A Government Shakeup in Moscow

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The Russian government announced last week a massive shakeup of its senior staff. Several ministers in civilian sectors such as energy, agriculture, industry and trade, and transportation were relieved of their positions, but the most notable departure was Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was replaced by Andrei Belousov, a former assistant to Vladimir Putin and a former minister of economic development. Putin has insisted that Shoigu, the architect of the war in Ukraine, will still be involved in military affairs, and his appointment as secretary of the Security Council is perhaps a testament to the president’s sincerity.

Indeed, there is little reason to believe this is some kind of Stalinist purge. Putin has made every effort to dismiss the idea that the team that managed the war failed. Recent government statements suggest that Putin needs a better balance of military and economic affairs, so installing a former economic development minister to the top defense post makes sense in this regard. Even so, we would be remiss if we neglected to mention reports that one senior Defense Ministry official was arrested and charged with corruption. Whether this is a single event or the beginning of more arrests (or worse) is yet unknown.

It isn’t immediately clear what Putin means in practical terms when he speaks of balancing military and economic affairs, which must be balanced in all wars if armies are to be supplied and citizens fed. Things do not seem especially out of balance in this war, so it might simply be a means of glossing over a radical shift, a way to avoid, to the extent possible, a sense of crisis.

There is in fact not so much a crisis but rather a long-term reality the Kremlin tried to ignore and other participants cannot seem to grasp. Moscow started the war under the assumption Ukraine would be rapidly defeated. That obviously was wishful thinking. Over two years later, Russia holds only 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. Kyiv has even recovered some parts Moscow had taken earlier. There has been a sense throughout the war that Ukraine could be breaking. It hasn’t broken yet, and neither has Russia. But as expectations continue to diverge from reality, that sense has eroded. The emphasis on the economy might be a diversion, part of a belief that the war could be sustained and the public placated if the Russian economy recovered. Putin also met last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has long made it clear that it will not join Russia in combat. But it might support Moscow on the economy. But the Chinese economy has weakened dramatically in the last two years, and the Russians know this.

Territory Control in Ukraine, May 2024
(click to enlarge)

Putin has mentioned negotiations, which the United States has been floating for some time. Russia has set terms, most notably the ouster of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He remains in place, and it would seem that if Russia were to choose between continuing the war and ousting Zelenskyy, it would choose the latter.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the government reshuffle. Many familiar names are still in power, and some are overtaking portfolios they seem to have no experience in. This makes little obvious sense, even if it conveys a feeling that time is running out on the war. Of course, it could be a clearing of the deck for a major attack. It makes a good cover. But after two years and limited advances, you don’t need a diversion of weakness. It’s already there.

George Friedman

George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures.

Dr. Friedman is also a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book, THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond, published February 25, 2020 describes how “the United States periodically reaches a point of crisis in which it appears to be at war with itself, yet after an extended period it reinvents itself, in a form both faithful to its founding and radically different from what it had been.” The decade 2020-2030 is such a period which will bring dramatic upheaval and reshaping of American government, foreign policy, economics, and culture.

His most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.