But in the 2½ months since the Kremlin launched a war against Ukraine, the facade that Shoigu meticulously presented over the past decade has disintegrated into an ugly reality, laying bare the incompetence and barbarity of one of the world’s biggest militaries.
Shoigu’s future is now on the line. Having retreated from its attack on Kyiv, the Russian military is facing immense pressure to save face and capture a larger swath of Ukraine’s east. Questions persist about how much blame Shoigu should bear for the Russian force’s failures — as opposed to Russia’s military leaders and intelligence chiefs, widely seen to have miscalculated how much Ukrainians would resist.
Russia is gearing up for Victory Day celebrations on Monday, traditionally the biggest annual holiday for the Russian military, amid fears Putin could use the commemoration of the World War II victory over Nazi Germany to announce an intensification of his war against Ukraine.
The ultimate outcome on the battlefield may determine the future of Shoigu, the longest-serving minister in Russia, who regularly squires Putin around his native Siberia and in recent years has arrived at Red Square on Victory Day saluting the troops from a convertible. Can the great survivor of Russian politics, often seen as a possible next Russian president, survive even this?
“I think Putin right now isn’t in the state to look for those responsible within the Russian government,” said Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik. “Of course, there are emotions, and absolutely I think there was some sort of serious negative blowup with Shoigu — though I think not only with Shoigu. But the main thing to understand is that the only one Putin considers responsible for the failure of the military operation is the West.”
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Exactly what role Shoigu played in planning the invasion of Ukraine isn’t clear. U.S. officials have said he was one of the very few people in Putin’s inner circle privy to information about the impending onslaught against Russia’s western neighbor.
A civil engineer by training who lacks a military background, Shoigu almost certainly wouldn’t have taken the lead in crafting the campaign plan — a task that probably fell to his military counterpart, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and the rest of the brass.
“I don’t think that in meetings [Shoigu] really plays much of a subject matter expert or policy leader role. Putin is the decider,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss Pentagon assessments. “And Gerasimov, as the equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chief of the general staff, is the one who directs and runs the military.”
But Shoigu is culpable, military analysts say, for the state of the Russian force.
Reform efforts that began under Shoigu’s predecessor stalled after he took over in 2012. He jettisoned a program to establish an American-style corps of noncommissioned officers that could have instilled professionalism in the lower ranks. Ambitions to expand the number of professional contract military personnel weren’t fully met, while the ministry spent lavishly to procure expensive weaponry. Russia went into the war without a fully ready combat reserve.
The results have been apparent in Ukraine. Russia has faced high casualty rates and had insufficient personnel. Looting and war crimes, as well as poorly maintained equipment, logistics errors and intercepted communications, have spotlighted the unprofessionalism and indiscipline of the force.
After Shoigu took over as defense minister, transparency within the Russian military dissipated into PR-crafted narratives, according to analysts who track the Russian force. The change boosted confidence in the armed forces among Russians, helping Shoigu’s political standing, but reducing valuable scrutiny.
“The thing that sticks out to me is how much control he wants over the narrative of the military,” Rand Corp. senior policy researcher Dara Massicot said. “If you cannot have a transparent conversation about your serviceability rates, about how proficient your soldiers are or about how old some of your field rations are — if you can’t have some of those debates, the battlefield will show you.”
The Russian military that Shoigu and Gerasimov built can generate a certain amount of military strength on short notice but ultimately needs a mobilization to obtain additional manpower to fight a major war, said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA, who remains puzzled why they agreed to launch a full invasion of Ukraine without a mobilization.
“Shoigu built a military that looked good in scripted exercises and proved effective in limited wars, but when thrown into a large conflict, showed that it couldn’t scale operations and revealed the extent of rot in the system,” Kofman said.
An outsider among Russia’s urban elite, Shoigu grew up in southern Siberia in the Tuva Republic, a remote and impoverished region on the border with Mongolia.