Skip to main content
  • Share to or
The headquarters of Russia’s Defense Ministry. May 14, 2024.

‘The Defense Ministry is going through a cull’ How a war between Kremlin elite clans shaped Putin’s post-inauguration appointments

Source: Meduza
The headquarters of Russia’s Defense Ministry. May 14, 2024.
The headquarters of Russia’s Defense Ministry. May 14, 2024.
Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

In the last month, five high-ranking Russian military officials have been arrested on corruption charges in what amounts to an unprecedented purge, coinciding with the dismissal of longtime Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. Sources close to the Kremlin say that the Defense Ministry shake-up and Vladimir Putin’s post-inauguration personnel changes are largely the result of an “inter-clan war” among elites in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Meduza explains how these clans operate behind closed doors, how they influenced Putin’s government reshuffle, and what clan dynamics can tell us about Russia’s future.

‘The king of kickbacks’

Two weeks before Vladimir Putin’s May 7 inauguration, Deputy Defense Minister Timur Ivanov was arrested on suspicion of accepting more than $10 million worth of bribes in the form of construction services. Reportedly known as the “king of kickbacks” behind the scenes, Ivanov wasn’t exactly discreet about his dealings; he flaunted his extravagant lifestyle online, which eventually landed him the starring role in a 2022 investigatory video by Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. 

But it’s not as if corruption within the Defense Ministry — or the entire Russian government for that matter — is a rarity. So why Ivanov and why now

A bit more clarity came just two weeks later when Ivanov’s patron and boss, Sergey Shoigu, was removed from his position as defense minister as part of Putin’s post-inauguration personnel reshuffle. Overnight, Shoigu went from leading the ministry in charge of implementing Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine to overseeing the Security Council — an advisory body that lacks any power to make political decisions. 

In the days and weeks that followed Shoigu’s departure, four more Defense Ministry officials — Lieutenant General Yuri Kuznetsov, Major General Ivan Popov, Lieutenant General Vadim Shamarin, and procurement head Vladimir Verteletsky — met a fate similar to Ivanov’s and were arrested on corruption-related charges. 

Who were they?

Culling the command Russia has arrested four generals in the past month. Here’s what we know about the Defense Ministry ‘purge.’

Who were they?

Culling the command Russia has arrested four generals in the past month. Here’s what we know about the Defense Ministry ‘purge.’

“The Ministry of Defense is now going through a cull,” Stephen Hall, an assistant professor of Russian politics at the University of Bath, told Meduza. “And a lot of these people who were linked to Shoigu have been charged with corruption.” 

Indeed, in less than six weeks, six high-ranking Defense Ministry officials have fallen from grace. And according to multiple Russian politics experts who spoke to Meduza, this significant shake-up is largely the result of an “inter-clan war” within Putin’s inner circle.

The Kremlin clans

Contrary to the pervasive myth that Russia is run by Putin alone, what truly drives the political and economic machinery in Russia today is competition between “clans,” or factions of government officials and/or business magnates. 

Since the early 2000s, clans have consolidated around elites like former Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov, former Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (now a presidential aide), and Putin’s purported “personal banker” and longtime friend Yuri Kovalchuk. Each of these clan leaders has built up an extensive patron-client network of cronies whose government or corporate appointments and access to plundered state assets depend not on merit but on personal loyalty.

The rules of the game in this informal system are quite simple: clan leaders who gain access to Putin’s ear and stay in his good graces are rewarded with managerial control over institutions like state-owned enterprises, security agencies, and government ministries that manage the country’s most lucrative assets. In turn, clan leaders distribute access to those assets amongst their own patron-client networks — for the guarantee of a kickback, of course — to bolster their own loyal power bases. 

Hall describes Putin’s role in this corrupt bargain as the arbitrator, balancing clan interests to ensure no single clan gains enough power to eventually jeopardize his own. Timur Ivanov’s arrest, however, threatened to throw this equilibrium into disarray.

The Shoigu clan

Timur Ivanov wasn’t just a close protégé of Shoigu. According to experts like Hall, Ivanov was the Shoigu clan’s “wallet”: the figure responsible for keeping Shoigu’s riches safe and ensuring they’re “stuck away” in a tax haven somewhere.

“Generally, there had been an unwritten gentleman’s agreement that you didn’t go after [‘wallets’ like Ivanov],” Hall told Meduza. “[Because] if you went after them, they might decide to spill the beans about what their clan has been doing. It would also highlight quite how corrupt and kleptocratic the regime actually is.”

To be sure, the Defense Ministry’s deep-rooted corruption under Shoigu isn’t the only stain on the former defense minister’s record that likely factored into his reassignment. He is credited as being one of the staunchest advocates of launching Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, promising Putin a quick victory — something that clearly didn’t go according to plan. As the war dragged on, Kremlin insiders and pro-war bloggers increasingly laid responsibility for the war’s hefty economic and human costs at Shoigu’s feet. 

This criticism reached a boiling point in June 2023, when Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin publicly accused Shoigu and the head of the Russian Army’s General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, of gross incompetence and intentionally deceiving Putin and the Russian public about the state of the war. Although that standoff largely resolved itself after Prigozhin’s failed August 2023 mutiny and subsequent “mysterious” death, Shoigu’s rivals smelled blood in the water. Against this backdrop, Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev argues that Ivanov’s arrest can be seen as the first strike in a larger battle to topple Shoigu and attenuate his clan’s influence in the Kremlin. 

Timur Ivanov, Vladimir Putin, and Sergey Shoigu visit Patriot Park. September 19, 2018.
Alexey Nikolskiy / Sputnik / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The Chemezov clan

The list of figures who had plausible motives for undermining Shoigu’s clan isn’t exactly short — there are many elites who would have stood to benefit from his ouster from the Defense Ministry. Nonetheless, one clan of elites embedded in Russia’s military-industrial complex stands out both for its long-term efforts to remove Shoigu from power and its public interactions with him following Ivanov’s arrest. 

The key figure in this clan is a former KGB officer who worked with Putin back in his Dresden days — Sergey Chemezov. Since the early 2000s, Chemezov has overseen Russia’s key exports in the military-industrial sector, first as the CEO of Russian state-owned arms seller Rosoboronexport, and then in his current position as the CEO of Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec. Over the years, Chemezov’s influence in Russia’s military-defense complex has helped neutralize the ambitions of Defense Ministry officials like Shoigu, who might seek to monopolize the ministry’s assets and use those spoils to accrue political power. Another staunch Shoigu rival and prominent figure in Chemezov’s clan is Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardiya). Zolotov had long endeavored to extend his influence over the Defense Ministry by lobbying for members of his own clan to replace Shoigu as defense minister. 

Evidence of this inter-clan rivalry previously surfaced in a leaked April 2023 phone call, in which a Russian billionaire and a former senator discussed how Chemezov, Zolotov, and Rosneft head Igor Sechin had “teamed up” to “tear [Shoigu] the fuck down.”

Sources close to Putin’s administration believe it was this inter-clan conflict that ultimately became the deciding factor in Shoigu’s May 12 dismissal. After months of complaining privately to Putin that the defense industry’s slow weapons deliveries were to blame for the Russian army’s measly territorial gains in Ukraine, Shoigu brought this conflict into the public eye — a big faux pas in Kremlin infighting etiquette. 

Even though we’re outlawed in Russia, we continue to deliver exclusive reporting and analysis from inside the country. 

Our journalists on the ground take risks to keep you informed about changes in Russia during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Support Meduza’s work today.

During a Joint Group of Forces meeting on May 1, Shoigu ordered the defense industry to increase the quantity and quality of weapons production, intimating that the army’s success — or failure — depended on it. Because Rostec is the army’s largest defense contractor, Chemezov was none too pleased with Shoigu’s apparent effort to deflect responsibility onto him. That same night, a Russian politics Telegram channel cited government insiders as saying that Shoigu, in reference to Ivanov’s arrest, had accused Rostec (and, by extension, Chemezov), Chemezov ally and then-Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov, and Russian Security Council Chairman Dmitry Medvedev of “creating additional difficulties and interfering with the [army’s] plans.”

But Shoigu’s dismissal wasn’t quite the victory that the Chemezov clan had in mind. Firstly, the Chemezov clan’s ultimate goal was to replace Shoigu with one of their own, not simply to remove him from the Defense Ministry. Instead, Putin replaced Shoigu with Andrey Belousov, a Putin loyalist who doesn’t belong to any clan, thus denying the Chemezov clan an opportunity to make inroads into the Defense Ministry. 

Secondly, although the Chemezov clan’s efforts likely influenced Putin’s decision to remove Shoigu, they by no means forced Putin’s hand. Shoigu’s dismissal ultimately served a strategic purpose for Putin: many began to attribute the army’s failure to achieve a speedy victory in Ukraine to Shoigu’s Defense Ministry, not least because of its reputation as a breeding ground for corruption. In this sense, cleaning house in the Defense Ministry signals to the public that Putin is serious about both cracking down on corruption and putting Russia on a clear path to victory in Ukraine. 

Andrey Belousov
Ekaterina Shtukin / Sputnik / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Putin’s appointment of a technocrat economist as defense minister only further amplifies this message. As Hall notes: “[Putin] can’t afford to lose this war. And Belousov is going to be the man who [can] potentially reform the Ministry of Defense — if it can be reformed — to sufficiently continue this war for a while.”

Russia’s new defense minister

‘A break from convention’ Why would Putin choose Andrey Belousov, an economist, as Russia’s new defense minister?

Russia’s new defense minister

‘A break from convention’ Why would Putin choose Andrey Belousov, an economist, as Russia’s new defense minister?

The Patrushev clan

Another key switch-up that came from Putin’s post-inauguration appointments was Nikolai Patrushev’s transition from leading the Security Council — the position now occupied by Sergey Shoigu — to overseeing shipbuilding as one of Putin’s aides. Patrushev has amassed a significant power base of elites within Russia’s security services since climbing the ranks of the KGB in the 1970s. However, because the makeup of Patrushev’s clan has ebbed and flowed over the years, which has resulted in more conditional alliances than long-lasting ones, many are left wondering if Patrushev’s new position might indicate that his clan’s influence is fading. 

On paper, Patrushev’s new role is certainly a demotion. However, Hall doesn’t find much merit in dissecting the semantics of official job titles and descriptions. “Yes, he’s been moved from the Security Council,” he told Meduza. “But he’s still going to be close to Putin. He’ll still see him relatively often, if not every day. So, I think for Patrushev […] maybe [it’s a demotion], but he still has access to the Tsar, and that, ultimately, is the important thing for him.” Hall also suggested the move might have been a more pragmatic play by Putin: “They’re moving him because it’s a way to get access to new information, which is important for any autocracy in order to adapt.”

But even if Putin’s intention was to limit Patrushev’s power, his clan moved up in the “power vertical” through another member’s appointment as Deputy Prime Minister of Agriculture: Dmitry Patrushev, Nikolai Patrushev’s son. 

The rise of the princes

Dmitry Patrushev is one of several “princes” — men with familial connections to Putin and his inner circle — to have received government postings since Putin’s fifth inauguration in early May. Putin’s relative, Sergey Tsivilev, and Boris Kovalchuk —whose father, Yuri Kovalchuk, has been called the second-most powerful person in Russia and leads the banking and media asset-rich Kovalchuk clan — have also secured prominent appointments as the chairman of the Accounts Chamber and energy minister, respectively.

talking points

‘Putin always chooses the best’ Here’s how the Kremlin wants its propagandists to cover Russia’s cabinet shakeup

talking points

‘Putin always chooses the best’ Here’s how the Kremlin wants its propagandists to cover Russia’s cabinet shakeup

Putin’s decision to dole out key positions to the most powerful elites’ offspring not only harks back to Russia’s imperial era, as journalist Mikhail Zygar recently argued, but also hints at how Putin might be preparing for his eventual exit from power. Hall suggested that the appointments might be a kind of trial run for the young princes, adding that “the inner circle is, to an extent, perpetuating itself.” “It’s now passing its wealth and its control to its future generations.” 

Against the backdrop of the inter-clan conflicts, the princes’ appointments also serve to hamper any sentiments of disloyalty or overreach within Putin’s inner circle. The Patrushev and Kovalchuk clans are particularly incentivized to play by the rules now that their princes’ stars are on the rise. As for Putin, he can sit back and resume his role as the main arbiter of clan interests while the princes and their respective clans compete to prove their loyalty as much as their competency.

The final tally

Sergey Shoigu’s departure from the Defense Ministry — along with the arrests of five high-up Defense Ministry officials — appears to be the most salient change in the recent Kremlin shake-up. 

Although Shoigu’s new position as Security Council secretary is still considered a coveted role within the government, it’s most certainly a demotion for the former Defense Minister. In his new role, Shoigu has a drastically smaller staff than before and lacks any enforcement authority. Most importantly for Shoigu’s clan, the Defense Ministry is no longer their cash cow: “Because he’s been moved to the Security Council, there’s less money to be made now,” Hall noted. “So that will be very hard for him in terms of how to keep his side happy.”

Sergey Shoigu and Andrey Belousov wait for a meeting with Vladimir Putin. May 15, 2024.
Vyacheslav Prokofyev / Sputnik / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

But despite his own clan’s recent misfortunes, analysts also consider Shoigu to be a key ally to Yuri Kovalchuk’s clan — a factor that could potentially soften the blow against the former defense minister. Many in the Kovalchuk clan fared well in the reshuffle, including Chairman of the Accounts Chamber “prince” Boris Kovalchuk, First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko, and Mikhail Mishustin, who held onto his position as prime minister.

As for the Chemezov clan, although its members succeeded in removing Shoigu from the Defense Ministry, their efforts to install one of their own in his place proved unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the Chemezov clan still has a high profile in the Kremlin: Rosgvardiya head Viktor Zolotov maintains close proximity to Putin, and two Chemezov allies, recently appointed First Deputy Prime Minister Denis Manturov and presidential aide Alexey Dyumin, were given prominent roles in the reshuffle. 

Dyumin is also thought to be close to the Patrushev clan, so his recent promotion also plays well for Patrushev. What’s more, Patrushev’s “prince,” Dmitry Patrushev, has been elevated to a deputy prime minister position, and, while some interpret Patrushev’s new role as a clear demotion, he still has Putin’s ear. 

Despite each clan endeavoring to tip the scales in its favor, Putin selectively rearranged his cabinet to ensure that no single clan achieved a relative victory over another.

* * *

Putin has long been averse to change when it comes to the makeup of his inner circle and those at the top of his “power vertical.” Rather than refreshing his ranks with those who might prove more capable at effectively governing, he opts to keep his most-trusted allies in power — even if it means sending them to less-prestigious roles, as he did with Shoigu, and bloating his cabinet with newly crafted positions, like he did with Dyumin. Such an arrangement, after all, has allowed him to preside over a thriving kleptocracy, insured by his ability to balance clan interests and their deeply entrenched patron-client networks. So, Putin’s decision to counterbalance the feuding clans through cabinet appointments shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since providing any one clan with too much power risks threatening his own. 

However, Putin’s conservative modus operandi for personnel selection only serves to exacerbate any future succession conflicts that may arise when the curtain finally falls on him. His power vertical has grown ever more top-heavy since his recent appointments, and, although he might be dangling a few carrots in front of the Patrushev and Kovalchuk princes, Putin continues to obfuscate any indication of who he believes should become his successor. 

Clans that had been eyeing the throne in anticipation of Putin’s expected 2024 departure were already forced to shift their timelines in 2021 when Putin rewrote the constitution, allowing him to remain in office until 2036. Putin’s continued insistence on balancing clan interests and playing his retirement cards close to the chest — especially as clans become ever more emboldened, breaking unspoken rules like going after another clan’s “wallet” — suggests that the inter-clan fighting within the Kremlin might just be a hint at what’s to come.

Sign up for Meduza’s daily newsletter

A digest of Russia’s investigative reports and news analysis. If it matters, we summarize it.

Protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


  • Share to or