Sergei Shoigu is no longer Russian Defense Minister. He now serves as Secretary of the Security Council. What to think of Putin’s latest personnel carousel.

There are several plausible interpretations of the recent castling in the Russian leadership, which has also received considerable attention outside Russia.

As is often the case in Kremlinology, these accounts fail to fully explain the changes because they search for a larger political logic that may not exist or may be secondary.

Some see the replacement of the previous Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as a reaction to Russia’s failure in the war against Ukraine. However, Shoigu’s new post as secretary of the Russian Security Council, where he previously served as defense minister, is in some respects a promotion.

His successor in the Defense Ministry, Andrei Belousov, is said to be a good economist. His appointment is therefore seen as a sign that Russia wants to accelerate the transition to a war economy.

However, former First Deputy Prime Minister Belousov has in some respects been demoted to a mere minister with his new appointment. He has no experience with the military-industrial complex, and his ministry will be more concerned with expansion logistics than the war economy.

A clear strategy behind all of this is not yet apparent. The personnel policy of regimes like Putin’s is often determined more by internal administrative and power-political motives that are difficult to interpret than by obvious domestic or foreign policy goals.

In addition to this already opaque situation, there may be irrational aspects that are even more difficult to decipher. When assessing the so-called “power vertical” of Putin and similar rulers, foreign observers sometimes assume a strategic rationality that does not actually exist.

Rather, it could be a “battle of bulldogs under the carpet” that defies close observation and easy interpretation. The various clans surrounding Putin must be kept in balance, which leads, among other things, to personnel disputes.

Dr. Andreas Umland is an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for East European Studies (SCEEUS) of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).

Shoigu’s removal from the Defense Ministry strengthens the power of Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, who is also in charge of the war in Ukraine. Gerasimov appears to be the main winner of the castling. But there is also a clear loser.

The most interesting aspect of Shoigu’s much-discussed demotion to defense minister and his appointment as Security Council secretary is the removal of Nikolai Patrushev from this previously influential post.

Patrushev was previously considered the second most powerful politician in Russia. Russia observers are therefore excited to see what will become of him now. He was demoted by Putin to the bizarre post of presidential adviser on shipbuilding. At the same time, Patrushev’s 46-year-old son, Dmitry Patrushev, previously Russia’s agriculture minister, was promoted to deputy prime minister in charge of agriculture.

It is already clear today that the replacement of Patrushev Sr. will reduce the importance of the Security Council in the Russian power structure. In Putin’s Russia, not only individual offices but entire institutions have only vaguely defined powers. Putin’s deinstitutionalization of virtually all organs of the Russian political system is a consistent development of the last quarter century.

The popular explanation for Belousov’s appointment as defense minister is his economic expertise, which is necessary for Russia’s transition to a war economy. However, it remains unclear to what extent the economist will have the chance to initiate changes at the top of his huge ministerial apparatus and achieve military-economic improvements.

The Ministry of Defense is highly centralized and has seen little reform. Belousov will first have to reform the ministry itself before he can deal with strategic tasks.

Achieving such reform during an ongoing war will not be easy. In any case, we do not know with certainty whether all of these considerations ultimately determined Belousov’s appointment and other recent dismissals and promotions.

Personal preferences or clan conflicts, which are difficult to detect from the outside, may have played a decisive role. Some observers go so far as to see Belousov and/or Patrushev Junior as crown princes for a possible successor to Putin.

This may or may not be the case. It is impossible for either domestic or foreign observers to fully decipher the evolution of Russia’s byzantine political elite constellation.