Five Reasons Why Putin Is Reshuffling His Government

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his election agents at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 20, 2024 Photo by Yuri Gripas/ABACA via Reuters John Tefft

Fresh off his reelection as president of the Russian Federation for a fifth term, Vladimir Putin has shuffled some senior officials in his government to bolster his rule in the years ahead. The most noteworthy changes have been in the defense establishment.

Former Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu has been kicked sideways to head the Security Council. A longtime Kremlin economics planner and most recently deputy prime minister, Andrei Belousov, replaced him. At the same time, Shoigu’s deputy and several other senior military officers were arrested for corruption in what looks like a concerted campaign.

What is Putin trying to accomplish with these moves? How will they affect Russia’s future? There are five key points to keep in mind.

First, Putin is trying to signal his determination to win the war in Ukraine, no matter the cost or the length. This war will be his legacy. With one-third of Russia’s budget (6.7 percent of GDP) now going for war expenditures, Putin intends to win what he sees as a war of attrition.

Belousov’s job will be managing the economics of the war effort with greater efficiency and less corruption while Putin and his military and intelligence advisors manage the strategy and tactics of the war effort.

It is ironic that the late Yevgeniy Prigozhin ultimately got what he wanted when he mounted his failed rebellion against Russia’s defense establishment last June. Shoigu is out and some of those who profited from his position are being arrested.

Putin also solidified the management of the military-industrial complex by bringing into the Kremlin the man many consider Putin to be grooming as his heir apparent, Alexei Dyumin. Formerly Putin’s chief bodyguard, Dyumin has spent the last eight years as governor of Tula Oblast. He will become secretary of the State Council, which may indicate Putin hopes to give that institution greater power in running Russia in the long run.

Dyumin will now oversee the defense industry in the presidential administration. He will work with Sergei Chemezov, a former KGB colleague of Putin and for over a decade the CEO of ROSTEC, a conglomerate of defense-related industries. One of Chemezov’s business partners, Denis Manturov, was appointed first deputy prime minister and will be responsible for Russia’s weapons industry.

Second, apart from the minister of defense, there were few significant changes in personnel or substance in other areas of governance. Putin seemed content with those running the economy, the security services, and foreign policy. Key department heads within the Kremlin remain in place, including the first deputy chief of the presidential administration, Sergei Kiriyenko, who manages domestic politics for Putin. With the exception of Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev being replaced by Shoigu, Putin’s key advisors remained in place in the Kremlin.

Of particular note, Putin did not change the economic management of the country. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin retained his position. He will continue to work with the team which has kept Russia’s macroeconomic ship afloat through the last two plus years of war. Anton Siluanov, finance minister since 2011, will stay onSo too will Elvira Nabiullina, governor of the Russian Central Bank.

Aided by a large rainy day fund, this team has helped Russia defy the odds of economic collapse despite western sanctions, systemic problems, and inflationary pressures.

Third, Putin continues to give younger politicians and technocrats greater responsibility for managing ministries and state organizations. These “tryouts” include five former regional governors who have been given jobs in the federal bureaucracy in Moscow and the sons of several of his longtime protegés.

The “princes,” as Mikhail Zygar calls them, include Patrushev’s son Dmitrii, who was elevated from minister of agriculture to deputy prime minister for agriculture, and Boris Kovalchuk, son of perhaps Putin’s closest friend, Yuri Kovalchuk, who has been appointed head of the Accounts Chamber.

Fourth, Putin continues to balance off the various clans who hold the reins of power in Russia. The clans are most often led by men who manage state institutions giving them close access to Putin and government assets. They distribute those assets among their own patron-client networks cementing their power bases. Putin remains the final arbiter in the behind-the-scenes, murky battles among the rich and powerful.

Shoigu’s clan was the clear loser in the recent reshuffle, whereas Chemezov’s clan increased its influence. As Meduza has pointed out, however, Chemezov failed to get control of the prime minister’s office, which Putin gave to a non-clan member, Belousov, whose only allegiance is to Putin himself.

Putin confidant Yuri Kovalchuk saw his clan’s position improve, with the appointment of his son and the continued influence of Sergei Kiriyenko. Nikolai Patrushev was demoted but remains an advisor in the Kremlin with access to Putin. His clan will be aided by his son’s elevation to deputy prime minister. Patrushev undoubtedly retains influence in the security services, from whence he rose to power.

While it is hard for those outside the Russian elites to understand the inner power struggles for influence and money, the battle is quite real. And Putin is a master at managing their competition.

Finally, what does this all say about Putin’s succession? Nothing imminent is planned. Putin seems clearly intent on serving out his fifth term. I remain skeptical that he will stay in power until 2036, which the revised constitution would permit. Putin continues to groom younger leaders, whom he deems capable of carrying on his legacy after he leaves the scene. But that depends a lot on how the war in Ukraine goes, and the impact the war will have in the coming years on the Russian economy and populace.

With the exception of bringing Dyumin back to the Kremlin from Tula, there were few signs in Putin’s moves to indicate which way the succession might go, should Putin leave the scene early for whatever reason. If something were to happen to Putin, 58-year-old Prime Minister Mishustin would become acting president and early elections would be called.

Putin has taken care during his presidency to avoid tipping the next leader. Given his likely plan to stay in power through his fifth term, his best course is to remain focused on potential successors.

The current clan leaders are in their late 60s and 70s and will eventually move on. The politicians and officials to keep an eye on are in their early 60s or younger.

Dyumin is 51, Mishustin is 58, Kiriyenko is 61, Boris Kovalchuk is 46, Dmitri Patrushev is 46, and Manturov is 55. And former President Dmitrii Medvedev, who is struggling to transform himself from a liberal reformer to a hard-line supporter of the war, is 58.

There, of course, could be others who will catch Putin’s eye or emerge from power struggles in positions of power. Like so much else in Russia these days, future leadership will depend on the outcome of the war with Ukraine.

– John F. Tefft holds the distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at RAND. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, Lithuania, Georgia, and Ukraine, and as deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs.

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on June 26, 2024.

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