New term, old problems: On Putin’s new term and the Ukraine war 

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is finding it difficult to keep the effects of war from hitting home 

Updated - May 16, 2024 02:08 pm IST

Published - May 16, 2024 12:10 am IST

One of the key decisions Vladimir Putin took after being sworn in as Russia’s President for the fifth time was to remove his long-time Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu. That Andrei Belousov, a civilian economist, has been brought in to run the Defence Ministry shows how much the war in Ukraine has become an economic battle for Russia as it struggles to stabilise its war-time economy and keep its energy ties and defence production going despite biting western sanctions. There have been criticisms about the way Mr. Shoigu planned and executed the war, which Russia, according to western intelligence, expected to be a quick affair. But Mr. Shoigu, who successfully executed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s military intervention in Syria starting 2015, has deep ties with both the Kremlin and Russia’s defence industrial complex. Even when Russia faced setbacks initially and a rare rebellion led by the late Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin challenged the defence leadership, Mr. Putin threw his weight behind Mr. Shoigu. But now, as Mr. Putin begins a new term with a promise to Russia of victory in Ukraine he has decided to shake up the Defence Ministry and bring in a technocrat whose quick and primary responsibility would be to meet military objectives quickly.

The change comes at a time when Russia has gained battlefield momentum. Last week, it launched a new offensive in the northeast, in an apparent bid to attack Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. Ukraine is expecting new weapons from the U.S., but it is not clear whether that would be enough for its war-fatigued army to withstand the Russian onslaught. Mr. Putin’s immediate goal is to win the war, but he does not have a clear path to victory either. The war has caused lasting damage to Russia’s ties with the West, especially with Europe with which Mr. Putin had sought to build strong economic and energy ties, and driven Russia deeper into China’s hands. At home, he has tightened his grip on the state and society and is intolerant of dissent. For now, the state has managed to prevent the effects of sanctions reaching ordinary citizens, but it remains to be seen how long the Kremlin can do so if the war continues endlessly. Ukraine has also taken the war to Russia, by attacking its Black Sea fleet and border towns, raising the costs of the war. Mr. Putin seems to be thinking that the momentum is on his side, irrespective of the challenges. But even if his troops make further gains in Ukraine, he would be ruling over a Russia that is internally more repressive, economically weaker and isolated in the West and in a war of attrition with a permanently hostile neighbour.

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