Putin replaces his defense minister as he begins his fifth term in office

Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced Sergei Shoigu as defense minister on Sunday in a cabinet reshuffle that comes as he begins his fifth term in office.

In accordance with Russian law, the entire Russian cabinet resigned on Tuesday after Putin’s glittering inauguration in the Kremlin. Most members are widely expected to keep their jobs, while Shoigu’s fate appeared uncertain.

Putin signed a decree on Sunday appointing Shoigu as secretary of Russia’s Security Council, the Kremlin said. The appointment was announced shortly after Putin proposed Andrei Belousov to become the country’s defense minister in Shoigu’s place.

The announcement of Shoigu’s new role came as 13 people were killed and 20 injured in the Russian border city of Belgorod, where part of a residential building collapsed after what Russian officials said was Ukrainian shelling.

Belousov’s candidacy will have to be approved by Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council. It was reported on Sunday that Putin has also submitted proposals for other cabinet positions, but Shoigu is the only minister on that list to be replaced. Several other new candidates for federal ministers were introduced on Saturday by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who was reappointed by Putin on Friday.

Shoigu’s deputy, Timur Ivanov, was arrested last month on bribery charges and ordered to remain in custody pending an official investigation. Ivanov’s arrest was widely interpreted as an attack on Shoigu and a possible harbinger of his resignation, despite his close personal ties to Putin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Sunday that Putin had decided to give the role of defense minister to a civilian because the ministry must be “open to innovation and groundbreaking ideas.” He also said that the increasing defense budget “must fit into the broader economy of the country”, and Belousov, who until recently was the first deputy prime minister, is the right candidate for the job.

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on November 7, 2023.  Putin has nominated Belousov for the role of defense minister.

Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP


Sputnik, Kremlin swimming pool Photo via AP

Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia on November 7, 2023. Putin has nominated Belousov for the role of defense minister.

Belousov, 65, held leadership positions in the finance and economic department of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Economic Development. In 2013, he was appointed an adviser to Putin and seven years later, in January 2020, he became First Deputy Prime Minister.

Peskov assured that the reshuffle will not affect “the military aspect,” which “has always been the prerogative of the Chief of the General Staff,” and that General Valery Gerasimov, who currently holds this position, will continue his work.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said in an online commentary that Shoigu’s new appointment to Russia’s Security Council showed that the Russian leader viewed the institution as “a reservoir” for his “former” key figures – people he can rely on no way to let go, but has no place for it.”

Figures such as former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have also been appointed to the Security Council. Medvedev has been vice-chairman of the body since 2020.

Shoigu was appointed to the Security Council in place of Putin’s long-time ally Nikolai Patrushev. Peskov said on Sunday that Patrushev will take on a different role and promised to announce details in the coming days.

Shoigu is widely seen as a key figure in Putin’s decision to send Russian troops to Ukraine. Russia had expected that the operation would quickly overwhelm Ukraine’s much smaller and less equipped army and that Ukrainians would broadly welcome Russian troops.

Instead, the conflict prompted Ukraine to mount an intensive defense, with the Russian military suffering humiliating blows, including the withdrawal from an attempt to take the capital Kiev, and a counter-offensive that pushed Moscow’s forces out of the Kharkov region drove away.

Before being appointed defense minister in 2012, Shoigu spent more than 20 years overseeing very different work: In 1991, he was appointed head of the disaster response agency of the Russian Rescue Corps, which eventually became the Ministry of Emergency Situations. He became very visible in the post. His job also allowed him to be made a general, even though he had no military service behind him, as the Rescue Corps absorbed the militarized Civil Defense Forces.

Shoigu does not wield the same power as Patrushev, who has long been the country’s top security official. But the position he will take — the same position Patrushev has tried to transform from a minor bureaucratic role to one of significant influence — will still carry some authority, said Mark Galeotti, head of the Mayak Intelligence consultancy.

High-level security equipment intended for the president’s eyes will still pass through the Security Council Secretariat, even with changes at the top. “You can’t just institutionally change a bureaucracy and the way it works,” he said.

Thousands of Ukrainians have fled the Russian ground offensive

Rescuers help Liudmila Kalashnik, 88, after evacuation from Vovchansk, Ukraine, on Sunday.  Her husband was killed in their home after a Russian airstrike on the city.

Evgeni Maloletka / AP



Rescuers help Liudmila Kalashnik, 88, after evacuation from Vovchansk, Ukraine, on Sunday. Her husband was killed in their home after a Russian airstrike on the city.

Thousands of civilians have fled Russia’s new ground offensive in northeastern Ukraine, which has hit towns and villages with a barrage of artillery and mortar shelling, officials said Sunday.

The heavy fighting has forced at least one Ukrainian unit to withdraw to the Kharkiv region, capitulating more land to Russian forces in less-defended settlements in the so-called disputed gray zone along the Russian border.

On Sunday afternoon, the city of Vovchansk, one of the largest in the northeast with a pre-war population of 17,000, emerged as a flashpoint in the fighting.

Volodymyr Tymoshko, the head of the Kharkiv regional police, said Russian troops were on the outskirts of the city and approaching from three directions.

An Associated Press crew stationed in a nearby village saw plumes of smoke rising from the town as Russian troops threw grenades. Evacuation teams worked non-stop all day to get residents, most of whom were elderly, out of harm’s way.

At least 4,000 civilians have fled the Kharkiv region since Friday, when Moscow’s forces launched the operation, Governor Oleh Syniehubov said in a statement on social media. Heavy fighting took place along the northeastern frontline on Sunday, where Russian forces attacked 27 settlements in the past 24 hours, he said.

Analysts say the Russian attack is aimed at exploiting ammunition shortages before promised Western supplies can reach the front lines.

Ukrainian soldiers said the Kremlin is using the usual Russian tactic of launching a disproportionate amount of fire and infantry attacks to deplete Ukrainian troops and firepower. By intensifying fighting in what was previously a static part of the front line, Russian forces threaten to pin down Ukrainian forces in the northeast while fighting intense battles further south, where Moscow is also gaining ground.

It comes after Russia stepped up attacks against energy infrastructure and settlements in March, in what analysts predicted was a concerted effort to create the conditions for an offensive.

Meanwhile, in Belgorod, near the border, a 10-story apartment building partially collapsed, killing at least 13 people and injuring 20 others. Russian authorities said the building collapsed after Ukrainian shelling. Ukraine has not yet responded to the incident.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Sunday that its forces had captured four villages on the border along Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, in addition to five villages reportedly seized on Saturday. These areas were probably poorly fortified due to the dynamic fighting and continuous heavy shelling, which facilitated the Russian advance.

The Ukrainian leadership has not confirmed Moscow’s gains. But Timoshko, the head of the Kharkov regional police, said that Strilecha, Pylna and Borsivika were under Russian occupation, and that they were bringing in infantry from their direction to carry out attacks in other disputed villages of Hlyboke and Lukiantsi.

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