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Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Putin?

The title of this article might be inspired by Dad’s Army but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership style is much more sophisticated than that.


Ironically, however, Putin’s historically openly aggressive manner has taken a different turn this week. Cabinet reshuffles and landmark meetings in China give the impression Putin is weaning himself off the dictatorial drug and gradually introducing transparent democracy into his diet.


He’s most certainly not. If anything, this new passive aggressive strategy makes Putin’s Russia increasingly dangerous.


Let’s start with the reshuffle. Putin shocked the world when he removed his long-term Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, instead appointing him secretary of Russia’s Security Council. Reshuffles don’t happen very often in clicky Russian government – only increasing the magnitude of removing a highly experienced close ally essentially leading the Russian war effort in Ukraine.


This seems like a strange move. The war has been raging on for over two years in Ukraine – roughly two years longer than I imagine Putin expected it to last. It has hardly been the success he anticipated, but removing Shoigu as Defence Minister is quite a drastic statement. Removing him from the Cabinet altogether and demoting him to the Security Council, however, is an entire drastic diatribe. Why fire a bullet when you can drop a bomb?


And we haven’t even got to his replacement yet. This is none other than Andrei Belousov, formerly Russia’s first Deputy Prime Minister. You might expect Belousov to be Putin’s secret weapon: a war leader to rival all war leaders. A Russian Winston Churchill, if you will.


But no. Belousov is an economist. A financier. How strange, replacing an experienced leader of men with a money boffin at the time of a long and difficult war. To the onlooking world, it’s as if Putin has entered the battlefield aboard a space hopper. He’s brought a blunt knife to a gun fight.


The confusing contradictions don’t end there, however. Putin is due to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing this week, apparently with a ‘genuine desire’ to back China’s ‘peace plan to end [the] Ukraine war’.


Let’s take stock of the story so far. Putin removes a war leader from the defence ministry, replacing him with a civilian financier who has the same war-waging experience as you and I – zero. And then he plans a meeting in China to end the Ukraine war. It’s almost as if I am writing from an alternate universe.


But I’m really not. This is Putin’s passive aggressive masking tactic coming into play. He wants to confuse the West into thinking he’s lost his dangerously brilliant mind. He wants people to waste their time analysing the meaning of his puny actions, allowing him to get on with the big stuff. And he wants people to agonise over the very puniness of his actions – when, in fact, their implications are colossal.


Appointing an economist to the defence ministry looks ridiculous, but it’s very clever. As of 2024, Russia’s military spending accounts for about 30% of Russia’s budget. A war leader might help you direct an army, but what good is that if you run out of money and get slapped with Western sanctions that cripple your economy?


But Belousov is a bit more than an economist. He has fingers in more pies than Mr Pukka, including high-tech weapons such as drones. Putin’s decision to replace Shoigu with Belousov is therefore the equivalent of swapping the trenches for MI6’s toy box. Belousov has the knowhow to pump money into the military technology which will not only significantly upgrade Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, but also increase Russia’s geopolitical threat for years to come.


All of this feels very Cold War-ish. It feels very Soviet. And as we know, Putin regards the dismantlement of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest tragedies in history. I have written before on why – from Putin’s perspective – the Ukraine war is perfectly justified. He wants to reclaim what he feels are Russia’s lost historical territories, brutally stripped away by the overextended influence of the US. It’s about bringing Russian-speaking people home. And Putin will note that when Western nationals are unfairly detained abroad, it gives Western countries perfect legitimacy to shift their weight around. So, he asks, why can’t Russia?


With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that it feels like Cold War 2.0. Belousov’s ability to pull financial strings in Russia’s military department threatens a modernised arms race of drone warfare. This dangerously dehumanises the very act of killing, whilst preventing any more substantial losses in Russian troops. As a result, you just know Uncle Sam will be employing one of Bill Gates’ mates to do the same for America.


So, far from scaling down his attempts to cling onto power, if anything Putin is ramping up this effort.


And what of the ‘genuine desire’ to meet with China and find a peaceful end to the Ukraine war? I’m sure Putin does have a genuine desire to end the war – but only if the result is a Russian victory. It’s a small bit of political spin that New Labour’s Alastair Campbell would have been proud of.


Since ‘winning’ a fifth presidential term last Tuesday with 87% of the ‘vote’, Vladimir Putin’s new approach seems to be fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Eyebrow-raising Cabinet reshuffles and gimmicks with the Chinese about ending the Ukraine war makes you doubt Putin’s authority. As soon as you do that – wham. With a bolt out of the blue, Ukraine falls. That part hasn’t happened yet, but don’t be surprised if that or something similarly shocking does happen – especially when you look at the Russian progress in Kharkiv.


Beware of being kidded by Putin’s political games. Whilst his recent decisions might come across all Dad’s Army, Putin is actually meticulously arranging his pawns in the best places on the 4D chessboard – and he’s threatening to win.

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