May 28, 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin sacked longtime factotum and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu Sunday, shocking just about everyone. Putin used a low-key announcement to the Federal Council, the upper house of Russia’s Potemkin parliament, identifying the members of his government after his March reelection as the vehicle to let the world know that the architect of Putin’s War in Ukraine had been removed. Shoigu was replaced by another Putin crony, First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov.

This is what the official announcement looked like.

What It Means

I’m sort of reluctant to jump into this because, in the words of Winston Churchill, “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath, it is obvious who won.” However, there are some meta observations that we can make.

Shoigu was a crook and a dud. His sole competitive advantage was his unquestioning loyalty to Vladimir Putin. The more he became a liability, the weaker his position became. The surprise is not that Shoigu is gone but that he lasted as long as he did. The Russian invasion of Ukraine showed the degree to which Shoigu and his lickspittles had siphoned off Russia’s “reform” defense budget over the last decade. Not only has the invasion been a humiliation for Russia, it has been a very expensive error. One of the few manufactured products that Russia sells, weaponry, has seen the bottom fall out of its market as anyone with access to YouTube or X/Twitter can see the crap it makes. In the words of legendary French diplomatic figure Talleyrand, “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.” 

The mutiny and murder of another Putin crony, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and the dismantling of the Wagner Group PMC further weakened Shoigu’s position. He may have survived allegations of industrial-scale corruption and military incompetence because Russians understand it is their lot to suffer that. Making the Tsar look ridiculous is a lot more difficult to walk away from.


BACKGROUND:

Russian State Media Says Wagner Group Honcho Yevgeny Prigozhin Is Dead; What Comes Next?

Russian Coup Update: It Ends With a Whimper as Prigozhin Goes Into Exile but Will Anything Ever Be the Same?

 Russia Faces Either a Military Mutiny or Coup D’Etat From Wagner PMC Boss Prigozhin

Fighting Against Leadership Underway in Russia: Wagner Group Seizes Buildings in Rostov, Battles Allegedly Erupt in Voronezh


Two weeks ago, the writing was on the wall when one of Shoigu’s top deputies was arrested for embezzling a trifling $10 million.


BACKGROUND: Top Aide to Russia’s Defense Minister Arrested for Corruption and Maybe Treason. What’s Going on? 


Not only was the aide arrested, he’s being held in prison pending trial:

When senior people get arrested and charges of treason are bandied about and not officially shut down, you can rest assured that the seeming target is just a staked goat.

By now, the massive corruption in Shoigu’s Defense Ministry, in particular the much-ballyhooed multi-billion ruble program to “modernize” Russia’s armed forces, is probably recognized as a failure even by Putin. Shoigu is unpopular with the Russian public, and nothing makes the public in a totalitarian regime happier than occasionally giving them a head on a pike.

True to form, Shoigu isn’t going anywhere. Putin sacked Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, and replaced him with Shoigu. Patrushev is also (shocked face) a longtime Putin crony and was the leading force behind the decision to annex Crimea in 2014 and to invade Ukraine. He was a contemporary of Putin in the KGB and has been secretary of the Security Council of Russia since 2008. We don’t know where he is, but he will either pop up with a promotion or have an unfortunate encounter with an open window.

Technically, Shoigu was promoted. This is a face-saving gimmick that fools no one. Shoigu may not care because his new position puts more graft and corruption within his reach.

Shoigu’s replacement, Belousov, is a civilian economist. He had a solid academic background before migrating into politics. My assessment is that Putin is not ignorant of the drain of the war on Russia’s economy and the decrepit state of the Russian industrial base. Folks can go on and on, if they wish, about what Russia can produce, but the fact that they don’t have an assembly line yet for their newest tank and they are buying artillery shells from North Korea tells you all you need to know. 

It remains to be seen if Belousov takes the role of technocrat shuffling the deck chairs or if he becomes an activist defense minister. The fate of Russian commander-in-chief Valery Gerasimov will be our first clue as to how that will play out.