Shoigu’s Game

One of the underreported stories of the past years in the Western media was how Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu became one of the most visible, most popular and strongest figures in Russian politics. This is perhaps because Shoigu has been present in the upper echelons of Russian politics since the early 1990s, therefore he is hardly an exciting new face like Maxim Oreshkin, the minister for economic development. However, as the Russian political elite – and Vladimir Putin himself – start to ask questions of themselves about 2024 and Putin’s succession, this old fixture of Russian politics may become very important. Here is why. 

If you have watched or read Russian news lately, chances are that you came across a report of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu doing something. Shoigu speaking in the Russian parliament about the glowing success of the modernisation of the armed forces, thousands of tanks, warplanes and state-of-the-art missiles acquired as well as its plans to expand further. Shoigu showing an exhibit of Syrian war trophies far and wide across the country. Shoigu popping up to open facilities or discuss federal programmes in the Far East. Or in St. Petersburg. Shoigu coming up with the idea that the establishment of a Siberian financial and business capital would solve the woes of the underdeveloped, quickly depopulating Far East. Shoigu calling for price cuts in retail stores for people with military decorations or a cathedral dedicated to the armed forces. Shoigu savouring the adoration of the Young Army Cadets, a “movement” created in 2015 by the Defence Ministry to raise the popularity of the army among young people, and continuously expanded ever since. Shoigu’s son-in-law appointed deputy prosecutor general. Shoigu considered for a promotion to the rank of marshal.

Not that Sergei Shoigu’s presence in the media is anything new. The stern-looking Tuvan, a general despite not being an army man, is a long-time fixture of Russian politics, his career in the higher echelons of power preceding that of Vladimir Putin. In 1994-2012, for eighteen years (and three years before in essentially the same role) Shoigu headed the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the state agency that deals with the aftermath of natural and industrial disasters as well as acts of terrorism. And there were a lot of these in a post-Soviet Russia struggling with a restive Chechnya and decrepit industrial plants. This did not only allow Shoigu to wow Russians with his energetic and decisive presence and his rolled-up sleeves at the scene whenever disaster struck; more importantly, it gave him control over a ministry, which technically had its own intelligence agency and could thus collect and use information on others. Furthermore, Shoigu has a good sense of direction. In 1999 when he was asked to be the de jure leader and the popular public face of a new party, Unity that was created as the electoral vehicle of the recently appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin, Shoigu took the chance. Twenty years later, Unity is still in the government, though renamed United Russia, Putin is president and Shoigu heads the most powerful ministry in the Russian government. And you can buy the framed portraits of both men in gift shops across Russia.

A pillar

The Russian military, for several years belittled as a ramshackle and underfunded institution, full of abuses, propped up only by its nuclear weapons and historical glory, has thrived in the past five years as foreign policy took centre stage in Vladimir Putin’s politics. When Shoigu was appointed minister of defence in 2012 following a brief stint at the helm of the Moscow Region – a position which he dutifully tolerated rather than sought – his main task was to plaster up the ministry’s ongoing modernisation scheme, which was often a source of embarrassment under his predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov. He ended up doing much more than that. When in 2014 Russia decided to jump at the opportunity to benefit from Ukraine’s momentary stupor and annex Crimea, it was Shoigu’s ministry that put together the plan on the fly and ran away with much of the political spoils. It was Shoigu’s ministry that organised and implemented Russia’s campaign in Syria, regarded as a success for a long time before the military got bogged down in the country. It was the Main Directorate of the General Staff (GU), Russia’s military intelligence agency that did or outsourced hit jobs that were deemed too delicate for regular troops. Indeed, it was Shoigu who in 2013 reassigned Russia’s special forces (Spetznaz) back to the GU, a vital element of Russia’s Syrian campaign. This was not the only indication that Shoigu, a civilian who nonetheless loves appearing in an army uniform, understands the changing nature of war. As a minister he supported hacking competitions and promoted the “patriotic education” of the Russian youth through the Young Army Cadets movement, an organisation with a growing presence akin to the Putinist “Nashi” in the 2000s – only with Shoigu in the leader’s seat. Meanwhile, he quietly expanded his network in Russia’s regions too through gubernatorial and other appointments. This had its ups and downs, but the balance is still positive. Oleg Belaventsev, a former presidential plenipotentiary first in Crimea then in the North Caucasus Federal District and a personal friend of Shoigu was replaced in 2018 and Viktor Zimin, a Shoigu ally and a former governor of Khakassia was forced to resign in the same year to avoid an embarrassing defeat, but other Shoigu allies, such as Andrei Vorobyov, governor of the wealthy Moscow Region or Sergey Morozov, the governor of Astrakhan are still in place. Shoigu has also successfully kept conflicts in his own ministry under a tight lid.

Far from being the embarrassment that some commentators suggested it was following last year’s revelations in the press, the GU has become an essential pillar of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. As Mark Galeotti noted last year, Russia’s operating in artificially created war-like conditions almost necessarily meant that the GU had been let off the leash and a few embarrassing failures just mean that the boys are doing their job.  Putin has shown no indication that he would like to rein in on the agency: on the contrary, he has hinted at restoring its previous name, “Main Intelligence Directorate” (GRU), which is what most people still call it.

A transformer

Perhaps most importantly, while Shoigu has been able to align his ascent (and sometimes even his holidays) with Putin’s interests and plans almost perfectly, he has so far avoided taking a tumble when Putin had to. This year, as the president’s approval and trust ratings took a nosedive along with most political institutions, trust in the army according to the independent Levada Center (and visualised here by Bear Market Brief’s Aaron Schwartzbaum) was stronger than at any time in the past two decades, just levelling off after steep ascent since 2013, surpassing trust in the Federal Security Service. Shoigu himself, never shy to bask in the successes of the armed forces, mentioned in March that the proportion of Russians having a negative view of the army had shrunk from 31 percent in 2012 to just 7 percent today. This popular support base, which is strongly tied to Shoigu himself as well as the military may come very handy as Putin’s fourth presidential term reaches the halfway mark and Putin seems unwilling to discard foreign policy posturing as the main theme of his presidency.

But even as an increasing number of Russians are getting tired of foreign policy taking precedence over domestic policies, Shoigu seems to have them covered too. Remember his proposal to establish a financial and business capital in Siberia? It was conveniently announced two weeks after the humiliating electoral defeats of Kremlin-backed candidates in four Far Eastern regions. Remember how his exposé before the State Duma put an emphasis on the army’s housing programme? Or how he, quite differently from Putin in the past couple of years, keeps popping up across the country as the non-embarrassing face of the Russian government?

A jack of what trade?

This is not to say that Shoigu is in the pole position to succeed Vladimir Putin whenever the Russian president announces his withdrawal from the presidency. It is highly questionable even that Putin would consider choosing Shoigu – a trusted advisor and a proven ally but not a friend – as an interim or long-term successor. Shoigu has many other things going against him, including his age – he is only three years younger than Putin – his popularity and his independent standing, which would leave any authoritarian leader contemplating a safe retirement uneasy.

However, Shoigu will almost necessarily have an important role in Putin’s succession if it is orderly and be a force to reckon with if it is not. This is because most importantly of all, he plays a long game and he plays it well. He did so when he accepted the nominal leadership of the Unity party in 1999; he did so when he accepted to be temporarily sidelined in 2012; he did so when last year, instead of “leading troops into Khakassia” to salvage his ally (as some then quipped he would), he understood how important it was for the Kremlin not to suffer an embarrassing electoral defeat and drew up a positive-sounding proposal instead. It remains to be seen whether Shoigu is as good at endgames as he has been in long games; apparently, however, whatever may come his way – an order of new conquests, a position entrusted with keeping order in a changing political system, a request to be a popularity buffer, or even the presidency itself – he is well prepared to take his chances. Keep an eye on him.

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