘foxes’ [lisy], delineating those elites who favour prolonged geopolitical confrontation with the West and those who advocate for a return to pre-war status. The removal of Shoigu and Patrushev, both perceived as ‘bears’, and the appointment of Belousov, seemingly a ‘fox’, doesn’t signify a general shift in elite attitudes. Despite the reshuffle, there’s no discernible change in Putin’s war objectives, reinforcing the regime’s strength and steadfastness. Nonetheless, Putin’s tendency to replace figures within his inner circle with loyalists rather than fresh perspectives suggests stagnation, signalling a structural weakness. Thus, our assessment that the Russian regime remains robust yet fragile persists, implying its endurance until eventual change.

(Photo credit:  Wikimedia Commons)