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The Ukraine War: Putin replaces Russian defense minister with a technocrat

The Ukraine War: Putin replaces Russian defense minister with a technocrat

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Virendra Pandit

New Delhi: Days after starting his fifth term, President Vladimir Putin on Sunday shuffled his defense and security team to remobilize Russia’s sagging economy for a long and intensified war in Ukraine against the West which, since it started on February 24, 2022, has not produced a decisive victory so far.

According to the media reports on Monday, he named his former economy aide and First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov, 65, to be Russia’s new defense minister.

A technocrat, Belousov replaced the incumbent Sergei Shoigu, 68, who was defense minister since 2012. He will now be the Secretary of Russia’s Security Council. Nikolai Patrushev, a longtime ally of Putin who had held that post, was dismissed and is due to take another, unspecified job.

Ironically, neither Belousov nor Shoigu has a military background.

President Putin’s ouster of Shoigu, one of his closest allies, may reflect frustration at the failure to defeat Ukraine in a war that was meant to last for “48 hours” and is now in its third year with hundreds of thousands of Russian troops killed or wounded.

Shoigu was also the target of last year’s aborted mutiny by Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny Prighozin, who accused him of repeated failures on the battlefield.

In a new offensive now, Russian troops are advancing in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late Sunday that his forces were holding their positions in fierce battles, calling the situation “extremely difficult.”

Dismayed that the war was going nowhere, Putin now wants to at least seize full control of eastern Ukraine’s Russian-majority Donbas region, which provided his justification for the February 2022 invasion.

The defense overhaul takes place as Putin prepares to travel to China this week for talks with President Xi Jinping. The visit underscores the importance for the Kremlin leader of the “no limits” friendship with Beijing that has enabled Moscow to weather unprecedented sanctions imposed by the US and its allies to try to wreck Russia’s economy.

With Ukraine receiving tens of billions of dollars in new military aid from its US and European allies, Russia faces the challenge of maximizing the impact of its defense spending, which is surging to historically high levels.

State spending on the Defense Ministry and Russia’s security sector is approaching 6.7 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), nearing levels reached by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, according to the Interfax news service.

While spending levels aren’t yet “critical,” Putin chose Belousov because of the need for “economic competitiveness” at the Defense Ministry, he said.

“Belousov’s appointment is a sign the Russian economy is being transformed into a war economy,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.

The shuffle is the most far-reaching shakeup since 2020 when Putin named Mikhail Mishustin to replace Dmitry Medvedev as the Prime Minister. Months later, Putin overhauled the Constitution to allow him two more mandates, which means he could rule until 2036 when he’ll be 83.

Mishustin was reappointed last week to continue as the PM. Medvedev has been deputy head of the Security Council since 2020.


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