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.