Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, attends a promotion ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow in November 2019. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
For 12 days this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appeared to vanish from public life.
As Moscow became increasingly isolated, global speculation swirled: Where was Sergei Shoigu?
Then, on Saturday, the Defense Ministry posted an official video showing Shoigu leading a meeting on military procurement. He sat at the head of a table of about a dozen senior defense officials, including the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov.
It was his first public appearance since March 11, save for a quick glimpse of Shoigu on television screens Thursday as part of a teleconference call with Putin. His absence has raised questions about the military leadership and how Putin is responding to a war that has not gone according to plan.
Here’s what we know about Shoigu and his disappearance from public view.
What is Shoigu’s background?
As defense minister, Shoigu oversaw Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its intervention in the Syrian civil war. He also supervised the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, which is suspected of having poisoned former double agent Sergei Skripal in England in 2018.Shoigu, 66, hails from the Siberian region of Tuva and was trained as a civil engineer. He is a politician with no combat experience, but, according to Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, remains “one of the most ambitious members of Putin’s inner circle.”
Putin appointed him defense minister in 2012. At the time, Shoigu was serving as Russia’s minister of emergency situations, a position that he had held for more than two decades and that had given him widespread popularity.
Shoigu’s official biography lists him as “Army General, Hero of the Russian Federation.” The European Union — which, along with the United States and Canada, has targeted Shoigu for sanctions — has said that as defense minister, he is “ultimately responsible for any military action against Ukraine.”
Local media reports have described Shoigu as a “close ally” and “friend” of the president’s. In a profile of the defense minister, Agence France-Presse called him the “eternal heir apparent.”
ICYMI: Russian President Vladimir Putin takes Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for a cross-country drive in Siberia pic.twitter.com/QexYQEO6yr— Reuters (@Reuters) March 28, 2021
In 2016, the Siberian Times published what it said were rare pictures of Shoigu relaxing and painting a watercolor landscape. The publication said he is a “renowned collector of Chinese and Japanese samurai swords” and a known expert on Russia during the time of Peter the Great.
What do we know about his disappearance from public view?
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Valery Gerasimov, the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, listen to President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow on Feb. 27. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin pool/AP)
Soon after the invasion began on Feb. 24, Shoigu and Gerasimov became the faces of Russia’s war.
Shoigu appeared front and center at a video conference with Russian military leaders and was pictured shaking hands with his Armenian counterpart. Gerasimov and the minister were also shown at an in-person meeting with Putin in late February. Shoigu’s last appearance was at a televised Russian Security Council meeting on March 11.
But then the minister disappeared — at least from the public eye — fueling rumors that Putin had punished him for botching the invasion.
Two independent Russian media outlets cited sources close to Shoigu as saying he suffered heart problems. The Kremlin denied reports that Shoigu was ill and instead suggested that he was too busy leading military operations to make any media appearances.
A brief, mute video aired on Russian television Thursday purported to show Shoigu at a virtual meeting of the Security Council, chaired by Putin. But the appearance raised more questions than it answered.
Memes about Shoigu’s health flooded the Internet. And on Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mocked Shoigu’s absence, boasting that Ukraine had dealt “powerful blows” to Russia’s military.
“They say that the minister of defense of Russia has disappeared somewhere. I wonder if he personally wanted to visit Chornobaivka?” said Zelensky, a former comedian with a talent for skewering Russian officials.
The Chornobaivka airport in southern Ukraine was seized by Russian troops, but Ukrainian forces say they have since bombed it repeatedly.
On Friday, Gerasimov’s deputy, Sergey Rudskoy, said during a media briefing that the aim of Russia’s operation in Ukraine was “the liberation of Donbas,” a region in the eastern part of the country.
It was a potential sign that Moscow decided to change course and abandon efforts to seize the capital, Kyiv. But the fact that a lower-ranking official announced the shift indicates that “there’s something seriously wrong” with Shoigu and other top brass, said Anders Aslund, author of “Russia’s Crony Capitalism” and former economic adviser to the Russian and Ukrainian governments.
“Everything seems wrong with this,” he said. “Russia is extremely hierarchical, particularly under Putin, so this suggests either that things are so bad that the top [officials] don’t want to be seen, or that they are out.”
Aslund suggested that Shoigu’s extended absence could reflect a power struggle inside the Kremlin, as well as Putin’s potential dissatisfaction with his onetime fishing companion.
It took two weeks, but Russia has finally released a slightly more convincing proof-of-life video of Sergei Shoigu after the defense minister vanished without explanation pic.twitter.com/tt3db5PoyW— max seddon (@maxseddon) March 26, 2022
The video of Shoigu on Saturday appeared designed to put to rest rumors of his whereabouts or whether he has fallen out of favor. It showed the defense minister meeting with top military officials, including Gerasimov, to discuss Russia’s State Defense Order and weapons for the Ukraine operation.
The online clip had no metadata and there was no date that accompanied the footage when it aired on state television. In the video, Shoigu refers to a Finance Ministry meeting that Russian news agencies said took place on Friday, AFP reported.
Sarah Cahlan contributed to this report.