Government Shakeup In Moscow – OpEd


Attention of analysts have not escaped the attention on the recent government shake up in Moscow. Generally, such shakeups are aimed at placing the yes men, regardless of their merit for the position they are appointed to. Such scenarios are more common in dictatorships like that of President Vladimir Putin as in other dictatorships as well.

To recap the Russian government announced recently a massive shakeup of its senior staff. Several ministers in civilian sectors such as energy, agriculture, industry and trade, and transportation were relieved of their positions, but the most notable departure was Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who was replaced by Andrei Belousov, a former assistant to Vladimir Putin and a former minister of economic development. Putin has insisted that Shoigu, the architect of the war in Ukraine, will still be involved in military affairs, and his appointment as secretary of the Security Council is perhaps a testament to the president’s sincerity. Indeed, there is little reason to believe this is some kind of Stalinist purge. Putin has made every effort to dismiss the idea that the team that managed the war failed. 

Recent government statements suggest that Putin needs a better balance of military and economic affairs, so installing a former economic development minister to the top defense post makes sense in this regard. Even so, we would be remiss if we neglected to mention reports that one senior Defense Ministry official was arrested and charged with corruption. Whether this is a single event or the beginning of more arrests (or worse) is yet unknown. 

It isn’t immediately clear what Putin means in practical terms when he speaks of balancing military and economic affairs, which must be balanced in all wars if armies are to be supplied and citizens fed. Things do not seem especially out of balance in this war, so it might simply be a means of glossing over a radical shift, a way to avoid, to the extent possible, a sense of crisis. There is in fact not so much a crisis but rather a long-term reality the Kremlin tried to ignore and other participants cannot seem to grasp. 

Moscow started the war under the assumption Ukraine would be rapidly defeated. That obviously was wishful thinking. Over two years later, Russia holds only 20 percent of Ukrainian territory. Kyiv has even recovered some parts Moscow had taken earlier. There has been a sense throughout the war that Ukraine could be breaking. It hasn’t broken yet, and neither has Russia. But as expectations continue to diverge from reality, that sense has eroded. The emphasis on the economy might be a diversion, part of a belief that the war could be sustained and the public placated if the Russian economy recovered. 

Putin also met last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has long made it clear that it will not join Russia in combat. But it might support Moscow on the economy. But the Chinese economy has weakened dramatically in the last two years, and the Russians know this.   Putin has mentioned negotiations, which the United States has been floating for some time. Russia has set terms, most notably the ouster of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He remains in place, and it would seem that if Russia were to choose between continuing the war and ousting Zelenskyy, it would choose the latter. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the government reshuffle. Many familiar names are still in power, and some are overtaking portfolios they seem to have no experience in. This makes little obvious sense, even if it conveys a feeling that time is running out on the war. Of course, it could be a clearing of the deck for a major attack. It makes a good cover. But after two years and limited advances, you don’t need a diversion of weakness. It’s already there.

I had written in another article on China-Russia limitless friendship. Russia and China’s growing closeness is one of the most important outcomes of the war in Ukraine.  Since Xi’s state visit to Russia in March 2023, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and senior members of his team have traveled to China several times.  Throughout 2023, many senior Russian officials and CEOs of the largest state-owned and private companies shuttled to and from China. Senior Chinese leaders—especially those from the military and security sectors—have also made trips to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. It is notable that this traffic is mostly one-sided—senior Russian officials and business leaders are going to China much more frequently than their Chinese counterparts going the other way, a clear indication of Russia’s desperate need for China. The one exception is the military-security domain, where the visits of high-ranking officials have tended to be symmetrical and reciprocal.

The overall warming of attitudes to China is reflected in opinion polls, too, including recent data produced by the joint efforts of the Carnegie Endowment and the Levada Center, the independent Russian polling organization. At the end of 2023, 85 percent of Russians viewed China positively, where as only six percent had a negative opinion of the country.

The Kremlin now assesses every relationship with a foreign power through a lens of three essential considerations: whether this relationship can help Russia directly on the battlefield in Ukraine, whether it can help sustain the Russian economy and circumvent sanctions, and whether it can help Moscow push back against the West and punish the United States and its allies for supporting Kyiv. Russia’s relationship with China emphatically checks all three boxes. Beijing is not providing direct lethal aid to Moscow in Russian invasion of Ukraine but China’s indirect support for the Russian war effort is indispensable. On the economic front, Putin’s war chest relies heavily on revenue from Chinese purchases of Russian exports. The clearance of payments in the Chinese yuan keeps the Russian financial system afloat, and imports of cars, electronics, and other consumer goods keep shops well stocked and ordinary Russians quiet. More telling, however, is Russia’s decision to firmly align with China in its geopolitical contest with the United States.

Moscow and Beijing do not want to sign a formal military alliance, as senior officials on both sides have reiterated multiple times. Neither wants to have a legal obligation to fight for the other and be dragged into an unnecessary conflict. Still, two large nuclear powers that are on friendly terms standing back-to-back on the giant Eurasian landmass is a major headache for Washington. With the collapse of global nuclear arms control regimes and China’s rapid nuclear buildup, U.S. strategists will face tough choices about resource allocation: The United States will need to develop a strategic nuclear force that can at the same time deter two partnered rivals with vast nuclear arsenals.


A de facto nonaggression pact between China and Russia, and the countries’ shared perception of the United States as an enemy, could lead to increased coordination between the European and Asian theaters, further stretching U.S. resources and attention.  Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric that defines his invasion of Ukraine both as a rebellion against U.S. hegemony and “neocolonial practices” and as a bid to build a “more just multipolar world order” fails to convince the countries of the diverse global South (a group Putin grandiosely claims to represent), many of which look askance at Russia’s blatant disregard for Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law. The problem for the West is that many countries perceive its leader, the United States, to be just as cynical as Russia, thanks to Washington’s checkered legacy of interventionism and selective respect for international law.

Ambassador Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a former Secretary and ambassador of Bangladesh

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