The puzzle of Sergey Shoygu

Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu has had a long and stable career at the top of Russia’s politics. As the country lumbers toward an inevitable regime transformation, some see him as a potential successor to Vladimir Putin.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu
We still have an incomplete picture of how Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, Russia’s “rescuer-in-chief,” rose to prominence. But he will certainly be a crucial player in the upcoming tussle for power in the Kremlin. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Sergey Shoygu has long headed armed organizations
  • He enjoys the trust of Vladimir Putin and the public
  • He may oversee the next transfer of power in Russia

Since the start of the Ukrainian conflict and the military operation in Syria, the world has seen General Sergey Shoygu as one of Russia’s most important senior officials – the face of the new, improved and feistier Russian army. Serving as the country’s defense minister since 2012, he has regularly used bellicose statements to reinforce this image.

In reality, he is a much more complex and ambivalent character. As the Russian regime gets closer to its inevitable transformation, General Shoygu could begin appearing in other – potentially unexpected – roles. That is reason enough to have a closer look at his rise to power.

The image that results will, however, be incomplete. Some of the episodes described below still remain clouded in mystery. As we put together the puzzle of his story, we will be left with gaps where the missing pieces should go. Still, it will give us a good indication as to what the full picture looks like.

30 years of power

Sergey Shoygu has operated in the highest echelons of Russian politics for over 30 years – he first became a government minister back in 1991. His combined influence and longevity make him one of a kind. The three longtime leaders of Russia’s “old” political parties – Gennady Zyuganov (the Communist Party), Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the Liberal Democratic Party) and Grigory Yavlinsky (Yabloko) – have also been active for decades, but they have never held any real power.

Before assuming office, Gen. Shoygu had never donned the military fatigues that suit him so well today.

Since becoming defense minister, Gen. Shoygu has adopted the image of valiant soldier with remarkable ease. The army readily accepted him, unlike his civilian predecessor, Anatoly Serdyukov, who irritated many military professionals.

In fact, before assuming office, Gen. Shoygu had never donned the military fatigues that suit him so well today. Like most graduates of Soviet universities, Mr. Shoygu received the purely formal rank of reserve lieutenant in 1977. But whether his career has been entirely “civilian” is a complicated question. To find the answer, we have to go back to the very beginning.

Meteoric rise

Sergey Shoygu was born in 1955 in the remote Tuvan Autonomous Oblast (now the Tyva Republic), which borders Mongolia. He was educated as a civil engineer and worked as such not far from his home, in Siberia. For a brief time, he occupied low-level positions within the Communist Party, since Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika called for “party cadre renewal.” The first sharp turn happened in 1990, when Mr. Shoygu went to Moscow and immediately became deputy president of the State Committee for Architecture and Construction.

That achievement is easy enough to explain. Since his father was one of Tyva’s major party bosses, Sergey Shoygu knew many important people. From 1987 to 1989 Boris Yeltsin held a similar position in the construction committee. He was also a civil engineer by education and a party leader who rose up the ranks under perestroika. Though he had fallen from grace, he soon returned to the national stage, revitalized. Either through his father, local party bosses or the civil engineering milieu, Mr. Shoygu and the future President Yeltsin got to know each other. Their mutual trust blossomed.

An EMERCOM helicopter in Moscow
An EMERCOM helicopter during a demonstration exercise by firefighters in Moscow. General Shoygu led the Emergency Situations Ministry for 21 years, during which it was equipped with military-grade weapons and vehicles. © Getty Images

The next sharp turn is more noteworthy. In 1991, Mr. Shoygu became the head of the Russian Rescue Corps, which, after a series of reorganizations and name changes, became today’s Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters, internationally abbreviated as EMERCOM.

He headed the organization until 2012, and during his tenure, it played a critical role. Soviet infrastructure was so degraded that a wave of industrial accidents and natural disasters was wreaking havoc. EMERCOM has done a lot to tackle the problem. In the aftermath of the worst disasters, Mr. Shoygu was always sure to be seen managing the recovery efforts.

However, EMERCOM’s structure is peculiar in that it is heavily militarized, which prompts many questions. Why does it count over a hundred generals among its staff? Why do its facilities serve as bases for thousands of soldiers? Why does it use so many dual-purpose armored vehicles and hold significant arsenals of small arms and assault weapons?

Finally, why did Gen. Shoygu rocket up the military’s ranks so suddenly? In 1993 he was promoted from lieutenant to major general, and in 2003 he was made General of the Army – the only higher rank is Marshal of Russia, which no one has held for a long time.

The official answer to these questions is simple: just in case. An emergency might arise that requires isolating and cordoning off whole districts, protecting granaries and fuel resources, repelling marauders or other threats. In such an emergency, a militarized service with a high-ranking official at its head could come in handy. Many experts, however, hold a different view.

Second army

In the early 1990s, Boris Yeltsin could not rely on the standing army, which was essentially the old Soviet Army. The military was deeply frustrated by the ignominious Cold War defeat, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the catastrophic fall of its symbolic and financial value. It is quite possible, then, that President Yeltsin was proactive enough to create a trusted, alternate army – a personal guard that would be able to intervene in case of a political “emergency.”

The practice is common even among leaders today. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan turned the regular police into a kind of second army, which helped him suppress the July 2016 military coup in a matter of hours.

EMERCOM and Gen. Shoygu have been involved in difficult political situations. On the night of October 3-4, 1993, armed supporters of the Supreme Council had successfully stormed the national television center and some government offices, spreading out across the paralyzed city, whose police had somehow vanished.

General Shoygu was never allowed to be in control of both ‘armies’ at the same time.

There was sporadic gunfire. President Yeltsin’s unarmed supporters were gathering near Moscow’s city hall. I was there, and I remember that it did not resemble a public rally at all – there were no fiery speeches. We came to get armed, and waited somberly for that to happen. Much later, it was revealed that there were indeed weapons ready and waiting. There were two trucks in the city hall’s courtyard with 1,000 Kalashnikov rifles and plenty of ammunition.

Answering the call of Russia’s reformers, Gen. Shoygu sent those firearms from EMERCOM’s reserves. Thank God Yeltsin’s supporters never received the weapons – otherwise, a major bloodbath would have ensued. It seems, however, that the prospect of this development made the regular army more receptive to the president’s pleading (they were far beyond taking direct orders). It suppressed the mutiny within its ranks, averting a full-blown civil war.

When Gen. Shoygu left EMERCOM in 2012, his deputy, Vladimir Puchkov, took over. The two men had a strained relationship, and the transition was rocky. Gen. Shoygu often criticized his successor’s decisions. After Mr. Puchkov’s retirement, President Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguard Evgeny Zinichev headed EMERCOM. The important point here is that Sergey Shoygu was never allowed to be in control of both “armies” at the same time.

On September 8, Minister Zinichev died suddenly during drills in the Arctic, apparently while attempting to save someone’s life, according to the official report. His deputy, Gen. Aleksandr Chupriyan – an old Shoygu associate – was named interim head of EMERCOM. How this will affect the balance of power among the already nervous Russian elites remains to be seen.

Political animal

We can conclude that Mr. Shoygu is a real general, but not a typical one. Instead, he is a political general – and he does not adhere to the idea that the military must stay out of politics. A few more details shed light on this aspect of the puzzle.

Recently, against the background of the events in Afghanistan, photos of a young, smiling Mr. Shoygu, surrounded by armed Afghans, attracted significant media attention. The photos were real, but not recent. “That’s Kabul 30 years ago,” Gen. Shoygu pointed out. “That is the Mujahideen next to me [there was no Taliban back then]. We had not left yet, but they had already arrived.”

It turns out that in 1992, Gen. Shoygu was trying to evacuate Afghanistan’s then-President Mohammad Najibullah on an EMERCOM plane. However, he was 20-30 minutes late, and was unable to complete the mission. President Najibullah took refuge in the United Nations compound, where he was captured and murdered by Taliban soldiers four years later.

Vladimir Putin talks with Sergey Shoygu
General Shoygu (R) has gained the trust of President Vladimir Putin. The two are reportedly quite close. © Getty Images

Apart from his work at the federal level, Gen. Shoygu also has some limited but unusual experience in regional matters. In the spring of 2012, after his unexpected removal from EMERCOM, President Putin – equally unexpectedly – appointed him governor of Moscow Oblast (not the capital city itself, but its surrounding region). There was little time to analyze the politics of this move. By November, Gen. Shoygu had already become defense minister.

Experts and other sources report that Vladimir Putin fully trusts Gen. Shoygu, who can reach out to the president at any time. In recent years, President Putin frequently even spends short vacations with him. Meanwhile, the defense minister does not have obvious opponents within among the top rungs of the Russian elite – among neither the siloviki (high-ranking security and military officials) nor the so-called “liberals.” Even the opposition tends to leave him alone – with the exception of Alexey Navalny, who dedicated one of his investigations to his luxury estate.

For the past 30 years, Gen. Shoygu has invariably been one of the top five Russian politicians that citizens trust most. His disapproval rating is very low, and he is widely recognized. All of this is connected to his image as principal rescuer – almost a savior-type figure – and he has managed to keep that image intact as defense minister. Even the Covid-19 pandemic has seemed to benefit him. The Ministry of Defense has been actively involved in rolling out testing and vaccines. It deployed 16 mobile hospitals in the worst-hit regions and has sent out numerous “landing parties” of military doctors where they were needed.

He is also no stranger to party politics. In 1999 he was one of the main public faces of the Yedinstvo (Unity) electoral block, the catch-all party hastily created by the Kremlin to prevent the ascent of a coalition of anti-Yeltsin elites. Yedinstvo’s biggest success was that it paved the way for Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin. In the wake of President Putin’s triumph, the elites fell into line. In 2001 Yedinstvo and the anti-Yeltsin coalition were combined into today’s United Russia party. A curious detail was that Gen. Shoygu was the only delegate at the unification congress who voted against the merge. “I knew and realized that it was a necessary decision to make, but I wanted my vote to reflect my feelings,” he explained. Such blatant autonomy is a rare thing in politics.

General Shoygu was active in the electoral campaign and took a bolder stance than many other well-known politicians.

This year, Gen. Shoygu’s name was among those at the top of the United Russia candidate list (unlike that of party chairman Dmitry Medvedev). He was active in the electoral campaign and took a bolder stance than many other well-known politicians. He chatted with students, proposed moving Russia’s capital to Siberia and helped launch the new Trans-Siberian railroad, among other things. Some even remarked that it looked like a presidential, rather than parliamentary, campaign.

It is a popular talking point in Russian politics that the country’s transition of the 1990s was bungled. And while Gen Shoygu has called for “not repeating” that experience, he has left his meaning ambiguous. It goes to show his political savvy – unlike other politicians that came to prominence during that period, the defense minister has never been caught biting the hand that feeds him, denouncing the reformers of the time. On the contrary, he was always emphatically respectful, portraying them as the people who had saved the country from imminent chaos.

Gen. Shoygu will also take aim at the West from time to time, but does so far less pugnaciously than other politicians. And his statements on this matter can seem paradoxical. Take this statement, from 2019, for example: If the West had continued to behave the way it began to behave during the Gorbachev era – if it had fulfilled all its promises, if it had not pushed NATO increasingly close to our borders, if it had not expanded its influence in our near abroad, if it had not meddled in the internal affairs of our country – then, it seems to me, they would have succeeded in everything. They would have accomplished the task they had set for themselves – to destroy and to enslave our country.

That last sentence might be a tribute to the current fashion of asserting that Russia was weak during that period. In the 1990s and 2000s, Mr. Shoygu never said anything of the kind.

Even more unexpected was another recent statement. What is far more dangerous than external threats, he said, was “the degradation of society inside the country.” What exactly he means by degradation, and which countermeasures he would like to use, remains unclear. Nevertheless, the shift of emphasis from foreign to domestic threats is noteworthy.

Lord protector

Here we leave our puzzle – incomplete as it is, with its missing pieces. It is tempting to infer that Gen. Shoygu is the most likely next president of Russia. It is certainly possible, and such predictions are heard increasingly often.

But there are other outcomes that may be just as likely. With his public image as “rescuer-in-chief,” it might be more natural for Gen. Shoygu to assume the role of guardian of the regime – a lord protector who would ensure the transfer of power occurs smoothly. He is well-placed to help neutralize the very real risks of regime destabilization, or worse, of state disintegration.

That would indeed be the biographical pinnacle of Russia’s most prominent emergency manager. Could there be a more urgent emergency than Russia coming apart? Regardless, Gen. Shoygu will certainly be one of the main players in the upcoming tussle for Russia’s grand prize – supreme power.

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