Russian defense minister’s fleeting reappearance adds to mystery

There would have been little of a note in the two-minute video Russia released on Saturday of Sergei Shoigu discussing procurement – it had not been the first confirmed sighting of Russia’s defense minister in two weeks.

The longest-serving minister in the Russian government, Shoigu has been a near-constant presence on television for the past three decades. His absence at a time of war initially sparked rumors of ill health, denied by the Kremlin.

Moscow says the defense minister is simply busy. Shoigu “has a lot on, there’s a special military operation and it’s not really the time for media activity”, Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.

The mystery surrounding the defense minister, one of Russia’s most popular politicians and long a close ally of Putin, has come as the military that has been revamped during his tenure has run into difficulties in Ukraine as the invasion of the country stalls.

Analysts have been struck by the degree to which Russia’s operations have deviated from its usual battlefield strategy. It appears not to have set up a unified command structure under a single officer, making it difficult to co-ordinate everything from air support to logistics.

“This war does not fit the way that Russian military trains, prepares and is equipped to fight,” said Mark Galeotti, an honorary professor at University College London who studies the country’s armed forces.

“Clearly the initial operation was built on Putin’s bizarre notions about Ukraine that it’s not a real country, not a real people, and therefore the whole edifice will just collapse.”

The military failures and Shoigu’s apparent isolation have led some analysts to suggest that Putin may have planned the war with fellow former KGB officers rather than professional military ones.

In the run-up to the invasion of a senior retired general, Leonid Ivashov, warned in an open letter that an attack would be “pointless and extremely dangerous” and threaten the existence.

“The Kremlin didn’t listen to the military – they listened to it [secret service officers] who said we can do this special operation quickly. We need the military to fire rockets here and here, and the tanks to drive towards Kyiv, and that’s it, ”said Pavel Luzin, a Moscow-based military analyst.

This has added to speculation that Shoigu, historically close to Putin, has been isolated. A native of the remote Siberian province of Tuva, the 66-year-old once took frequent holidays with Putin in the Siberian forest, where the Kremlin released photos of a shirtless president riding, swimming in a mountain river, and drinking tea with his defense minister in matching outfits.

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu on holiday in Siberia in March last year

Shoigu, left, with Vladimir Putin on holiday in Siberia in March last year © Alexey DruzHinin / SPUTNIK / AFP / Getty Images

Shoigu has been one of the loudest proponents of Putin’s marriage of Orthodox Christianity with a cult of Soviet victory in World War II. In 2020, he opened a cathedral for Russia’s armed forces in khaki camouflage that was complete with mosaics and bas-reliefs of key historical battles, floors made of melted-down Nazi weapons and tanks, and a museum displaying “relics” from the war such as a peaked cap said to have been previously owned by Hitler. One mosaic, later removed after an outcry, depicted Putin and Shoigu overseeing the annexation of Crimea.

Shoigu was one of four officials – and the only one without a background in the KGB – who planned the 2014 annexation with Putin. But as the plan for this latest invasion kicked into gear, an increasingly isolated Putin appeared to have grown quite literally more distant from Shoigu, forcing him to sit 20 feet away at the end of a conspiculously long table in the Kremlin.

“He’s a good soldier who does what he’s told – he reliably serves Putin and the motherland,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consulting firm R.Politik, of Shoigu. “But Putin doesn’t have much faith in his professional abilities – they’re not that close.”

Shoigu, second from left, seated far from Putin at a meeting last month © Alexey Nikolsky / SPUTNIK / AFP / Getty Images

Shoigu got his start in politics when he took over the Soviet Union’s emergency services in 1991. His TV appearances at disaster sites created an image of competence and led to his being mentioned as a possible successor to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Instead, he merged a party he headed with two others to create United Russia, the Kremlin’s main political tool.

Though he never served in the army, his popularity and all-action image made him Putin’s choice to take over the defense ministry in 2012. Shoigu became the face of Russia’s efforts to upgrade its military in the wake of the Georgia war in 2008. He overhauled the army’s command and control systems, opening a high-tech three-floor war room where Shoigu and Putin oversaw the deployment of Russian weapons to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

The ground war in Ukraine, however, has exposed the limitations of Russia’s modernized military. As many as 15,000 troops have died in battle and 20 to 60 percent of its precision-guided missiles have failed, western officials have said. Ukraine claims it has killed 15 senior Russian commanders, including seven generals, an indictment of Moscow’s failure to build an effective officer corps.

“The Kremlin is scared of its own officers, so they try to run the war from the command center on Skype,” Luzin said. “The generals can see what’s going on but they have to carry out the orders they get from there and lie to their command that everything’s not so bad. So they get unfulfillable orders, run to the front, direct every tank with their hands, and they get killed. ”

The Financial Times is unable to independently verify the claims made by Ukraine or Russia about casualties. Rough losses appear to be stoking dissent in the ranks. Members of the 37th motor rifle brigade were so angry with their commander that they deliberately ran him over, according to a western official. However, it seems unlikely that Shoigu will be an advocate for the military or push back against Putin, analysts say.

“It’ll be very difficult for people in the entourage to speak out against something that Putin wants and feels clearly really passionate about,” Galeotti said. “Hey [ Shoigu] did not stand up and actually say to Putin, ‘Look, if you want to do this, this is not the way to do it. We need more time to prepare. We need a different kind of strategy. ‘”

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