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Why Putin chose an economist as Russia's defense minister

Grzegorz Szymanowski
May 14, 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed the economist Andrei Belousov as his new defense minister. His job will be to strengthen the Russian armed forces and arms industry.

Andrei Belousov is seen wearing a suit and in profile, looking away from the camera
Andrei Belousov lacks a military background, but has President Vladimir Putin's backingImage: Vladimir Astapkovich/dpa/picture alliance

As Russian President Vladimir Putin enters his fifth term in office, he is also directing the country further into a wartime economy. He has installed former deputy prime minister Andrei Belousov as defense minister — an economist with no military experience — to get the job done. Belousov replaces Sergei Shoigu, who is to serve as secretary of Russia's national security council.

Commenting on Belousov's appointment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "On the battlefield today, the winner is the one who is more open to innovation." Emphasizing the need to integrate the military sector more closely with the economy, he added that this choice was about "making the economy of the security bloc part of the country’s economy."

Nina Khrushcheva, a Russian-American political scientist, told DW that she could understand why Belousov had been selected for the job. The economist has made a name for himself as a level-headed, professional technocrat, she explained. "On the one hand, market economists do not reject him. On the other, he is committed to the primacy of the state over the economy."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) is seen alongside former defense minister Sergei Shoigu (right)
President Vladimir Putin (left) recently removed Sergei Shoigu (right) from his position as defense ministerImage: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo/picture alliance

Who is Andrei Belousov?

Belousov, 65, was born in Moscow as the son of an economist. He followed in his father's footsteps and also studied economics at Moscow State University.

Later, Belousov worked as a market forecaster at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was a government adviser and served as deputy economy minister between 2006 and 2008. Belousov has never served in the armed forces. 

The year 2008 proved decisive for his career, when Putin, who had once again become prime minster, appointed Belousov as head of his economic department. Since then, he has been considered as part of Putin's inner circle.

Belousov's dependence on Putin and the fact that he does not belong to any of the factions vying for influence within the Kremlin should also make him less susceptible to corruption — something his predecessor Shoigu was often accused of. Most recently, Shoigu's deputy Timur Ivanov was arrested on bribery charges, which many observers interpreted as a sign that Shoigu's days in office were numbered.

Belousov's vision for Russia

Since becoming part of Putin's inner circle, Belousov has served as economic minister (2012 to 2013), economic advisor to the president (2013 to 2020) and deputy prime minister (since 2020). These positions have allowed him to play a key role in shaping Russian economic policy. He is known to advocate for a strong governmental role in the economy and for stimulating economic growth through state investment. 

A few years ago, the Russian weekly news outlet The Bell reported that Belousov was one of the few economic experts close to Putin who had supported annexing Crimea in 2014. The platform said Belousov also perceives Russia as being "surrounded by enemies." This worldview may help explain his closeness to Putin.

"In recent years, Belousov has been obsessed with the idea of Russian technological sovereignty," according to independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, who specializes in Russian elites. Writing on the Telegram messaging service, Rustamova said that under Belousov's leadership, a plan had been drawn up whereby Russia would learn to independently produce computer chips, high-precision machines, medical devices, software, airplanes and drones by 2030.

Arms industry to drive overall economic growth

When Belousov served as deputy prime minister, he strongly advocated for Russia to build up a domestic drone industry, repeatedly criticizing that key components had to be imported.

A white drone as seen from below, flying across a clear blue sky
Russia has sourced most attack drones from China and IranImage: Efrem Lukatsky/dpa/AP/picture alliance

"Belousov is interested in innovative weapons systems, and it is clear this will be one of his priorities," Alexandra Prokopenko, a researcher at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, told DW.

She added that the Kremlin wanted Russia's entire economy to benefit from a boost in defense spending. According to Kremlin spokesperson Peskov, Russia's defense budget currently amounts to 6.7% of the country's GDP.

"The Kremlin's priority right now is the [Ukraine] war," Prokopenko told DW. The expert, who previously worked for Russia's central bank, also said that "they believe in military Keynesianism, that is, the thought that one can boost economic growth by investing in the military-industrial complex."

It would appear that Belousov, in other words, is expected to make the war more profitable for Russia.

Alexey Strelnikov contributed to this article. It was originally published in Russian.