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The Week In Russia: The War Is His Everything

Ukrainian emergency workers deal with the aftermath of Russian shelling overnight on a district in Kharkiv on May 10.
Ukrainian emergency workers deal with the aftermath of Russian shelling overnight on a district in Kharkiv on May 10.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead.

Over a two-week period that has encompassed an inauguration, a military shake-up, a new offensive in Ukraine, and a trip to China, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s words and actions underscore the extent to which the war he started will be Russia’s main focus for years to come.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Putin's Priority'

Issue a nuclear threat. Start a new Kremlin term. Celebrate a victory won 79 years ago. Shake up Russia’s military leadership, open a new front in the invasion of Ukraine, and travel to China.

Putin did all those things over the past two weeks, and the main takeaway can be boiled down to this: He is intent on continuing the war in Ukraine, and Moscow’s confrontation with the West, for the foreseeable future.

In a busy period that began with an announcement that Russia would hold military exercises to ensure its readiness to use tactical nuclear weapons, there were few surprises and a lot of same-old, same-old.

Putin has reminded the West and the world of Russia’s nuclear arsenal in saber-rattling remarks many times before, both before and since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

He has lashed out at the United States and the European Union countless times, of course, including during celebrations of the greatest feat of cooperation between Moscow and the West: The Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

No Partnership For Peace

And Putin has been cozying up to China since he came to power a quarter-century ago. It’s just that, because of its war on Ukraine and confrontation with the West, the stakes are higher than ever for Russia -- and so are the risks run by the junior member of what Moscow and Beijing call their “no-limits” partnership.

Following talk of a possibly sizable cabinet shake-up ahead of Putin’s inauguration to a new term on May 7, he made few major changes, leaving Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and several others in place.

While there have been signs that long-time Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu could be ousted since an embarrassing mutiny by Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin last June -- followed by his death in a plane crash that is widely believed to have been the Kremlin’s doing – Putin’s choice of a replacement, Andrei Belousov, an economist who has worked in the Kremlin or the government for years, was unexpected.

But many observers said that it made sense – and that it underscored the preeminence of the war in Putin’s plans for his new six-year term.

“Putin's priority is war,” Aleksandra Prokopenko, a former Russian central bank analyst and now a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, wrote on X, formerly Twitter. She added that a “war of attrition is won by economics. Belousov is in favor of stimulating demand from the budget, which means that military spending will at least not decrease but rather increase.”

Digging In

“Putin's primary objective is to enhance the state's capacity to support military needs more effectively,” Tatyana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the same think tank, wrote on X.

Belousov’s appointment “very much speaks to the fact that Putin is aware that this war is not likely to be going anywhere anytime soon,” author and analyst Mark Galeotti told RFE/RL. “As he digs in for the long term -- and we see this in his rhetoric, but also we're now seeing it within the government apparatus -- from his point of view, this is a war that is going to be one to a large extent on industrial production.”

Exiled Kremlin opponent and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky echoed that assessment, saying the appointment “shows that Putin views winning the arms manufacturing race with the West as crucial for success in Ukraine.”

“By installing an economist at the helm of the military, Putin is signaling his readiness for a protracted war of attrition, betting that Russia's economic resilience will outlast the West's resolve to support Kyiv,” Khodorkovsky wrote.

Whether Belousov will succeed is another matter. Officials on both sides in Russia’s war on Ukraine have spoken of the need for technological advances, but the hurdles – including corruption and entrenched bureaucracy within the Russian military – are high.

Shoigu’s 'High Bar'

Belousov’s appointment “suggests that the Kremlin wants more where this came from and is focused on modernizing the military with more hi-tech equipment such as unmanned vehicles, AI, and advanced intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance systems,” Kirill Shamiev, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations,” wrote in a May 14 article.

“But technical modernization will be meaningless without improving the skills of Russian officers and the command-and-control system,” Shamiev wrote. “For that, Belousov, an outsider to the military world, needs allies within the army’s general staff to implement and enforce his reforms.”

So far, the chief of the armed forces' General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov, who Galeotti said is “even more despised amongst his own men than Shoigu was, which is quite a high bar to vault,” remains in place.

And Shoigu has not gone very far: Putin made him secretary of the presidential Security Council, and he was at the president’s side on the visit to China this week. Belousov was not -- and has not been named to the Security Council despite his new role as defense chief.

The person Shoigu replaced didn’t go far, either: Nikolai Patrushev -- the close Putin ally, former Federal Security Service (FSB) chief, and anti-Western conspiracy enthusiast who had headed the Security Council since 2008 -- is now an aide to Putin, a demotion for sure but one whose effects are not yet clear.

How much Putin’s personnel moves will matter is just one of many factors that will affect the course of the war in Ukraine, which is still raging more than two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Other factors include efforts to boost manpower in both countries, how quickly Ukraine’s forces can benefit from the adoption a long-delayed $61 billion U.S. aid package – the bulk of it for weapons, and the outcome of Russia’s new offensive in the Kharkiv region.

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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