On the government reshuffle

The first substantial changes to the composition of Russia’s broader federal government since February 2022 took place over the weekend. But how substantial were they? Here are a couple of initial thoughts on the (potentially still ongoing) changes, on Belousov, Shoigu and Patrushev.

On May 12, as the State Duma approved the first set of changes to the composition of Mikhail Mishustin’s government, I drafted a piece arguing that notwithstanding the appointment of five new ministers to the government – four of them sitting governors – and the elevation of two “princelings” – Dmitry Patrushev to the position of deputy prime minister and Boris Kovalchuk to head the Accounts Chamber – this was, in fact, a very conservative government reshuffle, which left most key positions in the government unchanged, and was notable mostly because of all the changes that could have happened but did not.

Then came the news that Andrey Belousov, an economist and deputy prime minister, and long-time proponent of increasing the state role in mobilizing the economy for war purposes, was appointed defense minister to replace Sergey Shoigu who in turn will be appointed to head the Secretariat of the Security Council instead of the hawkish Nikolay Patrushev whose impact on the securitization of an increasing array of foreign and domestic policy areas in recent years is hard to overstate.

At the time of this writing, it is unclear where Patrushev will go next (or indeed whether other significant appointments and dismissals are in the cards); his dismissal put the elevation of his son, hitherto minister of agriculture, to the position of deputy prime minister, into a different light. But all in all, this still looks more like a careful surgery than a shakeup.

New people, same balance

Apart from the dismissals/reappointment(s) of Belousov, Shoigu and Patrushev, none of the other changes are too significant. Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov, an oft-cited example of the so-called “young technocratic” cohort of governors, will take over as Minister of Industry. Oksana Lut, thus far a deputy minister, was promoted to Minister of Agriculture. Kursk governor Roman Starovoit will be appointed Minister of Transportation, Kemerovo governor Sergey Tsivilyov Minister of Energy and Khabarovsk governor Mikhail Degtyaryov Minister of Sports.

For Alikhanov and Starovoit, the promotion is the fulfillment of the core promise of Russia’s public administration system that has evolved under the Presidential Administration’s deputy head, Sergey Kirienko in the past 7-8 years. In this system, centrally trained, interchangeable officials serve as governors only to then receive a promotion in the federal government. Both had worked in the ministries that they were appointed to lead before, and Alikhanov, who received the more important portfolio, will have to work together with his predecessor, Denis Manturov, an influential protégé of the state technological giant Rostec, who will no doubt continue to oversee industrial policy. The situation is similar for Lut whose predecessor, Dmitry Patrushev was appointed deputy prime minister.

As far as the rest of the new appointees are concerned: the elevation of Tsivilyov, an official with good relations with the powerful coal lobby and a family relation, through his wife, to Putin, was expected, especially since he is not seen as a particularly effective or popular governor, beyond his ability to balance local business interests. Degtyaryov, a representative of the nominally opposition Liberal Democratic Party and cassociate of its late leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, took over the Khabarovsk Region as a Moscow-backed compromise after the 2020 protests over the arrest of his predecessor, Sergey Furgal. He has served his purpose and his protector has since died; the desire to appoint a new governor to Khabarovsk – either from United Russia, or, more likely, from the LDPR, now led by the much more supine and less remarkable Leonid Slutsky, may have been an important driving force of the decision.

The new defense minister – arguably the most unexpected appointment –  is known as a competent economist and strong proponent of increasing the role of the state in the economy. Over the past two years he has been one of the voices calling for the mobilization of the economy for the needs of the war (a position that was not triggered by the war; it was the logical culmination of his consistently voiced proposals of higher taxation and state-driven investment in the era of the much more austere pre-war economic policy). While it is true that his predecessor, Sergey Shoigu is not a military man, either, he nonetheless did have a quasi-silovik background from his days as head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Belousov’s appointment, as highlighted by presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, is likely an attempt, first and foremost, to make ballooning defense spending – currently amounting to a third of the federal budget – more efficient.

In his first remarks after his appointment Belousov also indicated that improving the social security of war participants was going to be one of his priorities, reflecting a key concern for the Kremlin, which is perhaps better addressed by a credible economist than Shoigu whose popularity among current and former soldiers has tanked.

Reflecting trends

In spite of Belousov’s elevation, the government reshuffle is by no means radical. His appointment simply underlined the Kremlin’s focus on ramping up military production, which had already been a key element of Russia’s strategy of outlasting the will of Ukraine and its backers. To a large extent, the success of this strategy depends on elections later this year in the EU and the US, which, from the Kremlin’s point of view, should result in a clear defeat of the proponents of aiding Ukraine. In his new position, relying on Putin’s trust, Belousov will also likely push for a more direct mobilization of economic resources via higher taxation and the continuation of nationalizations; but it is far from certain that he will be successful. The government’s economic bloc remains largely untouched – aside from a strengthening of Rostec’s positions – and Belousov has not had the upper hand so far.

The most radical change is in the so-called security bloc – and here the dismissals are likely far from over. It is unclear whether the appointment of the new defense minister will be followed by  the appointment of a new chief of staff. Corruption probes continue: Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov, of the army’s Main Directorate of Personnel was arrested on May 13. Nikolay Patrushev’s new position is, as of yet, unclear.

For Shoigu, the appointment to the Security Council is by no means a demotion, but it is a quieter and, as of mid-2024, potentially less rewarding job than his previous position. Shoigu is an influential politician with a flair for quietly building alliances in the background, however, he will inevitably play a different role in the Security Council than Patrushev who, by virtue of his own personal weight and closeness to Putin, shaped the position to his image; not to mention that after the past two years Shoigu’s relationship with domestic security services is reportedly less than spotless.

These changes will pan out in the longer term. For now, Russia’s grand government reshuffle looks more like an acknowledgement of current trends and realities and a confirmation of the Kremlin’s political strategy, than a radical shake-up.

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