What Putin’s rejig in Kremlin mean for relations with Delhi - Hindustan Times
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What Putin’s rejig in Kremlin mean for relations with Delhi

BySujan Chinoy
May 20, 2024 12:23 AM IST

Within days of assuming the office of President of the Russian Federation for the fifth time, Putin has made sweeping changes in power structure of the Kremlin.

Within days of assuming the office of President of the Russian Federation for the fifth time, Vladimir Putin has made sweeping changes in the elite power structure of the Kremlin. The headlines everywhere, including in India, referred to the sidestepping of defence minister, Sergei Shoigu to the post of secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council (elsewhere known as the National Security Advisor).

A view the Red Square with the Historical Museum, right, and the Kremlin Towers in background in Moscow, Russia,(AP) PREMIUM
A view the Red Square with the Historical Museum, right, and the Kremlin Towers in background in Moscow, Russia,(AP)

The change in the portfolio of Shoigu was not unanticipated. As early as the middle of 2022, within months of Russia’s “special military operation in Ukraine”, there was intense speculation that some heads would roll for the failure to achieve a swift victory. Later, in 2023, the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prighozhin, publicly criticised Shoigu for the debacle in Ukraine, and called for his removal. By all accounts, Putin had stayed his hand then. After all, Shoigu had been at Putin’s side since 2012 as defence minister, including during the critical takeover of Crimea in 2014, and the military intervention in Syria in 2015. Moreover, Shoigu had distinguished himself as the minister of the emergency situations ministry, a post he had occupied from 1994 till 2012. It was widely believed that Putin and Shoigu enjoyed a good rapport – the two men had even vacationed together in the outdoors of Russia’s Far East in 2021.

Recently, however, there were some straws in the wind about Shoigu’s impending departure as defence minister. On April 24, Shoigu’s trusted deputy, Timur Ivanov, was arrested on corruption charges. It was common knowledge that Ivanov was Shoigu’s handpicked aide in the defence ministry. When Timur fell on his sword, the writing was on the wall for Shoigu.

In his new avatar, Shoigu replaces Nikolai Patrushev, the long-serving security czar in the Kremlin. More than the news of Shoigu’s departure, it is Patrushev’s quasi-retirement to a much less important post of supervising the shipbuilding industry that merits attention. While Patrushev ostensibly remains a presidential aide in the Kremlin, there is little doubt that he has effectively been retired, notwithstanding his long-standing relationship with Putin forged in their time together in St Petersburg. Their careers had overlapped, and Patrushev had even stepped into Putin’s shoes as director of FSB when the latter became the prime minister in 1999. Both men started in the KGB, which was renamed as FSB after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Interestingly, the new assignment given to Patrushev relates to his original area of expertise. Patrushev graduated from the Leningrad Shipbuilding Institute in 1974 and had worked as an engineer in the institute’s shipbuilding design bureau before the KGB recruited him.

Patrushev rose to the highest echelons of power as part of a conservative pushback in 2008. In 2007, Putin had publicly declared at the Munich Security Conference that Russia’s quest for equality with the West was being consistently rebuffed and its red lines were not being respected. As a hardliner, Patrushev played a major part in the direction that Russia took since 2008, including Moscow’s military interventions in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Syria in 2015, and more recently, Ukraine in 2022.

By giving him an official post in the Kremlin, albeit one of diminished stature, Putin has eased Patrushev’s exit, allowing him to retain certain perks and privileges during the transition. Notably, Patrushev’s son Dmitry Patrushev, the minister of agriculture, has been promoted to deputy prime minister as part of the same reshuffle. This suggests a bargain of sorts between Patrushev and Putin as the former walks away into the sunset.

Patrushev will certainly be missed by the Indian establishment. He was a frequent and familiar high-level interlocutor for New Delhi: Over the years, he engaged several Indian national security advisors, starting with MK Narayanan and ending with the current incumbent, Ajit Doval. Shoigu can be expected to follow his predecessor’s line on deepening the strategic partnership with India. Like Patrushev, he too is a familiar figure for the defence establishment in Delhi. Shoigu will also head the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS) responsible for Russia’s defence engagements, including with India.

Meanwhile, Andrei Belousov’s appointment as the new defence minister is indicative of the changing nature and unfolding scope of the battle of attrition in Ukraine. The outcome of the protracted war will depend on economic endurance more than anything else. In Belousov, Putin has roped in an economist-cum-technocrat who might prove better at juggling with the resources needed to sustain the war without exacerbating the economic distress.

Sujan Chinoy is the director general of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views expressed are personal

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