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OPINION

Reshuffling deck chairs: Putin’s wave of new appointments offers an implicit admission of military failure

The recent reshuffling of the Russian government and presidential administration represent qualitative changes to Vladimir Putin's aging regime. The losers were those directly responsible for the preparation and execution of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Putin's new government is weighted much more clearly in favor of the clans that formed under his rule. According to Alexei Levchenko, editor of The Insider, the rise of the “princelings” — relatives of Putin and his closest associates — suggests that the government is preparing for a new stage in the transition of power.

RU

While most observers are discussing the unexpected appointment of new Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, much less attention has been paid to the simultaneous demotion of the main planners of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although both Sergei Shoigu and Nikolai Patrushev were given new positions (as we know, Vladimir Putin rarely lets anyone leave his circle completely), the change in their jobs does not look like a promotion — to say the least.

After serving as FSB director from 1999 to 2008, Patrushev was tasked with leading Russia’s Security Council, a coordinating body operating under the authority of the presidential administration and staffed largely with special services officers, generals, and former intelligence officials. Under Patrushev’s highly influential leadership, the council has become a kind of think tank aimed at fighting against “enemies” inside Russia, at masterminding schemes of political repression, and at dealing with any potential threats to Putin's regime of personal power. It is rumored that the lists of foreign agents and new candidates for undesirable organizations are approved at Security Council meetings every Friday.

Under Nikolai Patrushev, the Security Council has become a think tank for political repression and fighting “enemies” inside Russia

The Security Council played a key role in the analytical preparation for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The operational reports and coded messages that passed through this body — and which were condensed by Patrushev personally — are believed to have promised a quick and glorious victory on the Ukrainian front.

Success in the “short, victorious war” was to be secured by the shiny new Russian army, a brand created by Sergei Shoigu and triumphantly sold to Vladimir Putin at parades, military exercises, and well-choreographed forums in Moscow’s Patriot Park. The PR successes of Shoigu's tank biathlons were so impressive that even Western military analysts began to consider Russian troops “the second best army in the world.”

Sergei Shoigu's “Tank Biathlon” at the ArMi-2022 games in Patriot Park in the Moscow Region's Kubinka
Sergei Shoigu's “Tank Biathlon” at the ArMi-2022 games in Patriot Park in the Moscow Region's Kubinka

The sandcastle collapsed in the first month of the war. Rather than crushing the enemy using its modern Armata “super tanks,” Russian soldiers attempting to advance on Kyiv in Soviet-era T-72s were killed en masse by Ukrainian forces wielding Western-supplied Javelin missiles. ” The Security Council and Ministry of Defense blamed each other, with sources close to the military blaming the very wrong analysis of Patrushev’s group, and sources friendly to the FSB and the Security Council blaming rampant corruption in Shoigu’s ministry.

But the Kremlin could not confess to such a catastrophic failure. That's why the two long-time, high-level Putin confidants were replaced in a manner that made it appear as if it were simply part of a routine, scheduled rotation at the beginning of Putin's new presidential term. In practice, however, neither Shoigu nor Patrushev will have the same opportunities as they did before. Shoigu will not become Russia’s new mastermind of political security, as he lacks the necessary skills and access to the infrastructure of the security services. For Patrushev’s part, the appointment of a man once seen as the second most powerful figure in the country to the role of “presidential aide on shipbuilding” looks like mockery.

The appointment of Patrushev as “presidential aide on shipbuilding” looks like mockery

The emergence of Andrei Belousov as Defense Minister indicates Putin's deep distrust of the military. But then again, the president has never trusted his country’s generals. That began in 2001, when Putin replaced the last military officer to hold the top job in the MoD, Igor Sergeyev, with his ex-KGB colleague Sergei Ivanov. The Kremlin chief has always been afraid of rebellion — and as demonstrated by Yevgeny Prigozhin's antics of 2023, which were supported by several generals, that fear was not groundless.

Belousov's surprise candidacy for his new post appears natural in hindsight. A workaholic economist absolutely devoted to Putin could not be kept in the job of first deputy prime minister forever. Isolated from all Russian clans and without his own team, Belousov came into conflict with half of Russia's oligarchs and business elite, whose profits he actively “confiscated” for the benefit of the state budget — and also with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, with whom he never found a common language. Putin could not simply throw away such an important and useful person, especially when Belousov’s anomalous attributes — the absence of a personalistic team and no traces of serious corruption, combined with meticulous administrative abilities — were so fitting for the suddenly open post in the Defense Ministry.

For opponents of Russia’s war in Ukraine, this is bad news. Belousov, a cold, introverted statesman, will be expected to cleanse the military establishment of corruption and direct the freed-up funds to the increasingly efficient killing of Ukrainian military personnel and civilians. Shoigu's former economic team is already being dismantled in the harshest possible manner, a process that shows the supreme commander-in-chief's extreme disappointment. However, defeating the military corporation will not be an easy task. In the army, Belousov, who has no military experience, will be seen as nothing less than the second coming of Anatoly Serdyukov.

Serdyukov, a businessman and former tax official who served as Russia’s Defense Minister from 2007 to 2012, was tasked with reforming the country’s armed forces and creating an efficient, “professional” military — better equipped, smaller in troop size, and more financially responsible. Several aspects of the reforms, such as major cuts to Russia’s officer corps, were met with fierce opposition from the army’s “old guard.”

In the army, Belousov, who has no military experience, will be seen as nothing less than a second coming of Anatoly Serdyukov

Putin’s other personnel moves appear to preserve the previous balance of factions, at least at first glance. However, while there has been no change in the quantitative nomenclature of positions, there has been a change in the quality of those positions. Mishustin's new government has moved away from the dichotomy of previous cabinets, in which supervisors-slash-deputy ministers and sectoral ministers often came from different teams. This created a conflict that worked to the Kremlin's advantage, allowing it to avoid over-strengthening any of the members of the government.

This time, the clans of the Russian government have distributed responsibility quite openly. The Rostec-Sergei Chemezov vertical has emerged, evident in the link between First Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and Minister for Industry Anton Alikhanov. Transportation and logistics are linked to the Rotenbergs, who are close to both Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Savelyev and the new Minister of Transportation Roman Starovoit, the former governor of the Kursk Region.

Former FSB men who had previously taken over the agriculture sector retained control not only over the Agriculture Ministry, but also saw the promotion of Dmitry Patrushev — son of the freshly appointed “presidential aide for shipbuilding” Nikolai — to the post of supervising Deputy Prime Minister.

The team of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin — represented by the head of the Ministry of Economy Maxim Reshetnikov, Minister of Education and Science Valery Falkov, and the Deputy Prime Minister for Construction Marat Khusnullin — has seen its representatives retain their posts. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev has two ministers of his own — Alexei Chekunkov, head of the Ministry for the Development of the Far East, and Alexei Kozlov, head of the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The biggest loser, oddly, looks like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who lost one of the figures in the new government makeup — Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko. Although the loss does not look critical, the beginning of the cutback in spheres of influence foreshadows a future career decline for Mishustin himself toward the end of Putin's term.

The beginning of the cutback in spheres of influence foreshadows a future career decline for Mishustin himself towards the end of Putin's next term

Mishustin has a reputation as an extremely ambitious bureaucrat, but he avoids showing it, remaining the modern equivalent of the inconspicuous Nikita Khrushchev in Stalin's Politburo. However, the post of the Prime Minister is an extremely important one, as in the event of any kind of force majeure, he will become the acting head of state. And the closer we get to 2030, the more arguments Putin will have to appoint a truly “dear” person as prime minister.

As a regime ages, authoritarian leaders have less and less trust, even in their inner circle. Once former friends turn into powerful bosses themselves and start playing their own games. This forces the dictator to periodically thin out and shake up the elites.

During Putin’s 24-year reign, the banker Sergei Pugachev, special services associates Viktor Ivanov and Vladimir Yakunin (who were once considered aces in the Kremlin deck) have fallen out of the boss’s inner circle. At the current stage of the reshuffle, it seems that representatives of the Yeltsin “family” have finally been distanced from the Kremlin. In the newest incarnation of the presidential administration, Alexandra Levitskaya, wife of the once influential Alexander Voloshin, former chief of staff during Putin's first term, has lost her position as an adviser.

As the regime ages, authoritarian leaders have less and less trust even in their inner circle. Once former friends turn into powerful bosses themselves and start playing their own games. This forces the dictator to periodically thin out and shake up the elites

And the closer the transition of power gets, the more often the leader’s closest relatives appear to be the most reliable potential successors. Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, for example, tried to pass power to their daughters — but both failed. Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus also dreams of monarchic succession.

Vladimir Putin's daughters still seem to be on the sidelines, but the appointment of Sergei Tsivilev, husband of Putin’s great-niece Anna, as Minister of Energy, already looks quite revealing. And Anna herself, by the way, also holds an important position in Putin's value system as director of the “Special Military Operation” veterans' fund, which enjoys a multibillion-dollar budget.

The example of the Tsivilevs is not the only case of the rise of “princelings” as a result of the recent reshuffling of power. The appearance of Yuri Kovalchuk's son Boris at the head of the Accounts Chamber and his rise to the position of Deputy Prime Minister of Dmitry Patrushev fall in the same line.

The elite, wanting to consolidate its position, will try to appoint more and more of its children, wives, nieces, and nephews to senior positions. But it is this very symptom that often becomes a harbinger of change, when, in the final stage of a dying regime, the authorities fail to resist the fact that society is tired of stagnation.

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