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Shoigu’s Removal and the Instability of Putin’s Regime

The removal of the two figures at the top of Russia’s Ministry of Defence points to the intrinsic instability of Putin’s regime, in spite of apparent progress on the frontline in Ukraine.

Loyal servant: Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu pictured together in 2022

The Russian house of cards is falling. The main architect of Putin’s war in Ukraine, Sergei Shoigu – always loyal to the dictator and practically unable to have his own voice – is being moved from his position as Minister of Defence, and will possibly be appointed as the head of Russia’s Security Council , taking over from Nikolai Patrushev (whose fate is anything but clear). This comes less than two weeks after another critical figure was effectively ‘removed’, further highlighting the instability of Putin's regime. Currently, Shoigu is simply being bureaucratically repositioned, but his right-hand man is already in jail.

The recent arrest of Timur Ivanov showed once again the extent of corruption inside the Russian regime at the highest level, possibly determining a reshuffle in the ranks of the Russian Armed Forces. Allegedly, Ivanov was arrested for bribery, but other sources reported treason. Ivanov has now been sacked from his role as Deputy Minister of Defence, where he was reportedly ‘responsible for the procurement of military goods and the construction of military facilities’, placing him ‘tenth in the overall hierarchy of the Russian military leadership’. He was considered ‘Shoigu’s man’, and was possibly involved in illicit traffic and profiting out of the war in Ukraine. However, in spite of the recent coverage, Ivanov is not new to Western authorities, as he was previously sanctioned by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the EU.

Ivanov had served as Deputy Minister of Defence since 2016. According to Meduza, he oversaw major construction projects while working with Shoigu in different capacities, including the reconstruction of occupied Mariupol, whose destruction early in the war was detailed in a major award-winning Ukrainian documentary. Ivanov had strong career prospects in Putin’s Russia, graduating from Moscow State University and then working in Russia’s nuclear energy industry in the early 2000s. He continued to be closely tied to Shoigu, working for projects as part of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and he was directly involved in the war in Ukraine from February 2022, including the administration of the occupied territories. With Shoigu removed from what seemed to be a perfectly stable position as Minister of Defence, Ivanov’s fate could be just a foretaste of what comes next. After all, revenge is a dish best served cold, as the mysterious death of Yevgeny Prigozhin reminded the world. Ivanov and Shoigu’s fates are another piece of evidence showing how unstable Russia is at the very top.

On the frontline, Russia’s Armed Forces are reportedly executing soldiers who refute orders. Beyond being an ineffective solution for any army, this is not very promising for Russia’s propaganda war. Doubling down on recruitment, Russia has increased the number of jail sentences under its war censorship laws. Several acts of sabotage have been reported throughout Russia, and mysterious ‘explosions’ have put the railway system under severe pressure. Russia heavily relies on its railways to sustain itself and the war, as proved by North Korean ammunition being moved through this critical network. The attacks on the railways show a clear vulnerability between the frontline and the rear, a tender connection whose security could collapse at any moment. This is not what an invincible country looks like.

Ivanov’s arrest has demonstrated just how flimsy Russia’s political and economic system is in a manner not seen since Prigozhin’s mutiny

Even Russian ‘civil society’, heavily controlled and imbued by a vision of normalcy, is clearly under stress. On the domestic political scene, as ‘a sign of strength’ in the period leading up to Russia’s presidential ‘election’, Alexei Navalny was moved to a notorious and unreachable prison in Siberia , where he died in unclear circumstances. Even for those who believe his death was not directly ordered by Putin, the sheer fact that the main opposition leader died in such a way does not show healthy political stability at the top. Meanwhile, one of the independent candidates, anti-war journalist Yekaterina Duntsova, was prevented from participating in the election and was briefly detained, unlike the poets who criticised the war and will endure Russian jail for four years. Naturally, Putin won the election under well-established conditions. But despite this, ominous signs persist. In fact, dissatisfaction is rising on the right in Russia, as the case of Igor Girkin demonstrates.

If the political situation was not bleak enough, many Russians are seeking to escape the country altogether. It has been reported that only two in five wartime exiles have returned to Russia, mainly due to difficulties in securing jobs in other countries, and 2,500 scientists have left Russia because of political and economic constraints. In fact, Bloomberg reports that there is a general labour shortage in the country of approximately 2.3 million. This is due to multiple factors, including internal competition between military recruitment and a flagging industrial sector in need of a specialised workforce, a critical requirement to keep production levels high in a war economy. As a result, salaries are increasing by 10–20%, making military positions less attractive. The fact that there is a very low level of unemployment (2.9%) is not necessarily a good sign. Not many are keen to volunteer for the draft when there is such a wide range of jobs available, a major headache for a military still relying on ‘volunteers’, contractors and mercenaries. In fact, the war in Ukraine is a major economic opportunity for an otherwise depressed population and economy. A different scale of economic ‘incentives’ have been secured by those at the top of the regime, who were able to snap up the market space left by the exit of Western firms from the country since 2022. In addition, while labour shortages exist across the board, they are particularly severe in the defence sector.

The almost forgotten Prigozhin mutiny should still serve as a reminder that regime change is far from being a speculative option. Moreover, the mutiny created a shaky image of the regime itself, resulting in the dismissal of the director of Tass due to ‘bad coverage’ of the mutiny. Russia’s legendary propaganda seems to work only in the West. In fact, alcohol consumption is rising after many years, and ’alcohol mismanagement’ was famously one of the variables in the equation leading to the Soviet Union’s collapse. Along with the supposedly friendly Chinese TikTok which remains banned, 70,000 websites have been banned because of ‘false reports’ on the war. But the most ominous sign for Russia’s self-proclaimed neo-traditionalist society – which has seen a growing crackdown on LGBT movements – comes from the ‘wives and mothers’ who are starting to protest against the war. In fact, the Kremlin’s previous course of action had been to fund and support a ‘Loyal-Women’s Movement’ to show a different story. Considering the ‘unacceptable’ rate of deaths in Afghanistan in the lead-up to the Soviet Union’s collapse, today’s casualty rates in Ukraine and alcohol consumption levels raise ominous allegories with a period that Putin well remembers – he declared the fall of the Soviet Union to be the ‘greatest calamity of the 20th century’. Alcohol consumption could also be a problem for the morale of the population and the military. If causation is at work, Putin may be creating the conditions for a new ‘Soviet-style collapse’ in the 21st century. Finally, even the top priest in Moscow has rebelled against the regime in defence of fathers of more than three children. This not-so-rosy picture of current Russian affairs is possibly exacerbated by the Russian economy. If anything, ‘war fatigue’ is setting in inside the muscles, bones and blood vessels of the Russian economy.

Although it has managed to stay afloat through some very clever arrangements, Russia’s oil production in 2023 was set to fall by 2% according to the Russian Minister of Energy. Moreover, recent systematic targeting of oil refineries by Ukrainian special operation forces has imposed a loss in production capacity of around 12% production capacity. If the oil-led state economy starts to crumble, this could lead to a very quick economic reshuffle of the entire war effort. The banking system is also under pressure. For instance, loans became more expensive in 2023. Meanwhile, the Cabinet of Ministers approved help for workers struggling in the job market, in a resolution signed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin: ‘We are talking about citizens who are at risk of being fired, transferred by their employer to part-time work or sent on unpaid leave, as well as those who have difficulty finding work’. Very interestingly, this is also applicable to those ‘citizens’ who live in the annexed territories in Ukraine: ‘Citizens registered in the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics (LPR and DPR), Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions can contact employment centres at their place of residence’. In spite of an increasing external debt of $57 billion, Putin has claimed an economic victory, stating that Russia is the fifth economy in the world and the largest in Europe, although it still needs to circumvent the sanctions that obstruct its access to critical components used in missile production. Meanwhile, Putin has felt the need to reassure the population that ‘food levels’ are ‘secured’, although there has been a general shortage of eggs since December. The economy is unstable, with the cost of goods needed for war production being driven higher and higher, and Ivanov’s arrest has demonstrated just how flimsy Russia’s political and economic system is in a manner not seen since Prigozhin’s mutiny.

Whatever the reasons for Ivanov and Shoigu’s dismissals might be, they are a major proof of the intrinsic instability and insecurity of a regime that looks solid only from afar

Timur Ivanov is not a man among others, just as Shoigu was not a minister among others. Rated 10th in the hierarchy of Putin’s regime, Ivanov was someone who was needed to get the job done. According to previous research by RUSI analysts published by the NATO Defence College in October 2023, Ivanov was an essential link in Russian military logistics and was closely tied to a special fleet that, until recent times, was able to move weapons in and out of Syria – a route called the ‘Syrian Express’, which appears to have been ‘closed’ in March 2024. Instead of heading toward Novorossiysk via the Bosporus, the ship turned towards Kaliningrad, changing its route for the time being. During its most recent voyage, the US Navy sent a drone to monitor the ship’s movements. Ivanov was possibly one of the main architects of the Russian ‘ghost fleet’, which includes the sanctioned vessels SPARTA IV (IMO: 9743033), SPARTA II (IMO: 9160994), URSA MAJOR (IMO: 9538892), and PIZHMA (IMO: 8814354). These ships are reported to have moved S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems, artillery pieces (130 mm M-46 field guns and S-60 anti-aircraft guns), as well as KAMAZ-5350 vehicles. Ivanov is directly related to this fleet through OBL-Shipping LLC, a Oboronlogistics subsidiary. Oboronlogistics is a military shipping and logistics company directly owned by the Russian Ministry of Defence and capable of ‘special operations’. OBL-Shipping LLC has multiple links to the Chief Directorate for Troop Accommodations JSC, a fundamental logistics hub of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and Ivanov was its former CEO and director.

With Ivanov out and the ‘Syrian Express’ seemingly closed, it won’t be as easy to find a quick solution to a logistic hurdle that has been one of the choke points of the Russian military effort from the beginning. In fact, one of the

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