Putin Replacing Defense Minister Met With Wave of Jokes and Speculation

Sunday’s announcement that Russian President Vladimir Putin is replacing Sergei Shoigu as his defense minister was met with speculation and jokes on social media.

Shoigu, who has been in the post for 12 years, will reportedly be replaced by a civilian, Andrei Belousov, a former deputy prime minister and economic specialist. Shoigu now shifts to Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, replacing Nikolai Patrushev, according to Reuters.

The Cabinet changes come as Putin starts his fifth presidential term and as the war in Ukraine, which began in February 2022, continues.

Putin recently made a public gesture intended to punish Shoigu for his inability to achieve the Kremlin’s military goals in Ukraine, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The ISW wrote in a Thursday assessment of the war in Ukraine that Putin held a publicized meeting with a known rival of Shoigu as a way of possibly “seeking to reduce” the defense minister’s power.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Associated Press on Sunday that Putin gave the defense minister role to Belousov because the ministry should be “open to innovation and cutting-edge ideas.”

Newsweek reached out to the Kremlin Sunday afternoon for additional comments.

Putin and Shoigu
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on February 23 in Moscow. Sunday’s announcement that Putin is replacing Shoigu as his defense minister was met with speculation and jokes on social media.

AFP/Getty Images

The announcement, meanwhile, sparked immediate reaction on social media Sunday afternoon.

“If the war was going so well for Putin, this wouldn’t have happened. Cracks are starting to appear in the facade,” Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Political economist Konstantin Sonin posted to X, “The new changes — Belousov instead of Shoigu at Defense, Shoigu instead of Patrushev in Security Council is a perfect illustration of our ‘degenerate autocracy’ theory. Things are not going according to Putin’s plan, but he will endlessly rotate the same small group of loyalists. Putin has always feared to bring new people to the positions of authority — even in the best of times, they must have been nobodies with no own perspectives. Towards the end of his rule, even more so.”

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), wrote on X that Patrushev was the “big loser” in the shuffle.

“The big loser in this shuffle appears to be Patrushev, who was also one of the key decisionmakers behind the invasion of Ukraine,” he posted, adding that “many of these officials have been in their positions for more than a decade, and there was clearly a need for changes.”

Other X users took the opportunity to make dark jokes about the changes.

“Shoigu’s departure was amicable. He’s still alive,” the Darth Putin parody account posted on X.

The cabinet shake-up comes as Russian forces are making “tactically significant gains” in areas of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region where Kyiv likely has fewer defenses, according to a new assessment after Moscow launched a push across the border on Friday.

“Russian forces are conducting relatively limited offensive operations along the Russian-Ukrainian border in northern Kharkiv Oblast and continued to make tactically significant gains in likely less defended areas,” the ISW wrote on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is due to receive over 40 M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems—colloquially known as HIMARS—and ammunition in a fresh $400 million package sent by the United States.

On Friday, the Biden administration announced a $400 million Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA) military aid package for Ukraine. PDA allows for an expedited delivery of military assistance to foreign countries in times of need.