Amid intensified Russian assault on Ukraine, Putin removes defense minister Shoigu

In surprise shakeup, Andrey Belousov is tapped as new minister while Shoigu becomes Security Council secretary; thousands of Ukrainians evacuated from Kharkiv as 9 villages taken

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and then Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu arrive for a meeting with the military brass in Moscow, Russia, December 19, 2023. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

MOSCOW, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin moved Sunday to replace Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in a major shakeup to Russia’s military leadership more than two years into its Ukraine offensive, and days after a renewed military push.

Putin proposed economist Andrey Belousov as Shoigu’s replacement, according to a list of the ministerial nominations published by the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament. The recommendation is certain to be approved by lawmakers.

The move comes at a key time in the conflict with Russian troops advancing in eastern Ukraine and having just launched a major new ground operation against the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Russia said Sunday it had captured four more villages in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region — a day after claiming the capture of five villages — as thousands of residents were evacuated from the offensive in an area where Russian troops were repelled in 2022.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “fierce fighting” was underway and governor Oleg Synegubov said “all areas” of the regional border with Russia were now “under enemy fire almost around the clock.”

In the Russian city of Belgorod, emergency services said eight people were killed when a residential building was hit by a Ukrainian missile after it was intercepted by air defenses. In Ukraine, local prosecutors said four civilians had been killed in the Kharkiv region in the Russian ground offensive, which was launched on Friday.

The Ukrainian army’s top commander said that although the situation was “complicated,” his forces were managing to hold back further Russian advances. But Russia’s defense ministry said its forces had “advanced deeply into the enemy defenses.”

A Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer 2S1 Gvozdika drives past a damaged car on a road in the Vovchansk district, Kharkiv region, on May 12, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Roman PILIPEY / AFP)

In the last few days, nearly 6,000 local residents have been evacuated, said Kharkiv governor Synegubov.

Despite a string of military setbacks in the first year of the campaign — including the failure to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and retreats from the Kharkiv and southern Kherson regions — Putin had stood by Shoigu until now.

That included when Wagner paramilitary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a bloody insurrection last year calling for Shoigu’s removal.

Explaining the timing of the decision, the Kremlin on Sunday said it needed the defense ministry to stay “innovative.”

“The defense ministry must be absolutely open to innovation, to the introduction of all advanced ideas, to the creation of conditions for economic competitiveness,” state media quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying in a briefing on the appointments.

“The battlefield is won by whoever is more open to innovation,” Peskov said. “That is likely why the president has settled on the candidacy of Andrey Belousov.”

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov attends the 29th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting (AELM) during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok on November 19, 2022. (Photo by Jack TAYLOR / POOL / AFP)

Belousov, who has no military background, has been one of Putin’s most influential economic advisers over the last decade.

UK defense minister Grant Shapps said the Ukraine conflict had left more than 355,000 Russian soldier casualties under Shoigu’s watch as well as “mass civilian suffering.”

“Russia needs a Defence Minister who would undo that disastrous legacy” and end the conflict, “but all they’ll get is another of Putin’s puppets,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Siberian retreats

Shoigu, 68, was appointed defense minister in 2012 and has had a decades-long political career of unmatched longevity in post-Soviet Russia.

His presence at the center of power in Moscow predates that of Putin himself.

Prior to Russia invading Ukraine in February 2022 as part of a full-scale military campaign, he was seen as one of Putin’s most trusted lieutenants.

In this photo released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on April 26, 2024, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu speaks during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan. (Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

The pair were regularly photographed on macho nature retreats in the Siberian wilderness, hunting and fishing together.

In one famous snap from 2017 shared by the Kremlin, they are sitting bare-chested under the sun on a beach by a lake.

On Sunday, Putin simultaneously issued decrees naming Shoigu as the new secretary of the Security Council, replacing his longstanding ally Nikolai Patrushev.

The Kremlin also said Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, would stay in post overseeing daily military operations in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, speaks with Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, after a meeting with senior military officers in Moscow, Russia, December 21, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Along with Shoigu, Gerasimov had been targeted by a hardcore group of influential pro-offensive military bloggers for Moscow’s perceived military failures.

Prigozhin, who marched on Moscow calling for the pair’s removal, died in an unexplained plane crash weeks after his aborted mutiny.

Key moment

Putin is constitutionally required to name a new set of government ministers — or reappoint existing ones — following his victory in a March election devoid of opposition.

Lawmakers in Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament need to approve the president’s nominations, which they are set to do over the coming days.

Oksana Velychko (C), 45-years-old, who was evacuated with her children and relatives from the Vovchansk district gather after arriving at an evacuation point in the Kharkiv region, on May 12, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Roman PILIPEY / AFP)

The future of Patrushev, an arch-hawk who is sometimes seen as a possible successor to Putin, was unclear.

There was no immediate high-level reaction to the shake-up in Ukraine.

The changes come at a crucial time in the conflict, which had been showing signs of a stalemate for months.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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