Andrei Belousov | Putin’s war manager

Andrei Belousov
| Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

Vladimir Putin’s inauguration as Russian President for a fifth time has spawned a slew of political moves in the country. Andrei Belousov was made Defence Minister, replacing Sergei Shoigu, who was sent away to head the National Security Council — a position held by Mr. Putin’s key ally Nikolai Patrushev, who will oversee shipbuilding going forward.

Russia’s official position regarding the Cabinet reshuffle is that with the war in Ukraine under way for two years now, military spending resembles Soviet-era levels of the mid-1980s. This calls for a better integration of the defence Budget into the overall economy, which will be achieved by having a civilian economist, such as Mr. Belousov, at the helm.

However, from the outset, things seemed to be going in favour of Mr. Shoigu, for the Ukraine war had finally gathered momentum. After remaining largely stagnant since December 2022, the Russian Army began advancing on the battlefront, capturing close to 800 sq. km this year.

What then would have prompted Mr. Shoigu’s transfer? Parse through the history and the full picture emerges. Like Mr. Belousov, Mr. Shoigu, too, hails from a civilian background. A civil engineer by profession, the 68-year-old started at the Emergency and Disaster Relief Department in the 1990s. Having proved his mettle there, Mr. Shoigu took over as Defence Minister in 2012. He orchestrated the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and masterminded Russia’s military campaign in Syria to help Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Inner circle

His stature had grown by then and Mr. Shoigu became part of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, even accompanying him on fishing trips. Speculation was rife that he would be considered a possible successor to Mr. Putin.

The first signs of trouble for Mr. Shoigu were visible with Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine that was launched on February 24, 2022. What was expected to be a quick campaign has dragged on for more than two years.

The period also witnessed economic sanctions by the West and a mutiny at home by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin against Mr. Shoigu and military chief Valery Gerasimov. The final nail came in April with the arrests of Mr. Shoigu’s deputy Timur Ivanov on corruption charges and another senior official from the Defence Ministry.

This may lead to the impression that graft and inefficiency on the battlefield led to Mr. Shoigu’s removal. But then not every head rolled, and Mr. Gerasimov remains unaffected by the Cabinet shake-up, continuing to serve in his role; forcing analysts to think Mr. Shoigu’s increased clout could also have contributed to his ‘demotion’.

Taken together with the Prigozhin episode, the clout factor is likely to have played a part in Mr. Putin’s decision. A look at the other appointments further underscores this. Mr. Patrushev’s son, Dmitry, has been promoted from Agriculture Minister to Deputy Prime Minister, and so is Mr. Putin’s main financier Yuri Kovalchuk’s son Boris, who is assigned to lead Russia’s audit chamber.

By tying the prospects of next-generation leaders to the current political dispensation, analysts believe Mr. Putin is trying to neutralise potential threats from various quarters.

This makes Mr. Belousov, a civilian with a relatively low profile, the ideal candidate for Mr. Putin. The 65-year-old’s stints, first as an Economic Development Minister and then as a Deputy Prime Minister, lend him enough heft to take on the role of Defence Minister. His interest in drones paints the picture of a technocrat, who can bring about the required ‘innovation’, which Russian officials believe is crucial to winning the war. His economic background should also help plug corruption and ensure money is allotted efficiently and effectively.

Most important, the fact that Mr. Belousov and Mr. Putin possess a set of shared beliefs, chief among which is an increased state role in the economy, solidifies his case. Mr. Belousov’s efforts to this end — such as an increase in VAT in 2019 and a proposal to seize excess profit from 14 large metallurgical and chemical companies — must have caught the Russian President’s attention.

By appointing an economist at the helm, the Russian President realises the role played by the economy during wartime. This means Mr. Belousov has his task cut out and will have to straddle the economy and the war optimally.