Preparing for a Long War or Personnel Improvisation?
May 16, 2024
  • Alexander Golts
Journalist Alexander Golts analyzes the unexpected reshuffle in the security bloc engineered by Putin after his inauguration. How effective can replacing the men directly responsible for the special military operation be?
Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia's Security Council from 2008 to 2024. He is now Putin's aide on shipbuilding. Source: VK
The recent shakeup in the security bloc once again illustrates the futility of analyzing Russian court politics. Citing insider information, many experts had predicted that Sergei Shoigu would retain his post as minister of defense and that Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev would see his role strengthened. Neither of those things happened.

In reality, there is no insider information about what is really happening behind the Kremlin walls. Today’s analysts may envy the Cold War-era Kremlinologists, who were able to rely on at least one source – the order in which Soviet leaders lined up on the mausoleum on the two most important holidays.

Yet today there is only one powerful actor on the Russian political scene, Vladimir Putin. The entire decision-making process takes place in his head.
Andrei Belousov, the new minister of defense. From January 2020 to May 2024, he served as first deputy prime minister. Source: Wiki Commons
A new role for the minister

Experts can only analyze the consequences of decisions already made by Putin and try to guess their reasons. In this case, it is the transfer of Shoigu to head the Security Council, together with the appointment of First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov, who had previously had no connection with the military, as minister of defense.

The initial official explanations looked rather strange. Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov said that Belousov’s appointment was necessary because military spending had doubled during the war: “this requires particularly important decisions. It is very important to integrate the economy of the security bloc into the economy of the country. Integrate it so that it corresponds to the dynamics of the current moment.” Peskov added that the Ministry of Defense “must be absolutely open to innovation, to the introduction of all progressive ideas, to the creation of conditions for economic competitiveness.”

The job of the minister of defense is to spend allocated resources as rationally as possible. Providing resources and determining what exactly and in what volumes the state can give to the Ministry of Defense, in theory, should be handled by the people in charge of production and money – that is, the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Ministry of Finance.

What “competitiveness” Peskov was talking about remains a complete mystery. The war has showed that Shoigu’s constant reporting of unprecedentedly high levels of modern military equipment in the army was hot air. In reality, the Russian defense industry, which, according to Russian bigwigs – from Shoigu to Medvedev – works 24/7, is mostly engaged in bringing into combat-ready condition military equipment produced 30-50 years ago.

As far as one can understand, Valentina Matvienko, who presented Belousov’s candidacy in the Federation Council, was more truthful: “everything that the Ministry of Defense orders for so much money must be coordinated with the capabilities of the economy, it is necessary to organize production so that everything is at the right price and efficient and there is quality product [at the end]. And in this regard the minister of defense needs to constantly cooperate with other ministries and agencies to effectively organize this process.”

One may get the impression that now the job of the minister of defense in Russia is getting closer to how it is in Western countries, where the defense minister is not the “chief general” who directs the actions of the armed forces – rather, his job is to provide the armed forces with everything necessary to carry out those actions.

In my view, this is not quite the case with Belousov. The point is that in an authoritarian state waging war, the position of head of the defense ministry – who in theory should formulate the views of the supreme leader regarding defense policy and realize them – becomes unnecessary.
The leader of the state, being the commander in chief, directly controls military operations through the General Staff. He does not need the minister to be a middleman.
Sergei Shoigu, the outgoing minister of defense and incoming secretary of the Security Council. In the photo: Shoigu inspects a plant producing ammunition in Kopeysk, Chelyabinsk Region. March 2023. Source: VK
It is no coincidence that during the Great Patriotic War, Stalin himself was the people’s commissar of defense. The functions of the actual defense department were auxiliary, the troops receiving orders and directives through the so-called Stavka of the Supreme High Command.

A people’s commissar?

This seems to be what the military command system is today. Putin leads the troops through the General Staff. Shoigu, with his epaulets and aglets that did not boost his military talents or knowledge, turned out to be an extra, unnecessary element.

Being an experienced manager, Shoigu quickly realized this and tried to concentrate on defense industry issues. He began to regularly hold meetings with the aim of ramping up defense production, dressing down representatives of the industry. In front of the television cameras, he reprimanded the director of Uraltransmash – “stop playing the fool!” – after production of new self-propelled artillery units had been derailed. “And for all this equipment you have – there are more than thirty of them (machine tools – AG), [you have] three technicians. What are you doing here? You must bust your butt for three shifts!” Shoigu demanded in front of the director of an Altai plant that, according to the minister of defense, was lagging behind on installing new equipment.

In other words, the head of the ministry of defense began publicly trying on the tunic of Stalin-era iron-fisted people’s commissar, like Alexei Shakhurin, Dmitri Ustinov, or Boris Vannikov, who were responsible for arming the Red Army during the war.

In wartime, market mechanisms basically do not work in the defense industry. You need a leader endowed with extraordinary powers who is capable of “manually,” without taking into account supply and demand, setting up complex production chains, including dozens, if not hundreds of suppliers, on the tightest possible deadlines. For this, besides an iron will, remarkable organizational skills are needed. However, though Shoigu can be considered the most experienced manager from Putin’s inner circle, he was unable to convince his boss that he (and only he) fully commanded such skills.

Nevertheless, it is not obvious that Belousov has such skills. His success in mobilizing industry, as far as is known, amounts to proposals to impose arbitrary taxes on private companies. Recall that in 2023 he got big companies to “voluntarily” contribute RUB 300 billion to the budget. At the same time, Belousov insisted that the mobilization of the economy is impossible without the complete mobilization of society, which would mean overturning the model of relations between state and society that has been in effect throughout Putin’s presidency.

Minister Belousov has no experience in leading large organizations, while Shoigu successfully commanded large Siberian construction projects in the late 1980s, and then in the 1990s literally built the Ministry of Emergency Situations from scratch. Thus, the hopes that Putin appears to have regarding Belousov are not necessarily well-founded, and the appointment does not appear to be justified.

In command, but without divisions

Shoigu, who became the secretary of the Security Council, at first glance, received a promotion. By all accounts, Nikolai Patrushev, his predecessor, was nearly the second person in the state.

But that position is very specific. Unlike the minister of defense, the secretary of the Security Council has neither financial resources nor troops to give orders to. Formally, its functions are reduced to preparing all kinds of policy documents that are proposed to the head of state.

The power of the secretary of the Security Council is like the phrase attributed to Tsar Paul I: “only he is great in Russia to whom I am speaking, and only as long as I speak [to him].”
The secretary of the Security Council may have enormous powers, but only under specific instructions from the head of state. So, if there are no instructions, there is no power.
Just as Patrushev’s predecessor, Igor Ivanov, did not have any, for example. Just as Patrushev himself did not have any in the first years of his tenure.

Considering that Shoigu’s dismissal was preceded by the arrest of his deputy, Timur Ivanov, the view that Shoigu was sacked to remove him from the real levers of power does not seem overly fanciful. It is possible that, under the banner of fighting corruption in the ministry, there will be a purge of cadres associated with Shoigu. Shoigu did not make it over to the Kremlin before another important official was arrested – the head of the personnel directorate at the Ministry of Defense, Yuri Kuznetsov. In Stalin’s times, this would have been followed by the arrest of the former minister himself.

On to shipbuilding

As for Patrushev, he received a strange appointment as Putin’s aide... on shipbuilding. Perhaps someone remembered that 50 years ago, before becoming a KGB officer, Patrushev graduated from the shipbuilding institute. The argument that he will retain the same influence on Russian politics seems dubious.

Perhaps the only person who obviously benefited from all the turnover among the siloviki is Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov (or the general who will replace him). With the departure of Shoigu, the chief of the General Staff clearly becomes the main military man in the country.

The changes that have taken place represent an attempt at the personnel level to continue the militarization of the country and its preparation for a long-term conflict. Still, the specific dismissals and appointments do not resemble a comprehensive personnel concept. Whatever functions the new minister of defense is given, there is little confidence at this point that he will manage to cope with them.
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