Putin’s inner circle is crumbling: Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu the target of Prigozhin’s Wagner group rebellion

In a dramatic turn of events, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner mercenary group and former caterer to Vladimir Putin, launched a march on Moscow demanding the resignation of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin, who denies plotting to overthrow the government, blames the duo for Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine and accuses them of deceiving Putin and the Russian people. While Shoigu enjoys a long-standing bond of loyalty with Putin, his popularity is waning among military circles due to military losses and missteps. The outcome of this power struggle within Putin’s inner circle remains uncertain.

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The Putin Loyalist Who Was the Target of Wagner’s Revolt

By Bloomberg News

As Vladimir Putin’s former caterer marched on Moscow Saturday, his declared goal was the resignation of the men in charge of Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine — Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and armed forces chief Valery Gerasimov.

Days after his uprising unraveled, Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is still determined to push them out even as he has denied plotting to overthrow the government.

Shoigu, however, is no ordinary minister. He has bonded with Putin over decades in government, accompanying him on highly publicised hunting and horse-riding trips in the Siberian wilderness in a sign of his privileged position in the inner circle.

“Putin values loyalty and will not let ‘his’ people down,” said Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Replacing Shoigu or Gerasimov after this weekend’s events would be seen as giving in to Prigozhin’s pressure.”

While he’s the target of the Wagner founder’s fury over military losses and missteps since the invasion of Ukraine began, Shoigu was for years one of Russia’s most popular politicians — even before Putin, a former middle-ranking KGB agent, emerged from obscurity to become prime minister in 1999 and president the following year. 

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A career civil servant from the poor, distant and wildly beautiful Republic of Tuva, Shoigu created the Ministry for Emergencies and Civil Defence under Russia’s first post-communist president, Boris Yeltsin. Amid the tumult of the 1990s, his ministry’s work rescuing people from forest fires and other disasters earned him a positive image unusual for politicians of the time. 

Shoigu cut an unthreatening figure politically for Putin and, together with his popularity, that made him a natural choice to co-lead the United Russia party that was created in 2001 to provide support in parliament for Russia’s new leader. 

Shoigu showed a fondness for army-style regalia during more than 20 years at the Emergencies Ministry, putting his rescue teams in uniform and giving them military ranks. Though the former construction engineer had no military background, he was a lieutenant thanks to passing a mandatory course at university. Yeltsin promoted him to general.

So it was no surprise when Putin named Shoigu as his defence minister in 2012 at the start of his third term in the Kremlin. That made Shoigu a permanent member of the Security Council, cementing his place in Putin’s inner circle even as its numbers shrank amid rising tensions with the US and Europe, and as the president became increasingly isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

In a system where loyalty is valued over competence or policy, it’s Shoigu’s trustworthiness that lies at the core of Putin’s unwillingness to fire him.

Holidays the two men took together in Shoigu’s native Tuva became key elements in building up Putin’s macho all-action image at home and abroad. TV reports showed him hiking and boating with Shoigu by his side while photos of a bare-chested president riding and fishing in Tuva went round the world and became popular internet memes.

In 2008, they went hunting in Russia’s Far East Amur region where state TV was on hand to capture Putin shooting a tiger with a tranquiliser gun. The reporter breathlessly reported that his swift action had saved the film crew from a mauling. When they went rafting in the Tuvan wilds in 2017, Putin was shown in a wetsuit spear-fishing in a chilly Siberian lake.   

Read more: Russian war games: Putin wounded by Prigozhin’s failed rebellion – Professor Abel Esterhuyse

Within the military, though, Shoigu was less popular, accused of focusing more on his public image than the needs of the armed forces. His first deputy minister, Gerasimov, became a target, too, especially after Putin put him in overall command of the invasion force in Ukraine in January this year.

The career military officer was made Chief of the General Staff days after Shoigu became defence minister. He was regarded as an important military thinker in some Western circles after he wrote a 2013 article in Russia on hybrid warfare that became known as the Gerasimov doctrine.   

He oversaw some of Putin’s boldest strategic actions, including the 2014 seizure of Crimea and Russia’s military intervention in Syria the following year in support of President Bashar Al-Assad.

But Gerasimov’s reputation has taken a hammering in Ukraine as Russian forces suffered humiliating retreats and huge battlefield losses. A war that was meant to last days is now in its 17th month. Russian troops were unprepared for the strength of Ukrainian resistance and many complained they weren’t told about the invasion until the last moment after being misled into thinking they were going on training exercises.

Both Shoigu and Gerasimov have faced fierce criticism from Russian nationalists and from military bloggers who relayed details of shortcomings in tactics and equipment from the battlefield to millions of social media followers. 

Read more: Vladimir Putin accuses Wagner Group leaders of betraying Russia

Prigozhin was among the loudest critics, hurling expletives at the two men in videos posted from the front line in Ukraine as he complained that the Defence Ministry was starving his forces of weapons and ammunition. The ministry denied the claims.

Frictions increased further when Shoigu set a July 1 deadline for all volunteer units to sign a formal contract with the Defence Ministry — an order Prigozhin bluntly rejected but which Putin backed.

Tensions finally erupted when Prigozhin accused Shoigu on Friday of overseeing an operation to “destroy” Wagner. He vowed to lead his forces to Moscow to “punish” the Defence Ministry’s leaders after accusing them of a missile attack on a Wagner base and the loss of “tens of thousands” of Russian troops in the war. The ministry denied his claims about a strike.

Before beginning his mutiny, Prigozhin posted another video accusing Shoigu and defence chiefs of “deceiving” Putin and Russians about the war, saying Ukraine had posed no threat before the February 2022 invasion. 

Instead, he claimed, the war started “so that Shoigu could become a Marshal.”  

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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