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Putin’s New Defense Minister Could Be His Successor

The pick indicates Putin is happier with the Russian economy than with the way the war has been going under Shoigu.

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Vladimir Putin removed the longtime Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu from his post on Sunday as part of a cabinet reshuffle at the start of his fifth presidential term. Shoigu’s replacement is Andrei Belousov, a civilian economist who has served in various bureaucratic positions since 2006, including as Putin’s presidential advisor in economic affairs. 

Shoigu’s departure was not much of a surprise. His sacking was foreshadowed by last month’s arrest of Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, a Shoigu crony, who is charged with accepting bribes. (Rumors than Ivanov will also be charged with treason have been dismissed by the Kremlin as “speculation.”) With his ally sitting in prison awaiting trial, Shoigu doubtless perceived that he might be next. 


Technically, Shoigu has been kicked upstairs, not fired. He will hold the position of secretary of the Security Council of Russia, the job held until now by Nikolai Patrushev, a KGB veteran and one of Putin’s inner circle. This is a classic Putin move. Allies who fail in their jobs are not punished, because Putin prides himself on never abandoning old friends, but they are sidelined so they can’t do any more damage. 

Shoigu has endured humiliating job shuffles before. In 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency after the Medvedev interlude, he demoted Shoigu from emergencies minister, a post he had held since 1999 under Boris Yeltsin, and appointed him governor of the Moscow region. Shoigu took the demotion uncomplainingly. Putin was impressed with this stoic reaction and rewarded Shoigu by bringing him back to the cabinet after only six months, this time as defense minister.

As defense minister, Shoigu implemented some much-needed reforms to professionalize Russia’s army and cultivated a personal friendship with Putin, organizing hunting and fishing trips for the president in his native province of Tuva. His decade-plus tenure allowed Shoigu to fill the defense ministry with associates personally loyal to him. In 2014, when Putin floated the idea of annexing Crimea, Shoigu advised against it, but after the decision was made, he executed the operation loyally.

His performance in the current Ukraine conflict has been widely criticized. The late Yevgeny Prigozhin, in particular, was a bitter enemy who accused Shoigu of depriving frontline fighters of munitions and arms. The removal of Shoigu was one of the “demands” of the short-lived Wagner coup of June 2023. Putin stood by Shoigu at the time but apparently his patience has run out.

So who is Belousov? His father, Rem Belousov, was a reforming economist in the Brezhnev era. The younger Belousov began his career in public service as a protégé of German Gref, one of the architects of Russia’s “second transition,” that is, the transition from Yeltsin-era shock therapy to Putin-era state capitalism after the first transition from socialism to free markets. Gref, as Putin’s first minister of economic development, helped rein in the free-for-all of the 1990s and establish a stable economic environment for business while giving the state a bigger role.


Belousov, like Gref, enjoys a reputation for incorruptibility. This will be one of his first tasks as defense minister. Graft flourished under Shoigu, and the Ivanov trial may reveal the full extent of the corruption as the investigation proceeds. Belousov is also said to be a devout Orthodox Christian; photos exist online of him wearing the vestments of an altar server.

In his current role as deputy prime minister, Belousov has shown a particular interest in Russia’s drone industry. He oversaw the “National Unmanned Aircraft” project launched in 2023, which, among other things, provided schools and colleges with drones in order to train operators and launch student drone clubs. He boasted in January that domestic production of drones would triple by 2030, with government investment of over $7 billion. This would decrease Russia’s dependence on foreign-made drones like the Iranian Shahed drone currently used by its forces in Ukraine.

POLITICO named Belousov as a possible successor to Putin back in 2020. His stature has only increased since then, especially in light of Russia’s surprisingly strong economic performance in the face of Western sanctions. In fact, the war actually seems to have helped the Russian economy by giving a fillip to domestic industry. The ideology that Belousov has espoused his whole career—using the state to promote economic development within the framework of a capitalist free market—has, from the Kremlin’s perspective, been vindicated. 

If Belousov can bring discipline and honesty to Russia’s defense procurement while making sure that war spending continues to boost the broader economy instead of suffocating it, then he will be well-positioned to take over Putin’s role when his term expires in 2030, assuming the then 78-year-old Putin chooses to retire. 

In the meantime, his appointment indicates that the Ukraine conflict could grind on for a long time yet. Russia is currently producing three times as many artillery munitions as the U.S. and Europe are for Ukraine, according to CNN. Belousov’s promotion suggests that Putin sees production as the key to winning a war of attrition, which is bad news for the smaller, less populous country in the conflict.