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The Kremlin’s Game of Thrones: Why did Putin Sack Shoigu? 

Putin may replace his long-standing Defence Minister but cannot tackle the real cause of his disastrous foreign policy – himself

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu leave Red Square after the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on 9 May 2024. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy

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“Cadres decide everything” is the famous phrase used by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1935. Quite aware that he cannot achieve at least some of his goals in Ukraine with incompetent and extremely corrupt officials running the Defence Ministry, Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced his close ally Sergei Shoigu with a technocrat Andrei Belousov. 

But how will that affect Russian actions in the Eastern European country?

Putin seems to enjoy playing the role of a “good tsar” who is allegedly surrounded by “bad boyars” (noblemen). Although over the past 25 years, Putin has created a system of “total nepotism”, followed by kakistocracy and kleptocracy, he is almost never subjected to open criticism. Despite the catastrophic losses the Russian military has suffered in Ukraine – over 465,000 soldiers, according to the UK Ministry of Defence – very few people with any authority inside Russia blamed Putin for such a debacle. 

Their major target was a “bad boyar” – Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.

After Shoigu’s deputy Timur Ivanov was arrested over bribery-taking charges, on 25 April, it became clear that Putin’s ally would also soon fall from grace. That, however, does not mean that Shoigu will end up behind bars. Putin’s shake-up gives the 69-year-old ethnic Tuvan a job that is technically regarded as senior to his defence ministry role. He will become the secretary of Russia’s powerful Security Council, replacing incumbent Nikolay Patrushev.

At this point, it remains unclear what position will be taken by Patrushev, who served as the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) from 1999 to 2008. His older son Dmitry, however, has been promoted to Deputy Prime Minister from Agriculture Minister, while his younger son Andrei until recently headed the offshore Arctic branch of Gazprom Neft. 

But since Patrushev, following the Crocus City Hall terror attack, started employing virulently anti-migrant rhetoric, and even claiming that “illegal migration is a source of major risks and creates conditions for the collapse of the country”, it is not improbable that his new job will be related to migrants. 

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The Corruption Problem

Critics would say that Putin’s cabinet reshuffle represents what is widely known in Russia as the “shilo na mylo” type of change, which means “to exchange something bad for something equally bad.” But unlike Shoigu and Patrushev, other Russian top officials such as Alexander Bortnikov as the FSB director, Sergei Narishkin as Foreign Intelligence Service head, Konstantin Chuychenko as the Justice Minister, Sergey Lavrov as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Kurenkov as the Minister of Emergency Situations, have all kept their positions.

Also, it remains to be seen for how long will the Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is seen by critics as a “huckster who despises subordinates and makes incompetent decisions”, manage to preserve his post. If he eventually gets fired, it will be a clear signal that the Kremlin is not satisfied with the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, despite Putin’s frequent claims that “everything is going according to plan.”

In reality, corruption remains a big problem for the Russian armed forces. Shoigu was often described as one of the most corrupt Russian officials. With him in charge, Putin had very little chance of achieving any of his strategic goals in Ukraine. His successor, Belousov – who has reportedly been a member of Putin’s inner circle for many years – is expected to conduct an audit of the financial-economic bloc of the Defence Ministry, switching to a long-standing war economy that would allow the Kremlin to continue its war of attrition in the Eastern European country. 

Putin is most likely hoping that relatively small changes in the Russian security apparatus can bring big results in Ukraine. At the same time, he does not seem willing to allow his associates to gain too much power, as that could threaten his reign. 

Given that his alleged loyalist Viktor Zolotov remains the head of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) – often portrayed as the Kremlin’s Praetorian Guard – Putin’s top priorities will almost certainly be to prevent any potential turmoil at home. Still, it remains uncertain if Zolotov – whose grandson was educated at a prestigious British school, Cranleigh School in Surrey, and whose daughter and son-in-law are billionaires – would really risk his life protecting Putin in case of another mutiny.

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Plus Ça Change

One thing is for sure, though. Putin does not plan to change the course of Russian foreign policy. Despite the fact that Moscow is losing its influence in the post-Soviet space – which is the direct result of Putin’s actions in Ukraine – and that many Russian allies continue turning their back on the Kremlin, the Russian leader seems to be satisfied with the way Sergey Lavrov has been running the country’s Foreign Ministry for the past 20 years. 

Indeed, the 74-year-old Putin’s decoy-in-chief – whose daughter Ekaterina Vinokurova attended Columbia University in New York, where she lived for 17 years, before obtaining her graduate degree at the London School of Economics, and whose stepdaughter Polina Kovaleva lives a luxurious lifestyle in London – is the longest-serving foreign minister since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But Lavrov’s boss has a very high chance of becoming the longest-serving Russian leader since Catherine the Great, who reigned over Russia for 34 years.

Even if Putin stays in power until 2036, his rule, as well as his cabinet reshuffles, are unlikely to bring anything good to the Russian people. There is no shake-up that can hide the fact that the fish rots from the head – the head of state. 

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