The choice of Sergei Shoigu to be the new defense minister was, in hindsight, logical and even inspired. Loyal, untarnished by suggestions of corruption, genuinely popular, he also has some twenty years experience building the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS) out of services that were under-resourced, often feuding and generally conservative. Shoigu has been the quintessential loyal technocrat, turning the MChS into a surprisingly efficient force, then taking on the daunting job of governor of Moscow Region before being parachuted into the defense ministry.
After his elevation, though, a favored topic amongst the wonkish Kremlin-watcher constituency (yes, including me) was considering whether or not Shoigu was now a potential future prime minister or even a president. To an extent, it is irrelevant whether he harbors any such aspirations: even if he denies them, those who want to believe will simply nod knowingly and say that, of course, he’d have to say that…
One of the features that makes Shoigu unusual, after all, is that — unlike the overwhelming majority of the current leadership generation — he has a headlining political career that predates Putin. Shoigu was building the MChS when Putin was still the mayor’s loyal bagman in St. Petersburg. It was Shoigu’s Unity party, which became part of United Russia, that then-prime minister Putin said that he’d be voting for in 1999. While Putin’s PR team scramble to find new stunts to fuel his macho myth, for almost two decades Shoigu was the reassuringly practical presence Russians saw at scenes of disaster and chaos, from forest fires to terrorist attacks. No wonder he was and still is consistently the highest-polling and most-recognizable figure within the government.
Of course, for those who like to view Russian politics as once conspiracy after another, it might be tempting to see him as actually being set up for a fall. After all, while Serdyukov managed to push through the first stage of reform, primarily involving the organization of the military, the next stage means making sure it is properly trained and equipped, and all to budget. This means tackling the defense industries and Putin has made it clear that Shoigu has to play nice with them, so he has at least one hand tied behind his back.
However, I think that would be mistaking ad hoc politics for some grand plan. Although the current anti-corruption campaign may look as if it embodies some strategy to reframe the narrative about Putin’s leadership (more on that anon, although I talk about it in this podcast in the excellent RFE/RL Power Vertical series), I suspect it has little thought behind it than many might think. Some vulnerable figures are being jettisoned, some bad apples purged; some clan and personal rivalries are being played out; some deals are being struck.
Quite what happens for Shoigu depends on many variables. Some are within his control. Does he, for example, decide not to rock the boat so as not to make powerful enemies in the name of some future bid for greater power? More, though, are not, or at best only partially. Will his new Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov be Shoigu’s man in the high command or the generals’ shop steward in the ministry? Just how badly will the defense lobby’s interests clash with those of the ministry? Serdyukov was forced to recant his decision (rightly) not to buy more tanks for the moment and instead swallow an order of 2,300 new MBTs so that Putin could reward the industry for its support. Will Shoigu be forced to abandon the new willingness to buy foreign kit? Will we see the AK-12 rifle hurriedly adopted when many conscripts can hardly handle their current (simpler) AK-74s? Will he actually get the promised moneys, not just for procurement but to follow through with improvements to living conditions and the like?
It may well be that he will have the political skills needed to follow through with military reform. And Shoigu is certainly someone to watch in the future. But this ‘promotion,’ for all it adds a new uniform to his wardrobe, is going to be a challenging one.