Optimistic About the War in Ukraine, Putin Unleashes a Purge at Home

Periodic outcries over incompetence and corruption at the top of the Russian military have dogged President Vladimir V. Putin’s war effort since the start of his invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

When his forces faltered around the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, the need for change was laid bare. When they were routed months later outside the city of Kharkiv, expectations of a shake-up grew. And after the mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin marched his men toward Moscow, complaining of deep rot and ineptitude at the top of the Russian force, Mr. Putin seemed obliged to respond.

But, at each turn, the Russian president avoided any major public moves that could have been seen as validating the criticism, keeping his defense minister and top general in place through the firestorm while shuffling battlefield commanders and making other moves lower on the chain.

Now, with the battlefield crises seemingly behind him and Mr. Prigozhin dead, the Russian leader has decided to act, changing defense ministers for the first time in more than a decade and allowing a number of corruption arrests among top ministry officials.

The moves have ushered in the biggest overhaul at the Russian Defense Ministry since the invasion began and have confirmed Mr. Putin’s preference for avoiding big, responsive changes in the heat of a crisis and instead acting at a less conspicuous time of his own choosing.

“We have to understand that Putin is a person who is stubborn and not very flexible,” said Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter who now lives outside Russia. “He believes that reacting too quickly and rapidly to a changing situation is a sign of weakness.”

The timing of Mr. Putin’s recent moves is most likely a sign that he has greater confidence about his battlefield prospects in Ukraine and his hold on political power as he begins his fifth term as president, experts say.

Russian forces are making gains in Ukraine, taking territory around Kharkiv and in the Donbas region, as Ukraine struggles with aid delays from the United States and strained reserves of ammunition and personnel. Top officials in the Kremlin are feeling optimistic.

“They likely judge the situation within the force as stable enough to punish some in the military leadership for its prior failures,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Demand for change at the top of the Russian military has been pent up since the invasion’s earliest days, when stories circulated about Russian soldiers going to war without proper food and equipment and losing their lives while answering to feckless military leaders.

The anger crested with an aborted uprising led last year by Mr. Prigozhin, who died in a subsequent plane crash that U.S. officials have said was most likely a state-sanctioned assassination.

Mr. Prigozhin, a caterer turned warlord who grew rich on state contracts, was an unlikely messenger. But he put high-level corruption on the minds of Russia’s rank and file and the public more broadly, releasing profanity-laced tirades against Sergei K. Shoigu, then the defense minister, and Russia’s top uniformed officer, Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov. At one point, Mr. Prigozhin filmed himself in front of a pile of dead Russian fighters and denounced top officials for “rolling in fat” in their wood-paneled offices.

His subsequent failed mutiny showed that the problems festering in the Defense Ministry under Mr. Shoigu for over a decade had boiled over and that the populace craved renewal, said a person close to the ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive topics.

The Russian leader now appears to be moving against the very officials that Mr. Prigozhin had been attacking.

The first harbinger of change arose last month with the arrest of Timur Ivanov, a protégé of Mr. Shoigu and the deputy defense minister in charge of military construction projects whom the Russian authorities have accused of taking a large bribe. He has denied wrongdoing. Mr. Ivanov previously attracted the attention of Aleksei A. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation for his and his wife’s conspicuously lavish lifestyle, including yacht rentals on the French Riviera.

Then, this month, days after Mr. Putin began his new term as president, the Kremlin announced that he had replaced Mr. Shoigu and chosen Andrei R. Belousov, one of his longtime economic advisers, as the new defense minister. Mr. Shoigu was moved to run the Russian Security Council, where he would still have access to the president but would have little direct control over money.

“If you want to win a war, corruption at a larger scale impacting the results on the battlefield is, in theory at least, not something you want,” said Maria Engqvist, the deputy head of Russia and Eurasia studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

Still, Ms. Engqvist called high-level corruption in Russia “a feature, not a bug.”

“Corruption is a tool to gain influence, but it can also be used against you at any given time, depending on whether you say the wrong thing at the wrong time or make the wrong decision at the wrong time,” she said. “So you can be ousted with a reasonable explanation that the public can accept.”

Ms. Engqvist said the changes also raised questions about how long General Gerasimov would stay in his position as chief of the general staff and top battlefield commander in Ukraine.

The arrests at the Defense Ministry have gathered pace this month, with four more top generals and defense officials detained on corruption charges. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, denied on Thursday that the arrests represented a “campaign.”

The corruption charges against top Defense Ministry officials have come alongside promises of greater financial and social benefits for the rank-and-file soldiers, an apparent attempt to improve morale and mollify populist critics.

Mr. Belousov used his first remarks after his nomination as defense minister to describe his plans to cut bureaucracy and improve access to health care and other social services for veterans of the war. And on Thursday, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, Vyacheslav V. Volodin, and Finance Minister Anton G. Siluanov expressed support for exempting fighters in Ukraine from proposed income-tax increases.

The high-level arrests are unlikely to root out vast corruption in the Russian military establishment, but they could make top officials think twice before stealing at a particularly large scale, at least for a period, said Dara Massicot, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It will introduce a chill into the system and make everyone pause as they try to figure out the new code of accepted behavior,” Ms. Massicot said.

Beyond sending an anticorruption message, at least one of the arrests seemed to be aimed at settling a political score.

Maj. Gen. Ivan Popov, a top Russian commander who led forces holding off Ukraine’s counteroffensive, chided the Russian military leadership in a widely seen recording last year after he was removed from his post. He was apprehended on Tuesday on fraud charges, according to the state news agency TASS. He denied wrongdoing, his lawyer said.

“The bottom line is that the war exposed a lot of different problems — corruption, incompetence and openness to public expressions of insubordination — that the leadership feels a need to address,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “Now is a good time to do this, precisely because there isn’t a short-term acute risk on the battlefield.”

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