There was no sound on the brief video of Sergei Shoigu published on Monday morning or any indication of where Russia’s defence minister was as he pored over a battlefield map.
But the seemingly mundane footage was the first evidence Shoigu was still in his job. Neither he nor Valery Gerasimov, commander of Russia’s invasion force, have been seen in public since Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an extraordinary coup attempt to oust them last Friday.
Though Prigozhin and his Wagner paramilitaries ultimately halted their march on Moscow, with the warlord agreeing to leave Russia, he has left both men increasingly vulnerable in his wake.
The failed revolt has given Putin a stark choice — whether to fire the generals or let them remain in command of his faltering invasion, with both options carrying a significant risk of further blowback both for the war and his regime, analysts say.
“Shoigu and Gerasimov are so bad in their jobs that it’s dangerous to Putin to leave them in place,” said Dara Massicot, a senior political scientist at the US-based Rand Corporation. “But loyalty and stability are number one for Putin. I just don’t see how he’s going to have these terms dictated to him like this.”
For months, Prigozhin has taken aim at Gerasimov and Shoigu, blaming them for Russia’s military shortcomings in Ukraine and portraying them as inept leaders who were sitting comfortably in Moscow as Russian soldiers died on the battlefield.
By Sunday, some Russian military analysts were speculating that Shoigu and Gerasimov could be two additional casualties of the failed coup, after Prigozhin and his fighters travelled half the distance from the Ukrainian border to Moscow, captured a military base and took down several army helicopters — all within a matter of hours.
“Shoigu and Gerasimov are now obvious lame ducks and they will be removed, I think,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defence think-tank. He did not exclude the possibility that the two men’s departure could have been part of the brokered deal that led to Prigozhin standing his men down. The Kremlin has denied this.
The damage to Russia’s prestige has been such that even pro-war commentators on state television and social media admit the coup called the entire war into question.
“This is a serious blow to the authority of the country and the authority of the president,” Karen Shakhnazarov, a Kremlin-linked film director, said on a popular online live-stream show. “There was a feeling here that everything was unshakeable, and that turned out not to be the case.”
Should Shoigu and Gerasimov ultimately be forced out, it would mark a dramatic fall for both men — one a player in the slippery Russian political hierarchy, the other a long-standing military official who became the commander of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The first — Shoigu — is the longest-serving minister in Russia who took over the defence brief in 2012 after previously serving for decades as Russia’s emergency services minister. That job afforded him a public profile to rival Putin’s, with televised appearances arriving by land or by helicopter at every man-made or natural disaster in Russia.
Over the years, he accompanied Putin on holiday trips to Siberia, the two men posing together foraging for mushrooms; sporting sheepskin coats while dining outside in the snowy setting; and spearfishing shirtless in the summer.
In more recent years, scrutiny had grown over the fame and business dealings of Shoigu’s family members, who had become targets of hardline ire for their privileged lifestyle and seeming insulation from the war’s consequences.
Gerasimov, meanwhile, feuded with commanders who disagreed with his brutal tactics in Ukraine, which generals and militia members alike thought sacrificed too many men for too few gains.
Prigozhin’s criticism of Shoigu and Gerasimov — and the Russian military more broadly — has festered for months. In one video message earlier this spring, Prigozhin railed against the backdrop of a Russian graveyard. “You sit in your expensive nightclubs and your kids enjoy life making YouTube videos ... These guys are dying so you can get fat in your wood-panelled offices.”
The reception Wagner’s men got in Rostov shows the popularity of Prigozhin’s tirades against the army leadership.
On Saturday morning, when Prigozhin demanded a face-off with Shoigu and Gerasimov, Vladimir Alekseyev, deputy head of Russian military intelligence, laughed: “Take them!”
When Wagner left the southern city that was the launch pad for the coup, crowds waved, cheered and took selfies with Prigozhin — but booed the security forces who came to replace them.
The main trigger for Prigozhin’s putsch appears to have been Putin’s backing of Shoigu’s move to make Wagner sign contracts with the defence ministry earlier this month.
Though Putin publicly backed Shoigu’s efforts, Prigozhin vehemently refused — conscious of the damage such an arrangement would do to his standing as a powerful warlord who answered only to Putin, according to a source who has known him since the 1990s.
“He understands fully well that if he turns into a zero, then Shoigu would have dealt with him at some point. So he went all out and decided to show Putin that he’s the only real one out there and he needs to be left alone with his money,” the source said. “He got it a bit wrong, and everything went to s**t, as it usually does [in Russia].”
Putin’s biggest mistake, Massicot said, was to give Shoigu his backing without finding an acceptable way for Prigozhin to save face. “When he threw his support behind the defence ministry, it basically put a target on Prigozhin’s back,” she said. “A competent statesman would have reached out to offer Prigozhin an incentive, or something to buy him off. Clearly, that wasn’t done.”
With Prigozhin now in exile, Shoigu’s position could even be strengthened, according to the source close to the warlord — as Putin will see no reason to fire a loyalist. “Shoigu’s the only winner,” they said. “He’ll be the defence minister forever.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023