Putin’s New Defense Minister Signals Russia’s Plan for a Long War in Ukraine

To President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, appointing a new defense minister provides a new building block toward fighting a long war.

That was evident in Moscow on Monday when Andrei R. Belousov, the economist who was Mr. Putin’s surprise pick to lead Russia’s sprawling defense ministry, made his first public appearance in his new role and spoke about bureaucracy rather than the battlefield.

The pick reflects an acknowledgment that the military production that is supplying Russia’s war, and heating its economy, must be carefully managed to sustain a war of attrition with Ukraine. In addition to Mr. Belousov’s appointment, Mr. Putin also promoted Denis Manturov, the outgoing minister of trade and industry, to the post of first deputy prime minister — a sign that expanding industrial production would rise as a government priority.

At the same time, Russia is playing the long game on the battlefield. Along the front line, most recently in northeastern Ukraine, Russian forces are pushing forward slowly rather than attempting major breakthroughs to big cities, as they did at the beginning of the war — with disastrous results.

In televised remarks at Russia’s upper house of Parliament, which is expected to rubber-stamp his nomination, Mr. Belousov emphasized the bureaucratic details of the fast-growing military effort, and made no reference to the situation at the front. He described his priorities as improving standards of care and living for soldiers, veterans and their families.

The excessive paperwork that fighters faced in obtaining benefits, he said, ought to be addressed “in the framework of interagency electronic coordination.”

“It’s absolutely unacceptable” that soldiers are redirected to overcrowded hospitals when on leave, said Mr. Belousov, who was nominated to the post in a cabinet reshuffling Sunday night. “This issue needs to be resolved.”

Mr. Belousov’s focus on bureaucratic minutiae was particularly notable given that the comments came just days after the Russian forces opened a new front in the war, successfully moving across Ukraine’s northern border. His remarks offered a snapshot of how the sudden rise of a soft-spoken expert on economic policy to the helm of an enormous military apparatus waging its biggest conflict since World War II has emerged as a new component in Mr. Putin’s strategy of defeating Ukraine through a war of attrition.

Mr. Belousov’s appointment signals Mr. Putin’s focus on subordinating the country’s economy to his military needs, in the expectation that a war in Ukraine, or at least a militarized standoff with the West, could shape Russia’s future for years to come.

“Putin’s priority is war, and war of attrition is won by economics,” said Alexandra Prokopenko, a former Russian central bank official now at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin.

In more than six years as Mr. Putin’s economic adviser, Mr. Belousov developed a reputation as a strong supporter of a dominant state role in the economy and of high public spending. The war has already led Mr. Putin to enact some of the proposals that Mr. Belousov had advocated for years, such as higher taxes on big business and greater use of the country’s oil savings.

In Moscow, Valentina Matviyenko, the chairwoman of the upper house of Parliament, said Mr. Belousov was the best choice to find ways to procure “new, modern weaponry, new technology and new innovations” for the military.

She added that Mr. Belousov would not be involved in command on the battlefield, which would continue to be directed by the military’s general staff.

Sergei Mironov, an ultranationalist lawmaker, welcomed Mr. Belousov’s appointment, adding that “the servicemen are not the only ones fighting today, but so are economies.”

Some Russian officials have expressed hopes that Mr. Belousov’s organizational savvy will improve Russia’s production of high precision weapons, an area where Russia continues to lag behind the West.

In particular, the officials have cited Mr. Belousov’s attempts to improve Russia’s drone production last year, by streamlining bureaucratic red tape.

“With these personnel decisions, Putin is preparing for a long-term confrontation of attrition with the West,” said Konstantin Remchukov, a Moscow newspaper editor close to the Kremlin. “The victor will be the one who has more resources — or is more effective in using them.”

A person close to the defense ministry, who discussed government policy on condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Belousov would nevertheless face challenges like Russia’s continued shortage of high-precision weapons, which has made it difficult for Russia to secure a decisive advantage on the battlefield.

Mr. Belousov is replacing Sergei K. Shoigu, a long-serving minister who was fiercely loyal to Mr. Putin. Many analysts said that, despite his close ties to the Russian leader, Mr. Shoigu’s days were numbered because of the spectacular failure of the initial invasion in February 2022.

But rather than fire Mr. Shoigu as Russia was struggling to stay in the fight, Mr. Putin chose only to replace him after his forces recovered their balance. Today, Russia appears to be in its strongest position in the war.

“Putin is seeing that a lot of things were not done right — there were very grave mistakes,” Sergei Markov, a Moscow political analyst and a former Kremlin adviser, said in a phone interview. But, he added, “you don’t make personnel decisions in a crisis.”

“Now the crisis has been resolved,” Mr. Markov said.

Mr. Shoigu’s position in the defense ministry was severely weakened last month, when prosecutors charged one of his deputies, Gen. Timur Ivanov, with “large scale” corruption. Russian commentators widely interpreted the move as evidence of Mr. Putin’s displeasure with the extravagant lifestyle of Mr. Shoigu’s inner circle.

In contrast, Mr. Belousov has not been implicated in any major corruption scandals after decades of working in the government.

“Putin needs a dependable person in the segment where the greatest amount of money is flowing,” Mr. Remchukov, the newspaper editor, said.

The person close to Russian defense ministry said that while Mr. Belousov is unlikely to root out the widespread graft in military procurement, he could hide its worst excesses, reducing the threat of outbursts of popular discontent.

The appointment of Mr. Belousov, however, does not represent a complete break from the military system that came up with the disastrous plan for the invasion.

Military analysts say that Mr. Belousov’s impact will depend on how he manages relationships with senior security officials like Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the head of the general staff.

But the appointment of a methodical bureaucrat to oversee Russia’s war effort also meshes with the consolidation of a slower-paced Russian strategy on the battlefield.

The failed attempts to stun the enemy into submission in the first month of the invasion with armored thrusts and paratrooper drops have since given way to systematic pummeling of Ukrainian defenses in various sections of the front line simultaneously.

This strategy has allowed Russia to exploit its manpower and firepower advantage to gradually inch forward against overstretched and exhausted defenders — evident in the way Russia made its recent incursions in Ukraine’s north.

Russia had initially tried to capture the northern city of Kharkiv in the early weeks of the war by sending armored columns streaming across the border along the highways. The attack quickly collapsed after encountering determined Ukrainian forces, who later forced Russia into a hasty retreat.

This time Russia has used small units of infantry supported by artillery to filter across the border and slowly push forward, one village at a time.

Military analysts said the offensive stands little chance of capturing the city of Kharkiv itself. But the attacks appear to have succeeded in drawing Ukrainian reinforcements from other sections of the front, at a time when the country is struggling to recruit enough fighters and obtain new weapons from its Western allies.

“There’s an appreciation in the Russian leadership that this is a long war that will require managing attrition, reconstitution, and defense industrial mobilization,” Michael Kofman, a Washington-based military analyst, said.

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