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Putin’s New War Weapon: An Economist Managing the Military

To President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, appointing a new defense minister provides a new building block toward fighting a long war.

That was evident in Moscow on Monday when Andrei R. Belousov, the economist who was Mr. Putin’s surprise pick to lead Russia’s sprawling defense ministry, made his first public appearance in his new role and spoke about bureaucracy rather than the battlefield.

It reflects an acknowledgment that the military production that is supplying Russia’s war, and heating its economy, must be carefully managed to sustain a war of attrition with Ukraine.

At the same time, Russia is playing the long game on the battlefield. In northeastern Ukraine, Russian forces mounting a new offensive are pushing forward slowly rather than attempting major breakthroughs to big cities, as they did at the beginning of the war — with disastrous results.

In televised remarks at Russia’s upper house of Parliament on Monday, which is expected to rubber-stamp his nomination, Mr. Belousov emphasized the bureaucratic details of the fast-growing military effort, and made no reference to the situation at the front. He described his priorities as improving standards of care and living for soldiers, veterans and their families.

The excessive paperwork that fighters faced in obtaining benefits, he said, ought to be addressed “in the framework of interagency electronic coordination.”

“It’s absolutely unacceptable” that soldiers are redirected to overcrowded hospitals when on leave, Mr. Belousov said in televised comments. “This issue needs to be resolved.”

The brief hearing was a snapshot of how the sudden rise of a soft-spoken expert on economic policy to the helm of an enormous military apparatus waging its biggest conflict since World War II has emerged as a new component in Mr. Putin’s strategy of defeating Ukraine and the West through a war of attrition.

Mr. Belousov’s appointment signals Mr. Putin’s focus on subordinating the country’s economy to his military needs, in the expectation that a war in Ukraine, or at least a militarized standoff with the West, could shape Russia’s future for years to come.

“Putin’s priority is war, and war of attrition is won by economics,” said Alexandra Prokopenko, a former Russian central bank official now at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin.

Over more than six years serving as Mr. Putin’s economic adviser, Mr. Belousov developed a reputation as a strong supporter of a dominant state role in the economy and of high public spending. The war has already led Mr. Putin to enact some of the proposals that Mr. Belousov has been advocating for years, such as higher taxes on big business and greater use of the country’s oil savings.

In Moscow, Valentina Matviyenko, the chairwoman of the upper house of Parliament, said Mr. Belousov was the best choice to find ways to procure “new, modern weaponry, new technology and new innovations” for the military.

Sergei Mironov, an ultranationalist lawmaker, welcomed Mr. Belousov’s appointment, adding that “the servicemen are not the only ones fighting today, but so are economies.”

When his nomination is finalized, Mr. Belousov will replace Sergei K. Shoigu, a long-serving minister who was fiercely loyal to Mr. Putin. Many analysts said that, despite his close ties to the Russian leader, Mr. Shoigu’s days were numbered ever since the spectacular failure of the initial invasion in February 2022, when Russia’s troops appeared shocked by the resistance put up by Ukraine’s forces.

But rather than fire Mr. Shoigu as Russia was struggling to stay in the fight, Mr. Putin chose only to replace him now — as Russia appears to be in its strongest position in the war since Mr. Putin started it more than two years ago.

“Putin is seeing that a lot of things were not done right — there were very grave mistakes,” Sergei Markov, a Moscow political analyst and a former Kremlin adviser, said in a phone interview. But, he added, “you don’t make personnel decisions in a crisis.”

“Now the crisis has been resolved — the Ukrainian offensive was stopped and a new army has been formed,” Mr. Markov said.

The appointment of a methodical bureaucrat to oversee Russia’s war effort also meshes with the consolidation of a slower-paced Russian strategy on the battlefield.

The failed attempts to stun the enemy into submission in the first month of the invasion in 2022 with armored thrusts and paratrooper drops have since given way to systematic pummeling of Ukrainian defenses along most of the frontline.

This strategy has allowed Russia to exploit its manpower and firepower advantage to gradually inch forward against overstretched and exhausted defenders.

Last week, Mr. Putin doubled down on the strategy of attrition by opening of a new front in the northern Ukrainian border region of Kharkiv.

Russia had tried to capture the region of Kharkiv in the early weeks of the war when its armored columns streamed across the border and headed for the regional capital of the same name along the highways. The attack quickly collapsed after encountering determined Ukrainian forces, who later forced Russia into a hasty retreat.

With the element of surprise now gone, Russia this time has used small units of infantry supported by artillery to filter across the border and slowly push forward, one village at a time.

Military analysts said the new offensive stands little chance of capturing the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest metropolitan area. But the attacks appear to have succeeded in drawing Ukrainian reinforcements from other sections of the front, at a time when the country is struggling to recruit enough fighters and obtain new weapons from its Western allies.

Michael Kofman, a Washington-based military analyst, said Mr. Shoigu was tainted by corruption and an affinity for following Soviet-era military doctrines, citing the disastrous initial Russian approach in Ukraine. “Belousov is not likely to follow that,” he said.

“There’s an appreciation in the Russian leadership that this is a long war that will require managing attrition, reconstitution, and defense industrial mobilization,” Mr. Kofman added.

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