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Since 2014, Russian propaganda has been exploiting the thesis "We haven't started anything serious yet!". In the first days of the full-scale invasion, the propagandists announced that "we have finally begun [the offense]." However, after the failure of Putin's "three-day blitzkrieg" became apparent, the usual rhetoric returned to "This is not a war, it's just a special military operation", " Russia is not fighting at full strength, but only with a limited contingent", "the economy remains civil-based, but it might be transferred to the military-focused..." , "mobilization has not yet happened, but when it will be carried out in full force...", and even "we simply feel sorry for the Ukrainians, that's why we don't hit the cities." Mixing up lies, exaggerating one's own military and economic potential, trying to pass off defeats as "tactical retreats for the purpose of regrouping" served the primary purpose — to intimidate Ukraine and its allies, to force them to give up resistance "until we [Russia] fully deploy [use our full force]." In May 2024, this rhetoric gained new strength in Russia with the replacement of Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu with Andrey Belousov and changes both in this department and among the generals. Propagandists are trying to present this as a comeback to the previous dream state of the Russian army and economy and to the "finally, now let's do it seriously".

"48 hours to defeat Ukraine’s Armed Forces", but later on

Before the full-scale invasion in February 2022, Russian propagandists and officials denied Russian military involvement in the war. However, there is evidence that not only "volunteers" but regular Russian troops were involved in hostilities in the east. At the same time, the threat of more significant, open involvement of the Russian army in the war was also recognized. Such a threat was supported by Russia both through rhetoric and through actual actions — the concentration of troops near the Ukrainian borders conducting exercises. In 2021, propagandist Margarita Simonyan said on the air of "Russia-1": "We understood that in a hot war, we would defeat Ukraine in two days. It would not be difficult".

In January 2015, the editor-in-chief of Moscow Defense Brief magazine, Mykhail Barabanov, published an article arguing that the "Ukrainian issue" could only be resolved by the full-scale involvement of Russian troops. He proposed to strike to encircle the Ukrainian forces in Donbas from the Luhansk region in the north and the south through Mariupol, simultaneously with the invasion through the Sumy and Chernihiv regions in the direction of Kyiv "to completely paralyze the will of the enemy to effective resistance without entering the capital of Ukraine" and an auxiliary strike to take Kharkiv and exit to Izyum. According to Barabanov's plans, "practically the entire combat-ready grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces...will face the prospect of complete encirclement and absolute disaster within a maximum of 48-72 hours."

When the full-scale invasion began, Russian propaganda in the first days was excited by the actions of the Russian troops and tried to demonstrate that all their expectations were coming to life. On February 24, propagandist Andrey Medvedev wrote in his Telegram channel that "the Air Defense Forces of Ukraine no longer exist" as they were allegedly destroyed "in one swoop" by Russian aircraft and cruise missiles. Other propagandists reported on the "destruction of Ukrainian aviation", "the entry of Russian tanks into Kyiv", "the encirclement of Sumy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv", "the landing in the Odesa area, and the cutting off Ukraine’s access to the sea". Agitational propaganda continued to describe the Russian army’s actions, which they had been conducting for the previous eight years, without paying attention to what was happening in reality. But the propagandists had to look for excuses when it became apparent that the Ukrainian air defense continued to shoot down Russian planes, and the capture of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa, which they expected, did not happen.

Propaganda had to be rebuilt. Vladimir Putin expressed the quintessence of the updated narrative of Russian propaganda in July 2022: "Everyone should know that by and large, we have not seriously started anything yet." Meanwhile, the head of the Kremlin named the primary goal of such statements: "At the same time, we do not give up on peace negotiations either. But those who refuse should know that the further they go, the more difficult it will be for them to agree with us." These words were followed by a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, the liberation of Kherson, the announcement of mobilization in Russia, large-scale targeted missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, battles for Bakhmut, in which, according to the late head of the Wagner group Yevgeny Prigozhin, about 20,000 Russian soldiers died.

It would seem that somewhere between these events, the thesis "this is not yet a full-fledged war" should have been forgotten. However, for example, in August 2023, the head of the Russian occupation administration in the Zaporizhzhia region, Yevgeny Balitsky, once again said that during a conversation with Putin, he received confirmation of his words: "We have not started anything yet." "There will be many interesting things in the fall," added Balytsky.

"Andrey Suvorov (aka Rembo) will clean out Shoigu’s Augean stables"

On April 24, 2024, the Russian media reported on the arrest of the Deputy Minister of Defense of Russia, Timur Ivanov. Ivanov worked with Shoigu even before the Ministry of Defense; he was his deputy during Shoigu's governorship in the Moscow region, and then he was the curator of the construction and capital repair of Ministry of Defense facilities, particularly in the occupied territories of Ukraine. On May 12, Shoigu's resignation was announced, and after that, the "purges" began in the department. Yury Kuznetsov, head of the Main Personnel Department, and Vladimir Verteletsky, head of the State Defense Order Support Department, were arrested. Arrests also took place at the General Staff of the Russian troops — the head of the Main Communications Directorate, Vadim Shamarin, and the former commander of the 58th Army, Major General Ivan Popov, were arrested. In total, ten high-ranking commanders and officials were dismissed in April-May, seven of whom were arrested. Andrey Belousov, an economist who served as an assistant to the President of Russia, Minister of Economic Development, and, from 2020 to 2024, Deputy Prime Minister, was appointed to the vacant position of Minister of Defense.

Sergey Shoigu and his team at the head of the Ministry of Defense were criticized even by "unofficial" Russian propagandists and so-called "Z-patriots". The former leader of the Russian militants, Igor Girkin, called Shoigu "a plywood marshal", accused him of failure to prepare for war, greed, and large-scale corruption, and even suspected him of deliberate treason. The conflict with Shoigu was one of Prigozhin's reasons for his rebellion in the summer of 2023. The head of the "Wagner" group also accused the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense of the inability to manage the army and corruption: "You sit and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner from golden dishes and send your daughters, granddaughters, and sons to rest in Dubai." Therefore, the resignation of Shoigu and the arrest of one of his critical employees in Russia was perceived by some Z-patriots as hope for increasing the efficiency of the Ministry of Defense and "preparation to start [military offensive] seriously".

The official Russian agitational propaganda took approximately the same stance, even though before Shoigu's resignation, it was protected from the attacks of "panickers", "political parties’ activists", and "crypto-khohly" (this was the name given to Ukrainians who went to Russia and criticized the Russian leadership, such as Tetyana Montyan or Volodymyr Hrubnyk, an "anti-Maidan activist" from Odessa). Russian TV did not dare to openly say that Shoigu, just like his accomplices, is a corruptor. Yet, unlike his colleagues, the former minister did not go to the pre-trial detention center but got the position of secretary of the Security Council of Russia. Instead, propagandists began to operate "from the opposite side", emphasizing the extraordinary efficiency, professionalism, and crystal honesty of his successor, Belousov.

Thus, propagandist Olga Skabeeva announced the appointment of a new minister, stating that he is "absolutely uncorrupt". At the same time, Skabeeva referred to the Financial Times article, in which this phrase is found in a quote from an unnamed "person who knew Putin and Belousov for decades." Unfortunately, the propagandist did not quote the quote in full: "He is absolutely not corrupt. And it will be very different from what we have now in the Department of Defense. Shoigu and all those around him were guys who were very commercially-oriented." In Skabeeva's program, Duma deputy Alexey Zhuravlev, speaking about the work of the Ministry of Defense under Shoigu, said: "It seems that no one actually steals, but there is no result." After the appointment of Belousov, the Russian army, according to Zhuravlev, will finally "be combat-ready on all front lines".

Propagandist Semen Pegov, a "warrior" who has a Telegram channel with more than 1 million subscribers, accused Shoigu of being, firstly, a representative of former President Boris Yeltsin's team and the "oligarchs of the 90s" and, secondly, a representative of China's interests. Pegov called the former minister, who headed the military department for almost 12 years, founded the "United Russia" party, was close to Putin (for example, repeatedly publicly went fishing with the head of the Kremlin), a "complete antagonist" of Putin and said that the generals of the Ministry of Defence allegedly had "bribery savings" in yuan, while he also criticized China for insufficient support and espionage on the Russian defense industry. "The fact that the Chinese clan was besieged in the Russian political system — seems like the sovereignty course was taken not only about the Western hegemony but also about the Eastern one," the propagandist stated.

Thus, instead of the "Chinese spy" Shoigu, the Ministry of Defense of Russia was headed by "Putin's technocrat" Belousov. Both Russian and Western experts call the new head of the department a supporter of more significant state intervention in the economy, a "Keynesian." According to Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, the appointment of the economist to the head of the Ministry of Defense is due to the need to include "the power bloc’s economy in the country's economy." The propaganda Telegram channel "Rybar" stated that "the appointment of Belousov as the Minister of Defense means the beginning of a large-scale audit and restructuring of all financial models within the framework of the Ministry of Defense." Other Telegram propagandists state, "Now he (Belousov) will start raking Augean stables, which even Hercules would be afraid of." Propagandist Anastasia Kashevarova immediately decided to compare Belousov with the Russian military leader of the 18th century: "But Belousov always reminded me of Suvorov, whose portrait hung in the history class at our school. I'm just thrilled. He is really similar [to Suvorov]." Propaganda also jokes about Belousov's patronymic, Removich, calling him "Rembovich" [from Rembo] (apparently, recognizing the difficulty of clearing the "Augian stables").

"Economic mobilization" and "Kremlin's strategy change"

According to some propagandists, reformatting of the leadership of the Ministry of Defense of Russia means radical changes like hostilities in the future. One of the propagandist Telegram channels, targetting the Ukrainian audience (over 1 million subscribers), stated that "the main thing which has happened in the Kremlin's strategy is change of priorities." Belousov was allegedly appointed to create a complete cycle of defense production in Russia and not to buy components for weapons at inflated prices to circumvent sanctions. "One thing is clear. The Ukrainian crisis will feel these changes only until the end of 2024, and if Belousov does what he was asked to do, the issues in Ukraine’s Armed Forces will increase tenfold," stated the propagandists.

Experts of the American analytical center ISW inform that the appointment of Belousov is a step towards "mobilizing the Russian economy and defense-industrial base to support the protracted war in Ukraine and, possibly, to prepare for a future confrontation with NATO." But when talking about changes in the Russian leadership and the possible "mobilization of the economy", it is worth paying attention to the replaced officials and those who remained in their places. These, in particular, are people directly responsible for the Russian economy and finances, such as Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, head of the National Bank Elvira Nabiulina, and Minister of Finance Anton Siluanov. This long-standing "group of liberals", who managed the "non-mobilized" Russian economy, were reassigned to their positions. Instead, Belousov, a "statesman, state planner, and Keynesian", was appointed Minister of Defense from the post of Deputy Prime Minister, from where he could influence the actual economic decision-making. The Ministry of Defense is an agency that does not distribute budget money but receives it from others.

The financial flows that began to flow through the hands of Shoigu and his team at the beginning of the war attracted other rival clans in the Kremlin. Moreover, in Detector Media’s opinion, Putin was likely personally concerned about the strengthening of the role of the already influential head of the Ministry of Defense, which, after the liquidation of Prigozhin and the Wagner group, took over, among other things, the recruitment of prisoners for assault squads. Perhaps Putin decided that Shoigu had the most resources for a potential mutiny under such conditions. There is, after all, the possibility that the scale of corruption of the ex-minister's team has really become abnormal even for the Putin system.

In any case, the appointment of Belousov and the arrest of the generals are evidence of attempts to bring the army's financial and power resources under firmer control. It is also difficult to deny the statements of ISW experts about the Kremlin's intentions to wage "a protracted war in Ukraine, and possibly to prepare for a confrontation with NATO". However, trusting Russian propagandists when they call the Kremlin's "game of thrones" a preparation for a large-scale "mobilization of the economy" and "finally, the start of a serious war" is at least premature.

Main page illustration credits: Natalia Lobach

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