There was no sound in Sergei Shoigu’s short video posted Monday morning or any indication of the whereabouts of the Russian defense minister as he studied a map of the battlefield.
But the seemingly mundane footage was the first evidence that Shoigu was still on the job. Neither he nor Valery Gerasimov, the commander of the Russian invasion force, have been seen in public since Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an extraordinary coup attempt to oust them last Friday.
Although Prigozhin and his paramilitaries eventually halted their march towards Moscow, with the warlord agreeing to leave Russia, it left the two men increasingly vulnerable in his wake.
Analysts say the failure of the insurgency has given Putin a stark choice — either sack the generals or let them remain in command of his faltering invasion, both options carrying a significant risk of further backlash for both the war and his regime.
“Shoigu and Gerasimov are so bad at their jobs that it’s dangerous for Putin to leave them where they are,” said Dara Massikot, senior political analyst at the US-based Rand Corporation. But loyalty and stability are number one for Putin. I just don’t see how these terms will be dictated to him like that.
For months, Prigozhin targeted Gerasimov and Shoigu, blaming them for Russia’s military shortcomings in Ukraine and portraying them as incompetent leaders who would sit comfortably in Moscow while Russian soldiers died on the battlefield.
By Sunday, some Russian military analysts predicted that Shoigu and Gerasimov would be additional victims of the failed coup attempt, after Prigozhin and his fighters had driven halfway from the Ukrainian border to Moscow, captured a military base and shot down several military helicopters — all in a matter of hours.
“Shoigu and Gerasimov are now clearly lame ducks who will be removed, I think,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defense think tank. He did not rule out the possibility that the two men’s departures were part of a brokered deal that led to Prigozhin’s suspension of his men. The Kremlin has denied this.
So great was the damage to Russia’s prestige that pro-war commentators on state television and social media admitted that the coup’s characterization of the entire war was called into question.
“This is a serious blow to the country’s authority and the president’s authority,” Karen Shahnazarov, a Kremlin-linked filmmaker, said in a live online presentation. “There was a feeling here that everything was unshakable, and it turned out that this was not the case.”
If Shoigu and Gerasimov are eventually forced out, it will be a dramatic downfall for both men — one a player in Russia’s slippery political hierarchy, the other a long-term military official who became the leader of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine.
The first – Shoigu – is Russia’s longest-serving minister who took over as defense minister in 2012 after previously serving for decades as Russia’s minister of emergency services. That job gave him a public image of a rival to Putin, with televised appearances arriving by road or helicopter at every man-made or natural disaster in Russia.
Over the years, he’s accompanied Putin on holiday trips to Siberia, where the two men gathered together foraging for mushrooms. sport sheepskin coats while dining out in a snowy environment; And spearfishing shirtless in the summer.
In recent years, scrutiny has increased over the fame and business dealings of members of the Shoigu family, who have become targets of puritanical wrath for their privileged lifestyle and seeming insufficiency from the consequences of the war.
Meanwhile, Gerasimov feuded with commanders who disagreed with his brutal tactics in Ukraine, which generals and militia members alike believed had sacrificed too many men for too little gain.
Prigozhin’s criticism of Shoigu and Gerasimov – and the Russian military more broadly – has been simmering for months. In a video message from earlier this spring, Prigozhin lashed out over a Russian cemetery. “You sit in expensive nightclubs and your kids enjoy making YouTube videos . . . these guys are dying to fat in your wood-paneled offices.”
The reception that Wagner’s men received in Rostov shows how popular Prigozhin’s speeches against the army command were. On Saturday morning, when Prigozhin demanded a showdown with Shoigu and Gerasimov, Vladimir Alekseev, deputy chief of GRU, laughed: “Take them!”
As Wagner left the southern city that was a staging post for the coup, crowds waved, cheered and took selfies with Prigozhin – but booed the security forces who had come to replace him.
The main impetus for Prigozhin’s coup appears to have been Putin’s support for Shoigu’s move to get Wagner to sign contracts with the Defense Ministry earlier this month.
“The Wagner problem was growing, and it may have reached crisis point yet [declaration]. “It is possible that Putin warned and did nothing,” Michael Kaufman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a US defense think tank, wrote on Twitter.
Although Putin publicly supported Shoigu’s efforts, Prigozhin adamantly refused—aware of the damage such an arrangement would do to his status as a powerful warlord who responded only to Putin, according to a person he’s known since the 1990s.
“He understands perfectly well that if he had turned into zero, then Shoigu would have dealt with him at some point. So he did his best and decided to show Putin that he was the only real person there and that he should be left alone with his money. “He screwed up a little bit, and everything worked out, as usual [in Russia]. “
Massikot said that Putin’s biggest mistake was to give Shoigu his support without finding an acceptable way for Prigozhin to save face.
“When he threw his support behind the Ministry of Defense, he put a target on Prigozhin’s back,” she said. “A competent statesman would have reached out to offer Prigozhin an incentive, or something to buy him out. That was clearly not done.”
With Prigozhin now in exile, Shoigu’s position could be strengthened, according to the person who knows the warlord — as Putin would see no reason to sack a loyalist.
“Shoigu is the only winner,” said the person. He will be defense minister forever.
“Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst.”