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Who is Sergei Shoigu? Military commander at centre of Russia Wagner crisis

Defence minister shown speaking to troops and making helicopter visit

William Mata
Monday 26 June 2023 15:52 BST
Russia's defence minister visits troops for first time since coup attempt

Sergei Shoigu has visited troops and appeared on television for the first time since the Wagner group stood down their mutinous challenge against Vladimir Putin but his whereabouts remains unclear.

The Russian defence minister was shown flying in a helicopter with a colleague at an unknown location in a state media-released video, in an apparent attempt to show the Russian president’s regime was untouched by Saturday’s attempted coup.

The video appeared to show Mr Shoigu taking a briefing in what appears to be part of an effort to re-establish his prominence following Saturday’s charge against him by the Wagner group, which was aborted at the 11th hour.

During the mutiny, the Wagner group seized control of Russia's military headquarters in southern Russia and renegade boss Yevgeny Prigozhin demanded that Mr Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, be handed over to him so that he could "restore justice”.

Mr Prigozhin accused both men of gross incompetence and corruption and had long been agitating for their removal. Mr Gerasimov has not been seen since in public, and there was no word from the Kremlin about any new personnel changes when it described the deal which had ended the mutiny.

Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin said during a televised government meeting that the country had faced “a challenge to its stability”.

“We need to act together, as one team, and maintain the unity of all forces, rallying around the president,” he said.

Russia's national anti-terrorism committee said the situation in the country was stable and Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin said he was cancelling a counter-terrorism regime imposed in the capital.

But the events of Saturday proved that the situation is far from merry among Russia’s top brass. This is the long-running backstory behind the calamitous 24 hours.

Sergei Shoigu was filmed inside his helicopter (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

Who is Sergei Shoigu?

The 68-year-old is a career politician and long-time ally of Vladimir Putin having served in governments under him. He was appointed minister of defence in 2012 and has held the role ever since despite never having served in uniform.

Another distinction is that Mr Shoigu does not hail from Mr Putin’s own St Petersburg but Chadan, a small town hundreds of kilometres away east of Moscow at the Mongolia border.

Shoigu, Putin and Valery Gerasimov (Sputnik)

What is Sergei Shoigu’s relationship with Vladimir Putin?

Mr Shoigu has long been seen not just as a political ally of president Mr Putin but one of the Kremlin chief's few friends within the Russian elite.

The pair have sun-bathed bare-chested together in remote Siberia, shared fishing holidays and played on the same ice hockey team, AFP reports.

Since taking the role, Mr Shoigu has helped shape the Russian strategy in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Syria, and is said to be one of the key figures in plotting the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

For his time in charge of the defence operations, he has been assisted by his ally Valery Gerasimov, an experienced army chief who saw action in the Chechnya rebellion in the 1990s.

However, the Putin bromance and Mr Shoigu's decades-long political career now face their biggest test following the revolt led by Wagner mercenary group chief Mr Prigozhin, who has repeatedly lambasted the defence minister's handling of the invasion of Ukraine.


What’s Yevgeny Prigozhin problem with Sergei Shoigu?

Mr Prigozhin is also a long-time ally of Mr Putin. The former criminal, known as Putin’s chef, was able to build up wealth through his catering business ventures in the 1990s thanks to the aid of his friend and formed the Wagner mercenary group in 2014.

The Wagner group was formed of former Russian special forces members and helped assist Mr Putin’s foreign policy aims by commanding an influence in both Syria and Mali. The deniable nature of the group proved useful to Mr Putin throughout the 2010s and it was able to exist simultaneously with the main army.

However, Mr Prigozhin has reportedly maintained a grudge against Mr Shoigu for years after viewing him as a potential rival for the president’s affections and influence. He was quick to call out any laze or incompetence he saw within the Kremlin’s inner ranks and Mr Shoigu, in turn, reportedly resented the Wagner group for encouraging his troops to leave the army for the greater wages on offer with the mercenaries.

Putin breaks silence on Wagner mutiny with bland statement on young engineers

Tensions mounted further during the Ukraine war. Mr Prigozhin blamed his rival for "constantly trying to steal [credit for] Wagner's victory,” but the divide and rule nature of Mr Putin’s regime saw the Russian president take no action to calm the growing animosity.

This nonchalant tactic of Mr Putin allowed Mr Prigozhin to increase the intensity of his broadcasted aggression towards Mr Shoigu. “Shoigu! Gerasimov! Where is the ... ammunition?” he shouted in one profanity-filled video.

AFP said that Mr Shoigu has been reduced to mumbling encounters reporting to Mr Putin or simply consigned to a video screen as the Kremlin chief oversees a video conference. Mr Prigozhin has also taken aim at Mr Shoigu's family, in particular the husband of his daughter Ksenia, Alexei Stolyarov, a fitness blogger who has steered well clear of the war and has been accused by opposition media of liking a post opposing the invasion.

Then on June 10, efforts were made to give state authenticity to Wagner troops for the first time with contracts drawn up with the ministry of defence providing legal status. The move could have been seen to be an effort against Mr Progozhin’s own influence on the group which inflamed the situation further.

Mr Progozhin spoke out on Friday in an address that preceded the mutiny. "The ministry of defence is trying to deceive the public, deceive the president,” he said.

Things came to a climax on Saturday with Wagner troops capturing military bases in Rostov and then driving towards Moscow with apparent intent to take the capital too.

It was called off just hours after it began in an extradordinary U-turn following a deal brokered by Russian’s close ally Belarus.

Mr Shoigu remains at the helm, for now (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

What will happen to Mr Shoigu now?

The Belarus-brokered deal saw criminal charges against the mutineers dropped in exchange for their return to camps, in a humiliating climbdown for Mr Putin who earlier promised revenge on those responsible. Mr Prigozhin will also be moved to Belarus but his current whereabouts are unknown.

However, it is expected that more was said about concessions being granted to the Wagner leader in return for his backing down. This could involve Mr Shoigu and Mr Gerasimov but as to how the two could be implicated remains unclear.

The video of Mr Shoigu vsiiting troops on Monday is a sign of resoluteness against his detractors. But all is not well between him and his, perhaps former, friend Mr Putin.

"The big winner of the night was Lukashenko," said Arnaud Dubien, director of the Franco-Russian Observatory think tank. "The big loser was Shoigu."

Even before the revolt broke out on Friday night, Mr Shoigu had been under immense pressure due to Mr Prigozhin's attacks and the failure of the Russian Armed Forces to make progress. On June 12, a video was widely shared of Mr Putin and Mr Shoigu attending a handing out of medals at a military hospital, where the Russian president was shown turning his back on the defence minister in apparent disdain.

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