Russia Policy Monitor No. 2632

Related Categories: Arms Control and Proliferation; Democracy and Governance; Warfare; Corruption; Border Security; Russia; Ukraine

On May 13th, days after his formal inauguration for a fifth term in office, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a significant reshuffle of his cabinet. While Russia's current, technocratic prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, was reappointed, Nikolai Patrushev, previously the secretary of Russia's powerful Security Council, was not – despite his apparently close ties to Putin himself. By far the most far-reaching change, however, was the ouster of long-serving defense minister Sergei Shoigu in favor of Andrei Belousov, an economist and technocrat who previously served as, among other things, Russia's Minister of Economic Development.

The shake-up signifies that Russia is settling in "for the long haul" in its fight against Ukraine, experts say. "There is clearly a sense that Putin's Russia is digging in," Mark Galeotti of Mayak Intelligence has noted. "It's going to be an attritional conflict, and to that end, national resources have to be concentrated." And Belousov, who has received high marks for economic administration and innovation in the past, is clearly being seen by the Kremlin as the proper figure to optimize Russia's economy during this period. (Foreign Policy, May 13, 2024)

In recent months, as the United States and Europe have debated how to expand their support for Ukraine, attention has increasingly turned to the possibility of confiscating Russian assets now escrowed in Western jurisdictions. For its part, Russia has been engaged in much the same exercise, and over the past year has started seizing the assets of Western companies operating within the Russian Federation. A number of Western firms and conglomerates - such as Austrian oil and gas concern OMV and Dutch agricultural firm AgroTerra - have been targeted by Russian authorities and had their assets and holdings confiscated. The latest to be hit are two German banks, Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank, with a Russian court authorizing the seizure of some $400 million in combined assets earlier this month. (Dagensblaget, May 21, 2024)

Throughout its nearly two-and-a-half-year war on Ukraine, Russia's military has been plagued by chronic and persistent manpower shortages, leading the Kremlin to resort to things like the enlistment of convicts to bolster its military ranks. Consequently, many believed that, in the wake of Russia's recent presidential election, the Kremlin would issue a new "mobilization" order to draft additional civilians who have so far avoided conscription. That has not happened - at least not yet. However, Moscow is clearly making up its manpower deficit by other means.

Citing military experts, a new expose in The Moscow Times outlines that Russia "is likely to keep banking on various coercion tactics" in order to keep manpower flowing to the front lines. These include sending Russian males undergoing compulsory military training to the front lines - despite a prohibition under existing Russian law - as well as employing deceptive claims and promises to entice military volunteers (including many foreign nationals) to enlist. The tactics "change constantly," according to Ivan Chuvilyaev of civic group Idite Lesom. "I would compare it with... throwing a net to check who can get caught in it." (The Moscow Times, May 21, 2024)

Russia's Defense Ministry has announced the start of new military maneuvers involving tactical nuclear weapons in its Southern Military District, adjacent to Ukraine. Officially, the exercises are intended to test "the readiness of personnel and equipment of non-strategic nuclear weapons combat units to respond and to unconditionally ensure the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian state." However, they are also clearly tied to Russia's ongoing war in Ukraine, where it is now advancing (albeit slowly). According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the exercises are being held in "response to provocative statements and threats by certain Western officials" - likely a reference to recent comments by French President Emmanuel Macron that his government was prepared to deploy troops in defense of Ukraine, should the need arise to do so. (Agence France-Presse, May 21, 2024)

[EDITORS' NOTE: The development is significant, insofar as it signals an intensification of Moscow's efforts to deter the West from assisting Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned in the past that he was prepared to deploy nuclear weapons in response to Western aid to Ukraine. However, according to experts, this marks the first time since 1999 that Russia has officially announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons as part of military drills (although there is widespread suspicion that such weaponry has been present in undeclared fashion at more recent military exercises.)]