Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Sergei Shoigu out as Russia’s defence minister

Vladimir Putin and former defence minister Sergei Shoigu (Getty Images)

It’s reshuffle time in Moscow and it seems that Sergei Shoigu, who has served as Vladimir Putin’s defence minister for the last 12 years, is out. He’s being replaced with Andrei Belousov, an academic economist who has been advising Putin for 20 years and spent the last four as deputy prime minister. It’s a surprise appointment given Belousov’s lack of military experience. Sergei Lavrov, 74, stays as foreign minister, as does Valery Gerasimov, 68, head of the army.

Rumours had been swirling about the demotion of Shoigu, 68, for some time, especially after one of his deputies and close allies, Timur Ivanov, was last month thrown in jail pending trial for taking bribes. His treatment was seen by some quarters as an attempt by Putin to chip away at Shoigu’s authority. Nevertheless, Shoigu’s confident appearance next to Putin on Red Square for Thursday’s Victory Day parade proved that he was not being completely cut off. He will now become chair of the security council.

But those who promised Putin that conquering Kyiv would take a mere three or four days do seem to be being slowly marginalised. Although the Russian army is now successfully fighting off Ukraine’s troops and doing better on the battlefield – making what they can of the interregnum before US weapons arrive.

Belousov, 65, is a staunch conservative who has long lobbied Putin for the introduction of elements of the planned Soviet economic system into modern Russia’s economy, including the nationalisation of key industries and higher business taxes. But his military thoughts are a mystery and he himself has no military experience. The Kremlin clearly felt the need to explain the rationale behind this appointment of a number-cruncher, saying Belousov’s economic credentials were integral to him being offered the job. ‘Today, the winner on the battlefield is the one who is more open to innovation, more open to implementation as quickly as possible,’ it said. ‘The Ministry of Defence must be absolutely open to innovation, to introduce all advanced ideas, to create conditions for economic competitiveness.’

Some key positions in Putin’s cabinet have remained untouched in the reshuffle. Despite rumours that both prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov might be retired or replaced (Lavrov, in particular, has reportedly made his desire to retire known for some time), both have kept their positions. The decision not to replace the 60-year-old Mishustin with a younger candidate in particular suggests Putin, 71, has decided the time has not yet come to anoint a successor. Were anything to happen to incapacitate the Russian president, it is the prime minister who steps up to assume his duties. 

Putin’s proposed new cabinet will now be debated by the upper house of Russia’s parliament tomorrow and Tuesday, although this will largely be considered ceremonial. The Russian president operates by presiding over infighting, setting up his cronies in competition with one another. As the dust settles on this reshuffle, the new power dynamics and factions that arise will be key to how Russia navigates not just the years left of Putin’s rule, but potentially for many years afterwards too.