Putin Overhauls Defense Ministry Amid Corruption Scandal

Putin's Strategic Overhaul: A New Era for Russia’s Defense Ministry

by Faruk Imamovic
Putin Overhauls Defense Ministry Amid Corruption Scandal
© Getty Images

The abrupt removal of a seasoned defense minister is unusual, but arresting five senior staff members signifies a far deeper shake-up, particularly in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The recent upheaval in the Russian defense ministry reveals not just a quest for fresh blood but a decisive, strategic move with profound implications.

The Unfolding Drama

Two weeks ago, the dismissal of Sergei Shoigu from his role as defense minister sent shockwaves through the political landscape. This was soon followed by a series of arrests that decimated the defense ministry's senior ranks under the banner of an anti-corruption campaign. This timing, however, raises questions. Why disrupt the ministry in charge of a war effort just as Russia appears to be gaining ground in Ukraine?

After nearly three years of setbacks on the Ukrainian front, Russia has recently achieved significant victories. Successful offensives towards Kharkiv and triumphs in the Donbas region have shifted the momentum in Russia’s favor. Ukraine, struggling with a severe manpower shortage and dwindling ammunition supplies—compounded by delays in U.S. military support—finds itself at a disadvantage. So why then would Putin choose this moment to overhaul his military leadership?

Shadows of the Past: Prigozhin's Lingering Influence

Overarching this entire scenario is the specter of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former head of the Wagner mercenary group, often referred to as “Putin’s Chef.” Prigozhin’s disdain for Shoigu and Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, was well-documented. His fiery criticisms accused them of corruption and incompetence, a sentiment that culminated in his dramatic mutiny aimed at toppling the two officials. The rebellion ultimately failed, leading to Prigozhin's designation as a traitor by Putin and his subsequent death in a suspicious plane crash.

Following Prigozhin’s death, Putin has been cautious, managing the public narrative around the defense ministry’s corruption and inefficiency to maintain his authority. It seems likely that Putin waited until after his anticipated re-election in March to act decisively, with the reshuffle occurring shortly after the Victory Day celebrations on May 9, where Putin and Shoigu appeared together in a show of unity.

Shoigu has been reassigned as the secretary of the security council, ensuring he remains within Putin’s influence. This strategic move underscores Putin’s intent to keep key players close while restructuring the ministry.

Strategic Interests and Economic Imperatives

Tatiyana Stanovaya, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said that the real issue isn't whether Prigozhin’s accusations of corruption were valid. In Russia, she explained, politics revolves around interests, not morals. Putin's foremost interest is in maintaining order and achieving victory in Ukraine. The defense ministry plays a crucial role in this effort, and its efficiency is paramount.

The appointment of Andrey Belousov, a civilian economist, as the new defense minister indicates a shift towards a more economic management of the defense budget. Russia’s 2024 budget earmarks a staggering 6% of GDP for defense, the highest in its modern history, signaling a clear move towards a wartime economy.

President of Russia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
President of Russia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu© Getty Images

The Corruption Crackdown: Shamarin and Ivanov

Among the notable arrests was Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, chief of the Main Communication Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces. Charged with accepting a 36 million ruble bribe (approximately $393,000) from a factory supplying the ministry with communication equipment, Shamarin pleaded not guilty, according to Russian state media. His case has been widely publicized, with state-run Ria Novosti highlighting the lavish lifestyle of his wife, raising further questions about his financial activities.

Another high-profile arrest was that of Timur Ivanov, the deputy defense minister, who was placed under house arrest on bribery charges. Ivanov’s luxurious lifestyle had been scrutinized by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, founded by the late Alexey Navalny. This scrutiny exposed the extravagant expenditures of Ivanov’s partner, which seemed disproportionate to his official salary of $175,000 per year. Despite maintaining his innocence, Ivanov's case underscores the endemic corruption within the ministry.

Navigating the New Power Dynamics

Stanovaya explains that Putin’s replacements for figures like Ivanov and Shamarin are intended to disrupt entrenched interests and foster a semblance of accountability. To this end, Putin has appointed Oleg Savelyev, a former auditor at the Russian Accounts Chamber, as the new deputy minister of defense. Savelyev’s background suggests he will be keenly aware of existing corruption within the sector and may help enforce the necessary reforms.

Amid these changes, rumors persist about the future of Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, another target of Prigozhin’s ire. Despite speculation about his potential dismissal, Gerasimov remains in place, likely due to the lack of a suitable public role for him that wouldn’t undermine his reputation.

Stanovaya posits that Gerasimov’s current survival allows him to fight for his interests within the ministry. Komin concurs, noting that while finding a replacement for Gerasimov might be straightforward, finding a dignified exit for him is more challenging.