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Putin’s new weapon of war: Economists run the military

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For Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, the appointment of a new defense minister provides a new cornerstone for fighting a long war.

That was evident in a speech Monday in Moscow by Andrei R. Belousov, Mr. Putin’s economist. Surprise selection Leading Russia’s massive Defense Ministry, he made his first public appearance since assuming his new role and talked about bureaucracy rather than the battlefield.

It reflects a recognition that the military production that supports Russia’s war and powers its economy must be carefully managed to sustain a war of attrition with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia is fighting a protracted war on the battlefield. In northeastern Ukraine, Russian forces have launched a new offensive that is advancing slowly rather than attempting a major breakthrough in major cities as it did at the start of the war, but with disastrous results.

In a televised address to Russia’s upper house of parliament on Monday, where his nomination is expected to be approved, Belousov highlighted the bureaucratic details of the fast-growing military operation but made no mention of the situation on the front lines. He describes his top priority as improving the care and quality of life of soldiers, veterans and their families.

He said the excessive paperwork faced by militants in obtaining benefits should be addressed “within the framework of inter-agency electronic coordination.”

Belousov said in televised comments that it was “absolutely unacceptable” for soldiers to be moved to overcrowded hospitals while on leave. “This problem needs to be addressed.”

The brief hearing reflected how the sudden rise of a soft-spoken economic policy expert to run a vast military establishment waging the largest conflict since World War II has become a new part of Putin’s strategy to defeat Ukraine. Engage in a war of attrition with the West.

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

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

In more than six years as Putin’s economic adviser, Belousov earned a reputation as a staunch supporter of the state’s dominance of the economy and high public spending.The war has prompted Putin to implement some of the proposals Belousov has been advocating for years, such as Higher taxes on big businesses and make greater use of the country’s oil savings.

In Moscow, the head of parliament’s upper house, Valentina Matviyenko, said Belousov was the best person to find “new modern weapons, new technologies and new innovations” for the army.

Ultranationalist lawmaker Sergei Mironov welcomed Belousov’s appointment, adding, “Today, the military is not the only one fighting, the economy is too.”

Once the nomination is finalized, Belousov will succeed Sergei K. Shoigu, a long-serving minister deeply loyal to Putin. Many analysts say that despite his close relationship with the Russian leader, Shoigu’s days are numbered since the disastrous failure of his first invasion in February 2022, when Russian forces appeared stunned by resistance from Ukrainian forces.

But rather than fire Shoigu while Russia was struggling, Putin chose to replace him now – as Russia appears to be in the best position to fight the war since Putin launched it more than two years ago.

Sergey Markov, a Moscow-based political analyst and former Kremlin adviser, said in a telephone interview that “Putin found that a lot of things were not done right — that there were very serious mistakes.” But, he added, “You can’t Making personnel decisions in a crisis.”

“Now the crisis has been resolved – the Ukrainian offensive has been stopped and new troops have been formed,” Markov said.

The appointment of a methodical bureaucrat to oversee Russia’s war effort also coincided with the consolidation of a slow-paced strategy on Russia’s battlefields.

After failed attempts to stun the enemy with armored raids and paratrooper drops during the first month of the 2022 invasion, defenses across much of Ukraine’s frontline were systematically hammered.

This strategy allows Russia to use its superiority in manpower and firepower to advance incrementally against overstretched and exhausted defenders.

Last week, Putin stepped up his strategy of attrition, opening a new front in Ukraine’s northern border region of Kharkiv.

Russia had attempted to seize the Kharkov region in the early weeks of the war, when its armored columns moved across the border and along the highway toward the regional capital of the same name. The attack quickly failed after encountering determined Ukrainian forces who later forced Russia into a hasty retreat.

With the element of surprise gone, Russia this time used small groups of infantry backed by artillery to cross the border and advance slowly, one village at a time.

Military analysts say the new offensive has 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 parts of the front line, at a time when the country is struggling to recruit enough fighters and secure new weapons from Western allies.

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