Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting of President Vladimir Putin with the country’s top security officials in Moscow on June 26, 2023.(GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. — On May 12, Moscow announced a move that was somehow both long-expected and still surprising: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who has held that position since 2012, is being relieved of duty. May 14 will see Andrei Belousov, currently a First Deputy Prime Minister, take that role.

Belousov will be the third in a series of Russian Defense Ministers with no military experience and no background in national security matters. Shoigu was originally a construction foreman before becoming the Russian Emergency Services Minister in 1991. When first appointed to head the MoD in 2012, he replaced Anatoliy Serdyukov, a former furniture company executive who was made head of the Russian Federal Tax Service in 2004 prior being named Defense Minister in 2007.

The question, then is two-fold: What finally did Shoigu in, and what does it mean for the Ukraine conflict?

Shoigu getting fired was seen by many as a long time coming. The poor showing of Russia’s military against the Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU) since the February 2022 invasion was defined by problems with Russian troops being sent into battle with inadequate training and defective weapons, and Shoigu took much of that blame on Russian social media. In June 2023 a personal feud between Shoigu and the head of the Wagner Group Private Military Company, the late Yevgenniy Prigozhin, culminated in the latter’s June 2023 march on Moscow with a demand that Shoigu be removed.

Speculation as to whether or not Shoigu’s days were numbered ticked up several notches in late April, when one of his deputy ministers and close confidants, Timur Ivanov, was taken into custody on bribery charges. Ivanov was able to access so many sources of considerable funding that he became known by the nickname of “Shoigu’s wallet.”

Ilya Shumanov, who heads up Transparency International Russia, had previously told that ever since the invasion of Ukraine, corruption in the MoD had been rising as fast or faster than overall military spending. For [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and others in the leadership “this undermines the country’s defense capabilities. Someone had to answer for that,” he said.

However, Shoigu isn’t being thrown out a metaphorical window. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov instead announced that Shoigu will take up the position of head of the National Security Council. Notably, that means he will be shunting aside long-time Putin ally and advisor Nikolai Patrushev, who had been head of the Russian NSC since 2008.

Patrushev is a former KGB official like Putin himself and perhaps the most senior and influential member of the Russian president’s inner circle. He had pushed for the Ukraine invasion when many others counselled against it, and his name has frequently been at the top of the list of potential successors to the presidency.

A disturbing recent profile of Patrushev in The Atlantic reads: “Americans should worry about how much Patrushev’s outlook reinforces his boss’s — and about how his delusional, more-belligerent-than-Putin fulminations in long interviews with top-circulation Russian newspapers become the party line, which deafening propaganda then inculcates in the mind of millions of Russians.”

Given his connections to Putin it is highly improbable that Patrushev will be put out to pasture now. But when announcing these and other personnel changes in what is now the fifth term of Putin’s administration, Peskov did not reveal what responsibilities the former KGB alumnus and Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) would now assume, only stating that details would be announced in the coming days.

Russia’s Defense Sector Realignment

This new Russian national security team has numerous challenges to overcome, not the least of which are turning around increasing losses on the battlefield. Ukraine’s military estimates than in the last week alone Russia’s military lost 8,030 personnel and 79 tanks.

Asked to comment on Shoigu’s new assignment and his replacement, British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps wrote online that the long-time official’s legacy was having “overseen over 355,000 casualties amongst his own soldiers and mass civilian suffering with an illegal campaign in Ukraine.”

And that number is expected to grow: speaking in Washington last week, Britain’s top uniformed officer, Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, told reporters he expects Russia to hit 500,000 casualties over the summer.

These appointments appear to be more than just switching around major figures in order to mitigate against the dual embarrassments of Russia’s mounting losses of personnel and equipment in Ukraine and this high-profile corruption scandal in the MoD. They also suggest three strategic realignments now developing as Russia’s war in Ukraine passes the 800-day mark.

One is that Belousov is likely to focus primarily on an overhaul of the defense industrial sector and will look for means to increase efficiencies in production of better and more modern weapon systems in addition to tackling the corruption plaguing the military establishment. In announcing his appointment as the new defense minister, Peskov spoke exclusively about Belousov’s qualifications and previous experience in portfolios of innovation and economic management.

“Today, the winner on the battlefield is the one who is more open to innovation, more open to implementation as quickly as possible. Therefore, at the current stage, the President decided that the Ministry of Defense should be headed by a civilian,” said the Kremlin spokesman to a Kremlin press corps audience.

There is an increasing need for more effective management of the MoD as Russia’s defense spending climbs from “in the area of about 3 percent of GDP to 6.7 percent,” said Peskov. This puts the country’s defense spending situation very close to the levels of the 1980s, he explained.

Ukraine seems to agree, with a top advisor telling media today that the new appointees come with a clear industrial focus.

Secondly, this arrangement permits the management of the Russian military effort to be bifurcated and creates a division of labor between the MoD and the Security Council. Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence officer and NATO planner, who also spoke to Politico, explained while Belousov is working on modernizing the industrial sector, this enables Putin to “keep Shoigu on side, while bringing in someone who may be able to deal with the impact of corruption across the Russian Ministry of Defense.”

As the Secretary of the Security Council, Shoigu will still have oversight of defense policy both foreign and domestic. He additionally retains his seat on the Military-Industrial Commission and will also have a role in the decisions of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, the government body that regulates and sets policy on foreign sales of weaponry.

The China Factor

The third potential change here, analysts tell Breaking Defense, is that there are signs Moscow felt significant changes in the management of the war effort are necessary if Russia is to secure the continued and increasing support of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

US intelligence has reportedly assessed that the PRC currently supplies 90 percent of the microchips and other high-technology components and 70 percent of all precision machine tools used in Russia’s defense industrial sector — making defense trade with Beijing essential to Moscow’s war machine at this point. Without China’s support, Russia would be struggling to flow materiel into the field, even with its shift to a war economy. That gives Beijing influence, even if indirect, on how the war is prosecuted.

Stephen Blank, a specialist on the Russian military and a former faculty member at the US Army War College, explained to Breaking Defense that the recent reports of a PRC senior academic, Feng Yujun of Peking University’s School of International Relations, predicting an eventual total defeat for Russia in Ukraine was very likely a “signal” being sent by Beijing to Putin and those around him.

“What [PRC Communist Party] General Secretary Xi Jinping is saying is Beijing cannot afford the embarrassment and potential repercussions of Russia losing this war,” Blank said. “Therefore, if Putin wants their support, which is almost critical to the Russian war effort at this stage, there must be changes in the Russian national security team.”

Ryan Clarke, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute, echoed the same conclusions, telling Breaking Defense that “the PRC cannot afford for Moscow to field armies that collapse in Ukraine -and then have that collapse spread back to Russia. There is too much that could go wrong with the subsequent collateral damage — unrest in Russia, for example. China is too heavily vested in a Russian victory at this point.”

Clarke has conducted extensive research into several high technology sectors in the PRC’s weapons industry and the People’s Liberation Army and has also produced detailed assessments on the PRC role in the Ukraine war.

“This new Russian defense minister is more of a technocrat type and he will possibly have a more systematic, technical/technology and managerial approach to the relationship with Beijing,” he continued. “This would indicate that this strategic partnership has begun to solidify and mature beyond event-driven engagement.”

The PRC’s concerns are, however, almost entirely about the potential blowback from a failed Russian war effort. They are not worried about emptying the shelves of materiel for their own military by supplying Russia in the way the US and its NATO allies are as they continue to ship military aid to Ukraine, said Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the Potomac-based, International Assessment and Strategy Center.

“The Chinese have the capacity to supply multiple wars,” he explained. “At the beginning of the [Ukraine] war the Xi-Putin strategy was to bleed us [of our own defense capacity] and consume us … Arms and ammunition are not something they worry about running out of.”

Retired US Naval Intelligence officer Capt. James Fanell, an experienced observer of China’s foreign military and diplomatic initiatives, said the Shoigu move “may be an indicator that the failure to successfully invade Ukraine has finally reached a tipping point in both Moscow and in Beijing.”

Fanell agrees with others that “the PRC may have influenced Shoigu’s removal in order to get Putin due to the implications of what happens in Ukraine,” but added: “My assessment is that if anything Beijing may have pressed Putin to get someone in the job who could overcome the corruption of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission and could really push all the way to Kyiv in order to drive American and NATO further into the quagmire of this conflict in Ukraine.

“In this way the Chinese divert valuable western military resources that cannot be used to obstruct Beijing’s goal of taking Taiwan.”