Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu sunbathed together in distant Siberia, participated in fishing trips and played on the same ice hockey team.
• Also read: Wagner’s forces are gradually retreating
The Russian defense minister has long been seen not only as a political ally of the president, but also as one of his few friends within the Russian elite.
However, their relationship and Shoigu’s long political career now faces a major challenge after the revolution led by the leader of the Wagner paramilitary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Putin ended the rebellion after surprising mediation led by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. But Shoigu’s position, which for the time being had disappeared from public view, had become especially precarious.
Prigogine succeeded in capturing the headquarters of the Russian Army’s Southern Command in Rostov-on-Don, the nerve center of the invasion of Ukraine. He also accused Shoigu of running away “like a coward” and swore that he would “be arrested.”
The insufferable Wagner chief had earlier accused Shoigu and the Russian Army’s chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, of being responsible for the deaths of “tens of thousands of Russians” in Ukraine and of “ceding territory to the enemy”.
“The big winner of the evening is Lukashenko and the biggest loser is Chugo,” sums up Arnaud Dupin, director of the French-Russian Observatory.
Even before the rebellion broke out on Friday night, Shoigu had suffered countless attacks from Prigozhin and bore the brunt of the inability of Russian forces to advance into Ukraine, 16 months after the invasion began.
On June 12, a video of Putin and Shoigu attending a medal presentation at a military hospital showed the Russian president turning his back on him in apparent disdain. A harsh disgrace to those who lived an unparalleled long life in post-Soviet Russia, and whose presence in the heart of power in Moscow predates Putin’s.
A native of the Tuva region of southern Siberia, he is one of the very few non-ethnic Russians to hold high-level government office after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
His rise began in 1994 as Minister of Emergency Situations in the early years of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. He becomes a familiar presence for Russians and one of the country’s most popular politicians, running around the country dealing with plane crashes and earthquakes.
He served under twelve prime ministers, holding this position until 2012, before he was appointed governor of the Moscow region, and then minister of defense that same year.
He was then named a general despite his lack of high-level military experience. And he successfully oversees complex operations, including Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, which keeps Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad in power.
On his 65th birthday, Putin presented him with one of Russia’s highest decorations, the medal “For Merit to the Fatherland,” which complements an already full box of medals.
But the disastrous invasion of Ukraine — which the Kremlin had hoped would seize Kiev within weeks — raised many questions.
“Prigozhin wanted to send a message that Chugu and Gerasimov should be fired because they are incompetent and that a change of strategy is necessary,” Pierre Razeau, academic director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (FMES), explains to AFP.
There is no longer any sign of masculine friendship between him and Putin, nor images like those that emerged in 2017 of the two shirtless men bathing near a river in the Siberian taiga. Shoigu turns to mumbling reports during his meetings with the Kremlin chief, when he’s not going into a corner while Putin oversees a videoconference.
Russian-speaking Telegram channels even speculated about his possible successor, citing Tula region governor Alexei Dyumin, who held high positions in the military and presidential security, as the favorite.
“The Shoigu group is about to collapse, and Sergei Shoigu himself, in disgrace, is likely to resign,” says Preemnik, her privately followed Telegram channel.
“Evil thinker. Music scholar. Hipster-friendly communicator. Bacon geek. Amateur internet enthusiast. Introvert.”