A Dying Putin Shakes Up Russia's Defense Ministry to Promote An Heir?

In early November, as Americans prepared to re-elect President Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin fired his long-time ally Anatoly Serdyukov, the man who's served as Russia's Defense Minister since 2007. Sergei Shoigu, the Governor of the Moscow Oblast and the former head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (the MChS), was appointed in his place.

There is wide speculation about what prompted Serdyukov's ouster. Most noticeably, he recently came under investigation for selling off military property for personal gain. The ongoing case served as the official reason for replacing Serdyukov with Shoigu, though other theories abound, as Russia's military is deeply mired in corruption, despite years of anti-graft campaigns.

Journalist and blogger Oleg Kashin submits [ru] that Putin is grooming Shoigu as an heir, just as Yeltsin nurtured the rapid rise of Putin himself in the late 1990s. Kashin argues that the promotion is meant to boost Shoigu's stature, so that Putin can at last retire:

За Сергея Шойгу как за «будущего президента России» в МЧС поднимали тосты еще при президенте Ельцине. Сейчас по этому поводу если и можно спорить, то только о способе прихода к власти: либо Путин назначит его преемником, либо Шойгу назначит себя сам.

In the MChS, they toasted Sergei Shoigu as the “future President of Russia” as far back as Yeltsin's days. The only question now is how he'll come to power: either Putin will appoint him as his ‘successor,’ or Shoigu will appoint himself.

USACE teammate welcomes Russian Minister of Defense Serdyukov (right) to Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Virginia, United States. 16 September 2010, photo by US Army Corps of Engineers, CC 2.0.

Indeed, Vladimir Putin is not getting any younger, and, in recent years, Russia observers have increasingly noted a rising demand for better democratic institutions. The country's lack of elite turnover also seems to produce more popular anger today than at any earlier point in Putin's dominance of Russian politics. Putin's “tandem partner” and one-time boss Dmitri Medvedev lacks the power and charisma to be a successful leader without Putin. Shoigu, on the other hand, is independently quite popular. In a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Center, Shoigu's 78% approval rating made him the most popular minister in the federal government by far. (The runner-up trailed by more than twenty points!)

Many in the political opposition detected an element of desperation in the cadres reshuffle. Opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov was particularly ominous [ru]:

Шойгу то на Московскую область был брошен, теперь на Министерство обороны. Это очень тревожный сигнал, говорит о том, что кадровый запас просто скудный до невозможности у властей.

Shoigu was sent to the Moscow Oblast, and now to the Ministry of Defense. This is a red flag; it says that that the authorities’ cadre reserves are running thin.

In a Facebook post [ru] on November 16, Solidarnost activist Pavel Shelkov [ru] spread a rumor that Putin is dying of spinal cancer and is indeed preparing Shoigu to replace him as president. Shelkov, who is not a doctor, claims that Putin has just three months to live. “The Virgin Mother has granted the girls’ prayer,” he declared, referring to Pussy Riot's now infamous plea from the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that Mary “banish Putin.”



  • The author makes a good case, but an ethnic Tuvan president in the Kremlin would be painfully difficult to reconcile with the bizarre, rabid, almost mystical Russian racialism that took root (thanks in no small part to Putin) over the last decade. Also, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Yeltsin “nurtured” Putin, who was all but hoisted onto Yeltsin by his exasperated security services after the revolving-door premierships of the late 90s.

    For now at least, the man to watch is Dmitri Rogozin. He talks the ultranationalist talk a lot more convincingly and consistently than Putin does, and without the buffoonery of Zhirinovsky. His brief exile to NATO implies that Putin found him threatening, and he has already resumed his career in Moscow with remarkable speed. He also seems to be friends with the right people in the military and security sectors. Granted, if Putin holds on for another two or three years, his successor could be
    someone as unfamiliar today as Rogozin was five years ago, and he could
    march off into the annals of political oblivion to join the likes of Kasyanov, Luzhkov, and soon
    Medvedev. But for now, my money’s on Rogozin. And again, that’s assuming Putin leaves anytime soon.

    • A quick comment to Jake’s comment:

      “an ethnic Tuvan president in the Kremlin would be painfully difficult to reconcile with the bizarre, rabid, almost mystical Russian racialism that took root (thanks in no small part to Putin) over the last decade.”

      This sort of racialism is appalling, but I don’t think that it’s as strong as Jake thinks. And although I don’t like Putin, I have to say he’s not a ‘racialist’ (neither does he encourages it for political reasons.) I think that for the majority the main thing is whether the person is considered “nash” (ours), and what makes someone nash is not necessarily related to ethnicity. Shoigu (half Tuvan, half Russian) is a nash. Zhirinovsky (half Jewish) is a nash. Tsoi was a nash.

      • I’d be grateful to be wrong here, but I see little cause for such optimism. Russia’s liberal opposition “leaders” are mocked by most in the big cities, unknown anywhere else, and too egotistical to cooperate. Worst of all, their crowds peaked after the parliamentary vote and only shrank since, which doesn’t stop OMON from cracking skulls at even the smallest liberal protest.

        Compare that to the “Rossiya dlya Russkikh” types, spewing crude messages that resonate with large audiences that get larger at each new rally, where they march unmolested by cops who know better than to challenge them. The future of Russia belongs to whichever politician parrots their message convincingly, maybe even sincerely. Even the liberals’ beloved Navalny realized, too late, that power in Russia rests not with the 90s-tainted liberals but with hateful populism.

        Whoever his successor is, Putin will look better at least weaker and less malicious in hindsight. You are quite correct in one sense–he is no nationalist himself; Putin’s only ideology is Putin–but he certainly tried playing the role and deserves blame for unleashing a force he is too clumsy to control, one that will metastasize into something horrifying and genocidal after he is gone. For true populists, even his spastic appeals to liberals, intellectuals, foreigners, and–worst of all–minorities are enough to confirm that he is a pretender. He’s floundering like Gorbachev in 1990, watching his inner circle fall away either to the left or the right, but the stakes now are much higher and much closer to home, and the consequences will probably be even worse than letting power pass to a provincial drunk. “Nash” or not, Shoigu seems like a decent or at least rational man, which probably means he’s too much to hope for.

    • Olga


      What’s so bizarre and mystical about Russian nationalism(racialism)? I’m genuinely curious. For me it seems no different to your average east European nationalism.

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