Shoigu: Who is the Russian defence chief, detested by Wagner?

The general, who was once seen as President Putin’s successor, is accused by the mercenary leader of failing the war effort in Ukraine.

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu
Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu has been the target of continuous, withering criticism from Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin [Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Subutai was one of the most successful generals in history.

Genghis Khan’s supreme commander laid waste to China and Central Asia, led Mongol hordes to Iran and the eastern Mediterranean, and turned Kyiv, one of Eastern Europe’s largest cities, into a smouldering ruin.

In a history textbook published in Tuva, Russia’s mostly Buddhist, Turkic-speaking province that borders northwestern China, Subutai has the face of Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu.

The textbook’s author and other Tuvan intellectuals proclaimed Shoigu no less than a modern-day reincarnation of Subutai.

And when the war in Ukraine started in February 2022, Shoigu apparently wanted to live up to the reputation by reportedly promising Russian President Vladimir Putin to take Kyiv within three days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu meet at the Kremlin in Moscow [File: Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo via AP]

Putin’s successor?

Shoigu’s tenure, improbably long by Russian standards, dates back to 1991, when the former construction manager and minor Communist official became head of the emergencies ministry.

Within years, he turned it into one of Russia’s most effective and popular government agencies as it promptly responded to natural and man-made disasters, including bombings and other attacks.

In 2012, two years before Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Shoigu was appointed defence minister, even though he had never served in the military.

Putin trusted him to conduct reforms that supposedly made Russia’s military “the world’s second most powerful” after the US army, in the words of Kremlin supporters.

The claim was ostensibly proven by the salvation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian campaign to help al-Assad regain most of Syria turned into a showroom for Russia’s advanced weaponry.

The public barely noticed that the actual Russian boots on the ground in Syria were those of the nascent Wagner private army while visually impressive strikes, such as the launch of cruise missiles from a warship in the Caspian Sea, were militarily insignificant.

Shoigu revelled in glory and was often seen in television reports with Putin, conferring, hunting or fishing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu rest during the hunting and fishing trip which took place on August 1-3 in the republic of Tyva in southern Siberia, Russia, in this photo released by the Kremlin on August 5, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu during a hunting and fishing trip in August 2017 [File: Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters]

“He has serious chances [of succeeding Putin], much higher than anyone else for now,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University, told Al Jazeera in 2021.

But two years later, Shoigu’s political career faces a dead end, Mitrokhin says now, because Shoigu played a key role in preparing the faltering war in Ukraine.

“Played and lost. And a general who loses a war loses any political perspective – apart from an attempt to start a riot and seize power by force,” Mitrokhin told Al Jazeera.

The war showed that Russia’s actual military might was nothing but a Potemkin village built on unfounded reports, well-produced videos and multibillion-dollar budgets.

The military swallowed all of these budgets without producing results such as hypersonic missiles that can go to outer space or sophisticated tanks that have never been seen in Ukraine.

It was not entirely Shoigu’s fault.

He simply epitomised the operational logic of Russia’s governing structures and military machine, which are mired in corruption and fake reporting, observers said.

“He didn’t do anything that would contradict the logic of existence and evolution of Russia’s government system as a whole and the logic of development of the armed forces in particular,” Pavel Luzin, a military analyst who fled Russia following official pressure, told Al Jazeera.

A duel with Wagner

A popular meme that went viral on June 24 as the Wagner Group marched towards Moscow was a chart showing the Russian army’s “ratings”:

“2021 – the second-best army in the world

“2022 – the second-best army in Ukraine

“2023 – the second-best army in Russia”

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said he did not want to topple Putin during his mutiny. He wanted the president to hand over Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top general and chief of the general staff.

The Wagner warlord regularly accused them of botching the war effort and causing the death of “tens of thousands” of servicemen with their orders aimed at pleasing Putin but not at winning actual battles.

Wagner for months appeared to be the most effective part of Russia’s war machine in Ukraine – but its takeover of the southeastern city of Bakhmut was widely seen as a Pyrrhic victory.

Wagner group
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group military company, holds a Russian flag as he appears with his fighters in Bakhmut after they had taken most of the eastern Ukrainian city [Prigozhin Press Service/AP]

The very existence of Wagner was proof of how ineffective the regular army was with its demoralised, barely trained soldiers, poor supplies, malfunctioning weaponry and decision-making rooted in World War II stratagems, analysts said.

“The fact that Prigozhin and Wagner were needed was shameful to the ‘invincible and legendary’ [army] and a constant reminder that the defence ministry and the army can’t do without them,” David Gendelman, an independent military analyst, told Al Jazeera.

Moreover, Prigozhin did not just keep a low profile following orders, he said.

“Instead, Prigozhin unashamedly advertised himself and his victories, openly flipped off Shoigu and Gerasimov,” Gendelman said.

Shoigu detested Wagner’s relative success and growing popularity in Russia.

First, Wagner was barred from recruiting prison inmates after tens of thousands of them had been killed during suicidal “meat marches” on Ukrainian positions in Bakhmut and elsewhere.

And then, Shoigu’s ministry started forcing Wagner fighters to sign contracts making them part of the regular army – and reducing Prigozhin’s role.

His aborted rebellion and banishment to Belarus made Shoigu look stronger.

Wagner’s attempt to kick Shoigu out failed, “and his sacking would be an ambiguous political signal”, Gendelman said.

So what next for Shoigu? He may follow the political trajectory of other top officials who were promoted with a demotion, in the Russian political lingo, Mitrokhin said.

One of them, Dmitry Medvedev, who was Russian president from 2008 to 2012 while Putin waited out a constitutional limit on consecutive terms, now serves as deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, a consultative body with limited power.

“Most likely, [Shoigu] will be appointed to a third-rate position such as one more deputy head of the Security Council or chairman of some joint body with Belarus or a presidential envoy,” Mitrokhin said.

“And then, if he survives, he’ll be sent into retirement,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera