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Putin’s Cabinet: Team of Rivals or Nest of Vipers?

William E. Pomeranz

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now gone on 841 days and counting (the newspaper Kommersant keeps a running daily tab). Putin euphemistically still refers to the conflict as a special military operation, as opposed to its actual name: war. With no end in sight, the recriminations have now bubbled up to the surface in the Kremlin. 

The political infighting is taking place at the highest levels of government. Several high-ranking generals have been indicted on bribery and other criminal charges. This controversy is occurring at the worst possible time as a new minister of defense, Andrei Belousov, has just assumed control of the army. 

Belousov appears to be an observer and not a trigger of this upheaval. How deep the purge will be remains anyone’s guess, although Putin has already limited Belousov’s authority by rejecting any change in the Russian General staff.

The security services are behind this purge and at each other’s throats. Evidently, they still blame the army for its failure to take Kyiv in the early stages of the war. The FSB and the army are also allegedly competing over limited defense funds. And, not to feel neglected, a high-ranking FSB official was convicted on bribery charges.

Company Men

Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, provided the official rationale behind Belousov’s appointment. Military spending had increased significantly since the war, and Putin wanted an economist to manage the consequences. Belousov is also the ultimate company man: before his new appointment, he was in charge of implementing Putin’s national projects and post-2024 election decrees. Belousov’s mandate also includes ensuring the soldiers in the special operation receive the necessary social services that they are owed.

But providing these services remains difficult. Russia faces severe shortages of medicine because of sanctions. The head of the Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, also recently announced that Russia faces a deficit of 30,000 doctors. Putin has also promised to increase the pay of health workers and modernize the health care system. All this takes money, something that is in short supply in the Russian Federation. Add interest rates at 16 percent and a wave of bankruptcies, and Russian business is strapped for funds.

There are other political actors in the mix as well. Prime Minister Mishustin has talked about creating new conditions for opening businesses, especially small and medium-size enterprises. He also brings considerable bureaucratic heft to the table, with no fewer than ten vice premiers in his cabinet. Not to be outdone, Putin also wants to promote the economy, although his recent plan to raise Russian taxes has only raised the ire of the Russian business community.

The shadow of the former defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, looms large over all this turnover and political intrigue. Shoigu has long been a favorite of President Putin (as opposed to the technocrat Belousov). Shoigu may no longer be minister of defense, but he has found a new sinecure as secretary of the Security Council. This consultative body under Putin’s leadership advises on national security and defense matters. Shoigu will also supervise the Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation, a federal organ that supervises military coordination with foreign states, and more broadly oversees the work of the military-industrial complex. All these appointments still offer plenty of opportunities for kickbacks.

High-Level Backstabbing Hampers Russian Army Operations

The internal backstabbing shows no sign of abating. Indeed, the first general indicted in this recent purge was Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov, a protégé of Shoigu. The irony is that while criticism of the Russian army is taking place behind closed doors, the Russian people are forbidden to talk about the current state of the war because of draconian administrative fines for discrediting the Russian military, as well as criminal penalties for disseminating “fake news” about the Russian army.

Thus, everyone appears to be watching their back, a terrible situation as Russia conducts its pivotal spring offensive. Whether Belousov can rise above the intrigue remains an open question. He recently met with pro-military bloggers to improve his public image. He further outlined his immediate plans for reform, including integrating the army into the overall economy, optimizing military expenditures, and raising the standards of military education. In the process, he promised that no new mobilization was being contemplated.

But reforming the Russian military, a daunting task in good times, is impossible after two-plus years of a war of attrition and global sanctions. Among the headwinds roiling the Russian economy are budget deficits (hence the need to raise taxes), a bad harvest, an energy sector under military attack, and a payment crisis for both importers and exporters. China has piled on by asking that Russia sell its gas at its internal discounted rates. Throw in rising beer prices and a vodka industry under assault from multiple directions and you have all the ingredients for a real social meltdown.

Belousov is no maverick but a trusted technocrat. Nevertheless, he will have to watch his back. He has entered a nontransparent web of corruption, clans, and personal fiefdoms, all of which could come back to bite him, especially if Putin does not stand behind his military reforms.

The Dream of a Unified State Faces Headwinds from Personal Vendettas and Economic Frailty

Putin’s future plans include nothing short of creating a new global order. Such aspirations appear to be a pipe dream in light of the infighting and personal vendettas that now consume the upper echelons of the Russian government. Russia further remains more isolated than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum welcomed only four heads of state (including such economic powerhouses as Bolivia and Zimbabwe) and ultimately resulted in zero major deals or investments.

In any crisis, Russia always rallies around the notion of the unified state (yedinoye gosudarstvo) and national sovereignty. Such unity and resilience remain in short supply as Putin—and Belousov—confront economic and military challenges on multiple fronts.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

William E. Pomeranz

William E. Pomeranz

Director, Kennan Institute

William Pomeranz, the Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, is an expert guide to the complexities of political and economic developments in Russia, particularly through the lens of law. He leverages extensive, hands-on experience in international and Russian jurisprudence to address a wide range of legal issues, from the development of Russia’s Constitution to human rights law to foreign investment and sanctions. He is also the author of Law and the Russian State: Russia's Legal Evolution from Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin (Bloomsbury, 2018).

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more