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Russia’s ultimate political survivor faces a wartime reckoning

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, a fixture of Russian political life since the Soviet Union’s fall, could be on the hook for military failures

In a photo released in April 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu watches drills in Crimea from a military helicopter. (Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP)
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Sergei Shoigu, the consummate survivor of Russian politics, has always had a knack for PR.

The 66-year-old Russian defense minister for years presided over theatrical exercises, rattled off statistics about personnel, and boasted of fearsome new weaponry — all to project the image of a Russian military on the rise under his guidance.

But in the 2½ months since the Kremlin launched a war against Ukraine, the facade that Shoigu meticulously presented over the past decade has disintegrated into an ugly reality, laying bare the incompetence and barbarity of one of the world’s biggest militaries.

Shoigu’s future is now on the line. Having retreated from its attack on Kyiv, the Russian military is facing immense pressure to save face and capture a larger swath of Ukraine’s east. Questions persist about how much blame Shoigu should bear for the Russian force’s failures — as opposed to Russia’s military leaders and intelligence chiefs, widely seen to have miscalculated how much Ukrainians would resist.

“There are reports that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is very disappointed in how Shoigu prepared for this war, how he carried it out,” Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya said.

Russia is gearing up for Victory Day celebrations on Monday, traditionally the biggest annual holiday for the Russian military, amid fears Putin could use the commemoration of the World War II victory over Nazi Germany to announce an intensification of his war against Ukraine.

The ultimate outcome on the battlefield may determine the future of Shoigu, the longest-serving minister in Russia, who regularly squires Putin around his native Siberia and in recent years has arrived at Red Square on Victory Day saluting the troops from a convertible. Can the great survivor of Russian politics, often seen as a possible next Russian president, survive even this?

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“I think Putin right now isn’t in the state to look for those responsible within the Russian government,” said Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik. “Of course, there are emotions, and absolutely I think there was some sort of serious negative blowup with Shoigu — though I think not only with Shoigu. But the main thing to understand is that the only one Putin considers responsible for the failure of the military operation is the West.”

The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Rot in the system

Exactly what role Shoigu played in planning the invasion of Ukraine isn’t clear. U.S. officials have said he was one of very few people in Putin’s inner circle privy to information about the impending onslaught against Russia’s western neighbor.

A civil engineer by training who lacks a military background, Shoigu almost certainly wouldn’t have taken the lead in crafting the campaign plan — a task that probably fell to his military counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and the rest of the brass.

“I don’t think that in meetings [Shoigu] really plays much of a subject matter expert or policy leader role. Putin is the decider,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Pentagon assessments. “And Gerasimov, as the equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief of the general staff, is the one who directs and runs the military.”

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But Shoigu is culpable, military analysts say, for the state of the Russian force.

Reform efforts that began under Shoigu’s predecessor stalled after he took over in 2012. He jettisoned a program to establish an American-style corps of noncommissioned officers that could have instilled professionalism in the lower ranks. Ambitions to expand the number of professional contract military personnel weren’t fully met, while the ministry spent lavishly to procure expensive weaponry. Russia went into the war without a fully ready combat reserve.

The results have been apparent in Ukraine. Russia has faced high casualty rates and had insufficient personnel. Looting and war crimes, as well as poorly maintained equipment, logistics errors and intercepted communications, have spotlighted the unprofessionalism and indiscipline of the force.

After Shoigu took over as defense minister, transparency within the Russian military dissipated into PR-crafted narratives, according to analysts who track the Russian force. The change boosted confidence in the armed forces among Russians, helping Shoigu’s political standing, but reduced valuable scrutiny.

“The thing that sticks out to me is how much control he wants over the narrative of the military,” Rand Corp. senior policy researcher Dara Massicot said. “If you cannot have a transparent conversation about your serviceability rates, about how proficient your soldiers are or about how old some of your field rations are — if you can’t have some of those debates, the battlefield will show you.”

The Russian military that Shoigu and Gerasimov built can generate a certain amount of military strength on short notice but ultimately needs a mobilization to obtain additional manpower to fight a major war, said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA, who remains puzzled why they agreed to launch a full invasion of Ukraine without a mobilization.

“Shoigu built a military that looked good in scripted exercises, and proved effective in limited wars, but when thrown into a large conflict, showed that it couldn’t scale operations and revealed the extent of rot in the system,” Kofman said.

Shirtless in Siberia

An outsider among Russia’s urban elite, Shoigu grew up in southern Siberia in the Tuva Republic, a remote and impoverished region on the border with Mongolia.

His father, an ethnic Tuvan, served as a newspaper editor and secretary of the regional Communist Party committee. His mother, a Russian who grew up in Ukraine, worked as an agriculture official. Shoigu became a civil engineer, devoting much of his early career to projects in Siberia, but later rose through Communist Party posts, moving to Moscow in 1990 for a position with the state construction apparatus.

By then, top Soviet officials, reeling from the nuclear accident in Chernobyl and a devastating earthquake in Armenia, realized the nation needed a professional disaster response agency. What started as the Russian Rescue Corps and became the Emergency Situations Ministry would be Shoigu’s fiefdom for two decades, giving him control of an armed security force of his own after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

With journalists in tow, he appeared at every major fire, plane crash, flood or earthquake for years, building a public persona during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in the 1990s that remains positive for many Russians even today. In polls, he consistently ranks after Putin as one of the country’s most trusted political leaders.

“There wasn’t a person in Russia who didn’t know him,” said Sergei Pugachev, an exiled Russian tycoon once close to Putin, who represented Tuva in Russia’s upper chamber of parliament from 2001 to 2011. “He was always being filmed fighting fires. … He had the image of a hero.”

“In the early ears, when Putin was a young president, he didn’t want to touch him, as [Shoigu] was too hyped up, too visible,” Pugachev continued. “[Putin] discussed it with me. I told him no one would notice if he fired him, but he didn’t want to.”

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At the time, Putin was sweeping aside 1990s-era power players and populating the most influential posts in Russian business and politics with his childhood friends, former KGB comrades and trusted hands from his native St. Petersburg.

Shoigu, an outsider, set about ingratiating himself. He gifted Putin a black Labrador retriever who became the leader’s favorite dog. He guided Putin on trip after trip into the Siberian wilderness, helping the Russian leader engineer the same sort of rugged image Shoigu had crafted for himself.

On those vacations, Putin would pose for photos while hooking fish, riding horses shirtless, swimming the butterfly in a frigid river or gifting his wristwatch to the son of a Tuvan shepherd. Those contributions to Putin’s cult of personality, combined with the macho bonding, helped Shoigu enter the inner circle.

Shoigu’s appointment as defense minister delighted the generals looking to get rid of his reform-minded predecessor who went down in a corruption scandal.

“They got what they wanted,” the senior U.S. defense official said. The situation largely reverted to the old Soviet model, the official said, where the military was more powerful than the ministry staff and all but ran itself.

“So they got to spend a lot of money on high-end equipment,” the senior official added. “But they didn’t spend the time, the money and energy on actually reforming how they were led, how they were educated and how they operated their commands — and you’re seeing it play out now in Ukraine.”

Shoigu’s family also appears to have flourished from his new position at the Defense Ministry. In 2015, now-jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s anticorruption organization exposed a Chinese pagoda-style mansion outside Moscow, the land for which Shoigu’s younger daughter Ksenia had allegedly received at 18 but later transferred to her aunt. A representative for his daughter denied the report at the time.

Now 31, Ksenia Shoigu controls an investment company that has earned millions of dollars in government construction contracts, according to a report last year by Open Media. She has run an extreme obstacle course competition that made use of Russian military equipment and installations and worked on YouthArmy, a “military-patriotic youth organization” funded by the Russian Defense Ministry.

In the months before Putin announced his “special military operation” against Ukraine, Shoigu regularly appeared to set the stage for his boss’s plans. He claimed falsely that U.S. mercenaries were preparing a “provocation using unknown chemical components” in Ukraine’s east. At a Feb. 21 security council meeting, where Putin forced his top advisers to state their positions on Ukraine, Shoigu warned falsely that the Ukrainians were about to mount an offensive in the eastern Donbas region and stoked fears Ukraine could pursue nuclear weapons faster than North Korea or Iran.

Civilians crossed a destroyed bridge where others were killed while trying to evacuate, seen in video posted on March 7 and filmed by Suspilne News. They were escaping Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv that had seen heavy attacks as Russia gained control of the area. (Video: https://t.me/kyivoda/1765)

But soon after the war started and Russian forces began to struggle on the battlefield, Shoigu vanished. The autofill suggestions from search engines Google and Yandex conveyed the intrigue:

“Sergei Shoigu missing.”

“Sergei Shoigu heart attack.”

“Sergei Shoigu coup.”

Putin publicly ordered military prosecutors to look into how Russian army conscripts ended up being sent into Ukraine, fueling expectations of a political bloodletting.

When Shoigu finally surfaced, the Kremlin said the defense minister had simply been busy.

On March 29, Shoigu claimed Russia had achieved the main goals of its initial campaign by degrading Ukraine’s military and now would focus on “liberating” Donbas — in actuality, a retrenchment after embarrassing battlefield failures.

Still, when Shoigu arrived at the Kremlin on April 21 dressed in a black suit identical to Putin’s, he received plaudits from his boss for taking control of Mariupol. Slouching and gripping the table with his right hand, Putin ordered Shoigu to blockade the city’s Azovstal steel plant — a final Ukrainian holdout — rather than storm the facility.

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Stanovaya, the Russian political analyst, said it was clear from the meeting that Putin was treating Shoigu with leniency, which means the Russian leader probably isn’t prepared to punish him publicly.

At some point Putin may look for scapegoats, but only once the war is over, predicted one Russian billionaire familiar with Putin’s behavior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution.

“As for whoever developed this plan to attack from 10 different directions at once, someone will be made responsible for this,” the billionaire said.

Even if Putin were to set his sights on Shoigu, the minister is known for his loyalty.

“If Shoigu has to take the fall for this, he will,” Kofman said. “And he will do it expecting that Putin will protect him, as he has protected others. In that regime, if you are seen to be loyal and you have to take the fall, Putin typically takes care of his people.”

Belton reported from London.

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