He’s President Vladimir Putin’s best buddy. They hunt together. They preen together. But long-term Kremlin insider Sergei Shoigu may be the Ukraine war’s “weakest link”.
He had just one job: Make Russia’s military great again.
It didn’t go well.
“The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernise its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus,” tweeted former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev. “But as a military adviser, you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead. Potemkin military.”
Now the lies, propaganda, and political spin of Shoigu have come back to haunt him.
Putin is paranoid.
His trusted inner circle of loyal advisers consists of just five men. And none of them has been there as long as Shoigu.
Few have such power. Few can point to as many successes.
And the 66-year-old appears to be Putin’s closest personal friend. They often holiday together. The two “muzhiks” (machismo Russian men) would release pictures and videos of themselves hiking, joy-riding and shooting in Shoigu’s native Siberia.
Now Putin has embarked on his greatest legacy-building adventure: War.
“It is being led by Shoygu, a man who has so far experienced only successes and who lacks the proper military training to understand that a battlefield victory, no matter how impressive, can sometimes lead to an even larger political defeat,” said Russia analysts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan.
But, with Russia’s invading army on the brink of catastrophe in Ukraine, Shoigu has gone mysteriously quiet.
He hasn’t been seen in public for a fortnight. A subordinate just addressed the nation on the progress of the war.
Now the Kremlin says he’s suffered a “heart attack”.
A Faberge-egg facade
The engineer and well-connected member of Russia’s political elite arrived in Moscow in 1990 – just in time for the Soviet Union to collapse around him.
But Shoigu sensed an opportunity.
He used his political status to create a new job for himself – Emergency Services Cabinet Minister.
“He cultivated an image as a brave and energetic official who frequently visited the sites of natural disasters and terrorist bombings with an elite professional rescue team; he even led some rescue operations himself,” write Soldatov and Borogan in Foreign Affairs.
And the publicity this generated saw Shoigu’s popularity soar.
He became a senior official in Putin’s unexpectedly successful new political party in 1999. Then, in 2012, he was appointed Minister of Defence.
“An engineer by training, Shoigu had never served in the army, and he did not have a reputation among the military hierarchy,” note Soldatov and Borogan. “Nor did his blunt leadership style endear him to the old guard.”
But Shoigu embraced the role.
He promised a hi-tech, innovative military. He created a new cyber command. He raised officer pay. He tightened compulsory conscription laws.
He won fights.
In 2014, his troops seized Crimea even as Putin’s favourite FSB espionage agency failed in Kyiv. Then, in 2015, Shoigu’s forces decisively turned the tide in favour of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
“Over the past year, as Putin began to plan his campaign in Ukraine, it was clear that he was no longer going to look to the FSB for leadership,” observe Soldatov and Borogan.
“Instead, Shoygu (sic) and the newly revamped army would lead the way.”
Price of victory
Shoigu is the longest-serving member of Putin’s kleptocratic tyranny.
It’s a government of thieves. Its ministers double as mob bosses. Power is expressed through murder, beatings, kickbacks, government grants and enormous personal excess.
Shoigu is well placed to benefit from Putin’s poisonous grip on power.
International sanctions strangled Russia’s political elite after Crimea. But Putin used this to bind powerful oligarchs closer to his regime through huge military contracts funded by oil and gas sales.
One-third of the Kremlin’s total budget is spent on projects intended to modernise Russia’s armed forces.
Shoigu takes his cut. But he also must be seen to deliver.
The Defence Minister’s public relations department numbers in the hundreds. They produce slick – and highly unrealistic – promotional videos and events. They censor reports of military mishaps. They hound anyone who appears even mildly critical of the Minister’s work.
Putin, and Shoigu, appear to have believed their own propaganda.
In 2018, the President proudly announced an arsenal of new “superweapons” to the world.
He had a nuclear-powered cruise missile capable of circling the globe. He had an enormous nuclear torpedo capable of creating tsunamis. He had ultra-fast missiles that could dodge any defensive system. He had new submarines, new stealth jets, new robotic tanks …
“No one has listened to us,” Putin pronounced. “You listen to us now.
“I want to tell all those who have … sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country’s development: all what you wanted to impede with your policies have already happened. You have failed to contain Russia.”
But it appears Shoigu may have done plenty of impeding of his own.
Now the Kremlin says Shoigu is busy with “many concerns”. Of course, now is not exactly the time for media activity,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday. “That’s completely understandable.”
The harder they fall
On February 21, Putin effectively declared war by “recognising” the self-proclaimed Russian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent of Ukraine.
It was a televised event.
Putin openly bullied his foreign intelligence chief for fumbling with words. The director of his FSB espionage agency appeared wooden. The Foreign Minister seemed stunned.
Shoigu, however, was confident and eager.
He should have known better.
Jailed Russian lawyer and Opposition leader Alexei Navalny filmed Shoigu’s lavish $19.3m Moscow mansion in 2015. Shoigu’s daughter, Ksenia, runs a construction company regularly awarded suspect state construction contracts.
The money had to come from somewhere.
Now Putin’s ambitions are dying in the mud of Ukraine.
Modern military encrypted radios aren’t working or have been sold on the black market. Precision-guided missiles don’t appear to be all that precise. Armoured tanks are crumpling like tinfoil. Tyres are splitting. Engines are failing.
Moscow’s poorly equipped troops are suffering frostbite. They’re going hungry. And when they get food, the ration pack could be as old as 2015.
Embezzlement. Kickbacks. Corruption.
In Russia, it is all simply how one did business.
Now Putin has begun his purge.
Somebody must pay for this failure. And it can’t be him.
The FSB spy agency’s foreign intelligence branch chief, Sergei Beseda, and his deputy are reportedly in jail. Their crime: failing to provide accurate intelligence of Ukraine’s will and ability to fight.
The deputy chief of Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardia) is under arrest. His crime: failing to succeed in his mission objectives in Ukraine and suffering staggering losses.
Will Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu meet a similar fate?
Russian investigative news agency Meduza say Putin’s oldest crony has not been seen since March 11.
His name has appeared on a few summary lists and official documents. His picture has appeared on the corner of Putin’s teleconference screen. But footage purporting to show him issuing awards to soldiers was quickly identified as being old.
And that’s odd.
Shoigu has never been one to pass up an opportunity for publicity.
And reports of Kremlin claims that he has suffered a “heart attack” have sparked rumours of spiked cups of tea and falling from sixth-floor balconies.
Those who fail Putin have a history of such “accidents”.
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