Putin’s dismissal of Defense Minister Shoigu fuels intrigues in the Russian army

Some sectors of the military celebrated the general’s departure and now questions are being asked over the position of chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, overall commander of Kremlin forces in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin, Sergei Shoigu y Valery Gerasimov
From left to right: former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, President Vladimir Putin and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov watch military exercises in Siberia in 2018.Alexei Nikolsky (AP)
Javier G. Cuesta

The dismissal of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has caused waves in the Russian Armed Forces. The cornering of the veteran politician — one of the people closest to President Vladimir Putin — and the arrest at the end of April of his right-hand man, Deputy Minister Timur Ivanov, on charges of alleged bribery have been greeted in some sectors of the army with euphoria and in others with suspicion.

For a section of the military and some influential war bloggers — whom the Russian president invited to the Kremlin last June to analyze the shortcomings of his forces — the dismissal represents a blow by Putin against what they call the Rublyovka clan, in reference to the luxurious Moscow neighborhood where Shoigu and other members of the elite own mansions. However, the war offers no respite and the senior military strategist on the Ukrainian front, chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, is now in a precarious situation. The Kremlin has reaffirmed the commander in his post for now, but doubts persist about his near future and his dismissal could cause a domino effect in the Russian ranks.

“Launching fireworks at military installations, general rejoicing on social networks, endless congratulations via phone chats — all this speaks for itself,” was the summary of one of the most popular Russian war bloggers, Semyon Pegov, who is close to the Wagner mercenary group.

Shoigu’s departure is likely to drag with him all or many of his deputy chiefs, State Duma defense committee chairman Andrei Kartapolov has acknowledged. Kartapolov, a former military officer, also praised Putin for his decision: “The president does not make mistakes in personnel matters.”

The Kremlin was quick to stress Sunday that Shoigu’s departure did not entail any major shake-up in the high command leading the war against Ukraine following the appointment of Andrey Belousov to replace him. “As far as the military component is concerned, the appointment will have no effect on the current system of coordinates. The military component has always been a prerogative of the Chief of General Staff, and he will continue his duties. In this sense, no changes are expected at this point,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said immediately after the news broke.

Military operation run aground

Gerasimov was appointed sole commander of Russian forces deployed in Ukraine in January 2023. Even though his army stopped the Ukrainian counteroffensive a few months later, the chief of the General Staff has failed to break his rival on the battlefield and what the Kremlin refers to as its “special military operation” remains mired in a war of attrition. The minimal gains achieved in recent months have been paid for by Russia at a huge human and material cost.

“With a high degree of probability, in a few months General Gerasimov will be replaced by a younger and more creative military officer,” Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), one of Russia’s leading military think tanks, tells this newspaper.

The Kremlin does not expect a quick breakthrough on the front, but a long war, Pukhov observes: “The appointment of a famous economist to the post of defense minister means that Putin is committed to a long war of attrition.”

Reputable analyst Mark Galeotti shares a similar opinion on his YouTube channel. “I would not be surprised to see a new chief of the General Staff as soon as Belousov sets foot in the department given that Gerasimov has proven to be a somewhat bad wartime chief of staff, unimaginative and prone to undertake operations with huge wastes [of forces], and, above all, unwilling to tell Putin some realities of the war.”

The mutiny of the Wagner Group in June 2023 marked a turning point in the delicate balance of factions in the army and the side closest to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the deceased head of the mercenaries, lost. General Sergei Surovikin, the architect of the defensive line against which Ukraine’s counteroffensive faltered, was removed after being detained for several weeks. Now, Shoigu’s dismissal and the possible departure of Gerasimov may again change the distribution of forces in the military establishment.

Factions and misgivings over relations with China

The appointment of Belousov — an economist from outside the Russian Armed Forces — as Shoigu’s successor is seen as a regenerative step by both the factions close to the official Kremlin line, and the more dissident ones. Likewise, Putin’s decision has reopened the door to criticism after almost a year of silence born of fear. Protests against the high command for the failed conduct of the war reached their peak in the first half of 2023, but several arrests and Prigozhin’s death in August 2023 silenced all dissenting opinions. Until this Sunday.

Both Semyon Pegov and another well-known expert on military affairs more aligned with the Kremlin, Alexander Kots, agree that Belousov is a “technocrat” and will probably focus on the purely logistical aspect of the military, unlike his predecessor. “Shoigu was also perceived as a civilian within the army. However, both he and his team considered themselves true generals,” Pegov notes.

Kots, for his part, insinuates that Shoigu and his officers benefited some arms dealers over others: “Progress is born in an atmosphere of healthy competition and not from the monopoly of one product when analogues exist. It is necessary to provide all producers with equal opportunities and government support, from drones to electronic warfare systems.”

Shoigu’s dismissal has also led to the emergence of new intrigues and accusations in the military. “Just as there is a pro-Western faction within the elite political groups, there is also a pro-Chinese faction to which Shoigu probably belongs,” Pegov says of the Siberian-born general. In his opinion, the minister’s removal “is not only a blow to the oligarchic Rublyovka clan, but also to the Chinese faction and the influence it has gained in Russian politics over these past few decades.”

Although Chinese support has been key to Russia’s ability to navigate Western sanctions, mistrust hangs over relations between the two powers. Several Russian citizens, including reputed physicists and mathematicians linked to hypersonic missile projects, have been detained since the Ukrainian war began, allegedly for spying for China.

Despite his abrupt departure, Putin compensated Shoigu by giving him the secretariat of the Security Council, an advisory body with no real power, where several of the president’s top officials have ended up after being removed from their posts. Putin held his first meeting with the council via videoconference this Monday and Shoigu’s predecessor, the former head of Russian espionage Nikolai Patrushev, was present. While Patrushev holds no nominal position, he wields significant power in the shadows due to his proximity to Putin and their links to the FSB, the heir to the Soviet KGB.

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