Russia's Sergei Shoigu
Master of emergencies
The trusty defence minister is the only person to serve in every government since the fall of the Soviet Union. He could be the next president
ON VLADIMIR PUTIN'S birthday in October, his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, brought him a gift: the latest briefing on Russia's military campaign in Syria. It included news that cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea had struck targets nearly 1,500km away. “We know how complicated such operations are,” Mr Putin replied approvingly. That evening the pair celebrated by playing an ice-hockey match with their amateur club. Mr Putin knocked in seven goals, and Mr Shoigu scored one for good measure. Their team won handily.
Since Mr Shoigu took over the defence ministry in late 2012, his partnership with Mr Putin has flourished off the ice, too. The Russian armed forces have emerged as the primary instrument of Mr Putin's foreign policy. In Crimea and eastern Ukraine, along the edges of NATO airspace and now in Syria, Russia has projected power with newfound effectiveness. Under Mr Shoigu, Russia's armed forces have “demonstrated a capability and organisation and logistics skill-set that we have not seen before,” says Evelyn Farkas, who was until recently the Pentagon's top official on Russian affairs.
But Mr Shoigu is much more than Russia's latest defence minister. At 60, three years younger than Mr Putin, he is the longest-serving member of the Russian government; his tenure stretches back to 1990, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Mr Putin was still toiling in obscurity in the St Petersburg mayor's office. He made his name at the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS), a semi-militarised rescue service with a wide remit that he built himself and led for nearly 22 years. By skilfully navigating Russia's Byzantine bureaucracy, he has accrued power and popularity without making any notable enemies. “There's no one else like him in the ruling class,” says Evgeny Minchenko, an analyst who studies the Russian elite. “It's an absolutely unprecedented story.”
Russia is a land of emergencies, from droughts and forest fires to sinking submarines, apartment-block bombings and school hostage dramas. The most recent addition is the crash of a charter plane over the Sinai peninsula, possibly due to terrorism. So it is hardly surprising that the minister of emergency situations should become one of the best-known figures in Russian politics. Although Mr Shoigu does not belong to Mr Putin's coterie of ex-KGB men from St Petersburg, he is a trusted insider. Mr Minchenko, who releases a widely circulated yearly report called “Politburo 2.0”, puts Mr Shoigu second in influence among Mr Putin's associates, trailing only his chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov. When big decisions like the operations in Ukraine or Syria are made, Mr Shoigu is indispensable. His combination of loyalty, competence and popularity also makes him one of a handful of potential successors to Mr Putin.
Mr Shoigu grew up in southern Siberia, in the little-known republic of Tuva. He had a liking for sports, backyard brawls and risky stunts, such as hopping the ice floes across the powerful Yenisei river. Such high jinks earned him the nickname Shaitan (“Satan”). An engineering degree in Krasnoyarsk and several successful construction projects led to a summons to Moscow in 1990 by the Communist Party leadership. After a stint on an architecture committee, Mr Shoigu took over a new corps of rescue workers, turning it into the highly effective organisation that eventually became MChS. He also showed unflinching loyalty, coming to the aid of Boris Yeltsin during the attempted coup in August 1991 and again during the constitutional crisis of October 1993.
In the chaos of the 1990s, Mr Shoigu became a reassuring presence. Besides handling fires and natural disasters, he served as a mediator in conflicts from South Ossetia to Tajikistan and Chechnya. In 1999, as Mr Yeltsin prepared to hand the reins to Mr Putin, his team tapped Mr Shoigu to lead a new political party called Unity, which later morphed into United Russia, the current ruling party. Mr Yeltsin described Mr Shoigu as “our greatest star”.
When Mr Putin took power, his strategists needed to define the amorphous new leader for the public. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, says the administration “consciously crafted” Mr Putin's image in part on Mr Shoigu's: “Putin was supposed to be a rescuer, too.” Mr Shoigu, who had never wanted to enter party politics, wisely ceded the spotlight. He understood, as Mr Pavlovsky puts it, “that one log can't support two bears”.
Instead, Mr Shoigu ingratiated himself. In 2000 he gave Mr Putin a black labrador, Koni, who became the president's favourite dog. He accompanied Mr Putin on his macho, shirtless adventure trips. He patriotically took holidays in Russian forests rather than on French beaches. The men shared an interest in history; Mr Shoigu became president of the Russian Geographical Society, a revived tsarist-era group that serves as a club for the Russian elite.
Officer and gentleman
After Anatoly Serdyukov, the previous defence minister, fell out of favour, Mr Putin put the armed forces in Mr Shoigu's hands. Mr Serdyukov oversaw much-needed reforms, but alienated the top brass. Mr Shoigu has largely preserved the changes while restoring morale. “Under Shoigu, the army began to believe in itself,” says Mikhail Khodarenok, editor of the Military-Industrial Courier, a defence weekly.
Mr Shoigu has concentrated on military readiness—and public relations. He has ramped up exercises and snap inspections, says Dmitry Gorenburg of Harvard University, an expert on the Russian army. Early decisions, such as ordering soldiers to switch from archaic cloth foot-wraps (portyaniki) to socks, helped restore the reputation of an army that had been derided throughout the post-Soviet era.
At first his pragmatic attitude held for relations with the West, too. Mr Shoigu affably called Chuck Hagel, then the American defence secretary, by his first name. “Whereas the default position for many Russian security officials is to throw up roadblocks, he seemed to relish blowing through them,” says Derek Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defence.
The Ukraine crisis ended that chumminess. When Mr Putin decided to seize Crimea, Mr Shoigu dispatched a deputy, Oleg Belaventsev, to oversee the invasion. (Mr Belaventsev is now presidential envoy to Crimea.) Mr Shoigu's experience as a crisis manager served him well. “The Crimean operation demonstrated a new Russian army,” says Mr Minchenko. “And Shoigu became a symbol of that army.”
乌克兰危机结束了这段蜜月期。当普京决定占领克里米亚时，绍伊古派出了一位副国防部长Oleg Belaventsev来负责这次入侵（Oleg Belaventsev现在是总统的克里米亚特使。）绍伊古的危机管理者经历帮了他很大的忙。“克里米亚行动展示了一支全新的俄罗斯军队，”明琴科说，“而绍伊古也成了这支军队的象征。”
On May 9th, during celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany, Russian television cameras fixed on a black convertible ferrying Mr Shoigu onto Red Square. Decked out in full military regalia, he crossed himself as he passed under the Kremlin walls. The highly unusual gesture was seemingly designed to allay any questions about the half-Tuvan, half-Russian's Christianity. The attention bestowed upon Mr Shoigu became the topic of fresh speculation: was he destined for higher office?
The ultimate emergency
The question of what comes after Mr Putin haunts Russia's political system. The president's grip on power is based in part on the idea of bezalternativnost, the lack of alternatives. If a real number two were to emerge, it would “be the start of a game that [Mr Putin] fears because he cannot control it,” argues Pavlovsky.
But if a shortlist exists, Mr Shoigu is probably on it. He remains Russia's most trusted and popular politician not named Putin. He has avoided scandals and is perceived as relatively clean. (The anti-corruption campaigner, Alexey Navalny, has accused him of building a gaudy pagoda-style home worth $18m—charges Mr Shoigu's representatives have denied.) Mr Shoigu has long denied having political ambitions. Yet that may work in his favour. “He's not obviously desperate to climb the greasy pole,” argues Mark Galeotti, a Russia scholar at New York University, “which might mean that he's precisely the one who ends up on top of it.” When the ultimate emergency strikes, Russians may well turn to their first rescuer-in-chief.