Vladimir Putin: What will Russian president's shake-up of senior team mean for war in Ukraine after removal of defence minister Sergei Shoigu?

Long-standing Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has been moved sideways

It is a reshuffle by Russian president Vladimir Putin that suggests a level of dissatisfaction with the direction of the war in Ukraine.

In a surprise move, Mr Putin has shifted long-standing defence minister Sergei Shoigu sideways to become head of his National Security Council, replacing him with deputy prime minister Andrei Belousov – a renowned economist.

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Mr Shoigu had held the post of defence minister since 2012 – two years before Russia annexed Crimea and also launched an invasion into the Donbas region on Ukraine’s eastern border.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu, then Russia's defence minister, hold a meeting last year.Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu, then Russia's defence minister, hold a meeting last year.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu, then Russia's defence minister, hold a meeting last year.

Yet, a war that many believed would be over quickly has now dragged on for more than two years and despite a long history of friendship between the two, which has seen them take hunting and fishing trips together, tensions between Mr Putin and his deputy have risen since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Last summer, Mr Putin appeared to have publicly shunned Mr Shoigu at a joint visit to a hospital treating soldiers wounded in the conflict. Meanwhile, last month’s arrest of deputy defence minister Timur Ivanov on corruption charges signalled a dissatisfaction with Mr Shoigu’s team.

Mr Shoigu appeared to have been handed a reprieve by Mr Putin after a feud with Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who publicly called for Mr Shoigu to be sacked, claiming the defence minister had been lying to the president about the reality of the situation for Russian troops in Ukraine. However, far from sacking him, Mr Putin appeared at the time to have his back, with what appeared to be a coup attempt on the Kremlin by Wagner brought to an abrupt U-turn, which led to Wagner troops retreating from a march on Moscow. Mr Prigozhin himself died in a plane crash two months later.

Indeed, Mr Shoigu’s new position is not a demotion. It is considered one of the most powerful roles in Russia, perhaps hinting at a continued personal friendship between him and Mr Putin. The National Security Council has been led since 2008 by former spy Nikolai Patrushev – known as one of Russia’s most vocal “war hawks” – who has been moved into an as-yet unspecified new position.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has said Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces, will not be immediately affected by the reshuffle.

The decision comes at a time when Russia is struggling to contain the financial impact of the war. Its military spending has recently increased to 6.6 per cent of GDP.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Belousov would have to “integrate the military-industrial complex into the country's economy” and suggested the economic expert, who does not have a military background, would be regarded as a breath of fresh air for the war effort by opening up the ministry “to innovation and progressive ideas".

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“This demands special attention,” Mr Peskov said, referring to the financial situation. “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.

“It’s also important to point out that, on the battlefield, he who is more open to innovation wins. At this stage, the president has decided that a civilian should run the defence ministry.”

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