Putin's Shake-Up of Russian Military Leadership


May 24, 2024

Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting in Moscow, Russia, May 15, 2024, photo by Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Reuters

Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting in Moscow, Russia, May 15, 2024

Photo by Vyacheslav Prokofyev/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on RealClearDefense on May 24, 2024.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not shied away from expressing frustration with the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Over the nearly two and a half years of the conflict, he has removed multiple senior military commanders and officials, generally due to dissatisfaction with their performance.

Last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the latest to be relieved of his position by Putin. But why would Putin oust a longtime loyalist with deep roots in the Russian military establishment? Apparently, no amount of loyalty or experience can assuage Putin if the desired battlefield outcomes are not being delivered.

Shoigu now finds himself as the Secretary of Russia's National Security Council—a role formerly held by Nikolai Patrushev, also a hard-line nationalist and devoted Putin loyalist. Shoigu, a general of the army since 2003, was replaced by Andrei Belousov, a civilian economist with no military experience.

Apparently, no amount of loyalty or experience can assuage Putin if the desired battlefield outcomes are not being delivered.

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Was Shoigu's Removal Inevitable?

Shoigu is a powerhouse in Russian military circles. He was in the defense minister role since 2012, and over his 12-year tenure he implemented numerous reforms to the Russian Armed Forces. These included (PDF) the establishment of the Special Operations Command to serve as a rapid reaction force, and an “information warfare directorate” to serve as the Defense Ministry's cyber-warfare wing.

For most of the war, however, it seemed that Shoigu's job was relatively secure, despite blame from one of the few Russians to publicly criticize the war effort or the top brass.

Before his death, Yevgeny Prigozhin, then head of the Wagner Group, made his frustration with Shoigu very clear. In May of last year, Prigozhin appeared in a video in front of Wagner corpses, where he proceeded to go on an expletive-filled rant against Shoigu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. While Prigozhin may have been one of the only individuals who publicly aired his grievances with Shoigu, his defiance showcased problems with Shoigu's strategy in Ukraine that have persisted for much of the war.

Stuck in Their Ways?

Perhaps Shoigu isn't fully to blame for Russia's less than stellar performance in the war. Russian military strategy and tactics followed a well-worn playbook up until February 2022. While some battlefield tactics have likely changed, coupled with new advances in military technology, traditional tactics relying on massed indirect fires and mobile formations remain a critical blueprint of the Russian military.

Belousov's elevation to minister of defense may represent a shift from traditional Russian military strategy and tactics—one that will now rely more heavily on drone technology. Belousov, best described as a technocrat and economist, is a vocal advocate for developing Russia's drone industry. In his previous role as First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, he announced plans to annually build 18,000 large and medium-sized drones by 2026, as well as the development of a new industry focused on drone manufacturing.

The Kremlin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, stated that the shift to a civilian defense head was due to a focus on innovation. “Today on the battlefield, the winner is the one who is more open to innovation,” Peskov said. Perhaps bringing in a fresh set of eyes—one not constrained by decades of Russian military thought—could yield breakthroughs for the Russian war effort.

Implications of Shoigu's Removal

There are multiple reasons that this shuffling of key players could have happened. What are the implications of this new shift in Defense Ministry leadership?

This move may be indicative of a broadening purview of Putin's approach to the war in Ukraine. As the “special military operation” that was supposed to seize Kyiv in a matter of days has stalled, it is as much an economic problem as it is a military problem. Military spending on the war is on pace to account for almost one-third of Russia's budget this year. Belousov's background as an economist might be better suited for improving Russia's defense production in a prolonged conflict.

In this vein, Belousov's appointment may embolden Putin's confidence that he can win the war in Ukraine through attrition. Russia's wartime defense industry has proven that it can produce more weaponry than the West is currently sending for Ukraine's defense. NATO intelligence estimates suggest that Russia is producing about three million artillery shells per year, compared with a collective 1.2 million shells that the United States and Europe are annually sending to Ukraine. Despite this large numerical advantage, production capacity in Russian factories is likely to plateau sometime in the next year—introducing Belousov may be intended to make sure that doesn't happen.

The shakeup could also be a response to a purported string of high-level Defense Ministry personnel being implicated in a growing corruption scandal. In April, Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov was arrested on suspicion of bribery. And two days after Shoigu's departure, Yuri Kuznetsov, head of the Defense Ministry's personnel, was arrested on the same charges. At least five individuals have been arrested in the corruption scandal. Belousov is seen as clean “by Moscow standards” when it comes to corruption. Corruption within the Defense Ministry has only been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, and Belousov's appointment could be a reaction.

Shoigu's removal will likely lead to changes in the Defense Ministry's approach to the war in Ukraine.

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Agnostic of the reasoning behind it, Shoigu's removal will likely lead to changes in the Defense Ministry's approach to the war in Ukraine. Close attention should be paid to official announcements from Russian channels in the coming weeks and months, particularly any policy announcements or defense sector reforms.

Hunter Stoll is a defense analyst at RAND and a captain in the Army Reserve.

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