Vladimir Putin’s invisible commanders are vulnerable despite surviving insurgency

A brief video of Sergei Shoigu released Monday morning showed no sound or any indication of where Russia’s defense minister was as he examined a map of the battlefield.

But the seemingly mundane scenes are the first evidence that Shoigu is still at work. Neither he nor the commander of Russia’s invasion force, Valery Gerasimov, have been seen in public since Yevgeny Prigozhin launched an extraordinary coup attempt to oust them last Friday.

Although Prigozhin and his Wagner paramilitary forces eventually halted their march on Moscow, the warlord agreed to leave Russia, leaving both of them increasingly vulnerable in his wake.

The failed insurgency has given Putin a stark choice — fire the generals or keep them in command of his faltering invasion, both options risking further backlash for both the war and his regime, analysts say.

“Shoiku and Gerasimov are so bad at their jobs that it would be dangerous for Putin to leave them in place,” said Tara Massicot, a senior political scientist at the US-based Rand Corporation. “But loyalty and stability are top priority for Putin. I don’t know how he is going to dictate these terms to him.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin, right, and his fighters seize the military command center in Rostov © Video still via Reuters

For months, Prigozhin targeted Gerasimov and Shoigu, blaming them for Russia’s military shortcomings in Ukraine and portraying them as incompetent leaders who sat comfortably in Moscow while Russian soldiers died on the battlefield.

By Sunday, some Russian military analysts speculated that Shoigu and Gerasimov may have been two additional casualties in the failed coup after Prigozhin and his fighters traveled halfway from the Ukrainian border to Moscow, seized a military base and shot down several military helicopters. All within a few hours.

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“Shoigu and Gerasimov are now obvious lame ducks and they will be removed, I think,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Strategy and Technologies Analysis Center, a Moscow-based defense think-tank. He did not rule out the possibility of the two leaving as part of a brokered deal that led Prigozhin to lay down his men. The Kremlin has denied this.

The damage to Russia’s honor has been such that even pro-war commentators on state television and social media have admitted to the conspiracy, calling the entire war into question.

“This is a serious blow to the power of the country and the power of the president,” said Kremlin-linked film director Karen Shaknazarov in a popular online livestream. “There was a feeling here that everything was immovable, and it turned out not to be.”

If Shoigu and Gerasimov are eventually ousted, it would mark a dramatic fall for both — one a player in the slippery Russian political hierarchy, the other a longtime military officer who became commander of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The first — Shoigu — is Russia’s longest-serving minister, having assumed the defense brief in 2012 after decades as Russia’s minister of emergency services. That job gave him a public profile that rivaled Putin’s for televised appearances by land or helicopter during Russia’s man-made or natural disasters.

Over the years, the two posed together, accompanying Putin on holiday trips to Siberia in search of mushrooms; sporting sheepskin coats while dining outside in the snow; and spearfishing shirtless during the summer.

In more recent years, scrutiny has grown on the fame and business activities of Shoigu’s family members, who have become the target of fierce anger for their privileged lifestyle and seeming isolation from the effects of war.

Vladimir Putin met with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow in April
Vladimir Putin meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow in April © Gavriil Grigorov/ Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

Gerasimov, meanwhile, fought commanders in Ukraine who disagreed with his brutal tactics, generals and militia alike, sacrificing many men for very few gains.

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Prigozhin’s criticism of Shoigu and Gerasimov — and the Russian military more broadly — has been simmering for months. In a video message earlier this spring, Prigozhin struck against the backdrop of a Russian cemetery. “You sit in your expensive nightclubs and your kids enjoy making YouTube videos . . . These men are dying so you can get fat in your wooden offices.

The reception given to Wagner’s men at Rostov shows the popularity of Prigozhin’s atrocities against the military leadership. On Saturday morning, when Prigozhin demanded a face-to-face meeting with Shoigu and Gerasimov, the deputy head of Russian military intelligence, Vladimir Alekseev, laughed: “Take them!”

As Wagner left the southern city that was the launching pad for the coup, crowds waved, cheered and took selfies with Prigogine — but booed the security forces who replaced them.

Putin’s support for Shoigu’s move to sign Wagner contracts with the Defense Ministry earlier this month appears to be the main impetus for Prigozhin’s resignation.

“The problem with Wagner was growing and it was reaching a crisis point [declaration]. Putin could have been warned and did nothing,” Michael Goffman, director of Russia studies at the US security think tank CNA, wrote on Twitter.

Although Putin publicly supported Shoigu’s efforts, Prigozhin vehemently refused — realizing the damage such an arrangement would do to his status as a powerful warlord who answered only to Putin, according to a person who has known him since the 1990s.

“He understands very well that if he becomes zero, Shoigu will have dealt with him at some point. So he decided to go out and show Putin that he is the only one who is real and that he should be left alone with his money,” the person said. “He got it a little bit wrong. , as usual everything went to shit [in Russia].”

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Massicot said Putin’s biggest mistake was supporting Shoigu without finding an acceptable way to save his face.

“When he threw his support behind the Ministry of Defense, it basically put a target on Prigozhin’s back,” he said. “A competent politician would have offered to give Prigozhin an incentive or something. Clearly, that was not done.

With Prigogine now in exile, Shoigu’s position could be strengthened, according to a person who knows the warlord — and Putin will see no reason to fire a loyalist.

“Shouiku is the winner,” said the man. He will be the defense minister forever.

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