Sergey Shoygu | The commander of Putin’s wars

From Chechen war to Ukraine crisis, he has remained a key troubleshooter

Updated - March 06, 2022 08:12 am IST

Published - March 06, 2022 01:19 am IST

Sergey Shoygu, centre-right, in this file photo.

Sergey Shoygu, centre-right, in this file photo. | Photo Credit: AP

In the autumn of 1993, two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, music legend Michael Jackson, who was until then termed fascist, castigated as a black artist who sold his soul for profit in a world of white capitalism, and banned in the erstwhile USSR, was in Moscow for the first time for a concert.

The September 15, 1993 concert Dangerous Tour was one of first truly American shows that was telecast in MTV-era Russia. The fact that the people were now free to access global entertainment, however, could not camouflage the reality of post-Soviet Union Russia, which was reeling under heavy taxes imposed by President Boris Yeltsin, soaring unemployment and collapse of industries. A civil unrest that was brewing for months exploded on the surface as Jackson left Moscow.

Yeltsin was opposed by a section of powerful elites led by Alexander Rutskoy, a former fighter pilot who distinguished himself with his service during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Exhausted after a protracted fight with the Opposition, Yeltsin dissolved both the houses of Parliament. The action triggered an armed confrontation between Yeltsin’s supporters and Mr. Rutskoy-led Opposition. Soon, President Yeltsin ordered a crackdown. It was Sergey Shoigu and his team of security personnel who took on the anti-Yeltsin protesters and lawmakers during the October 4 upheavals in Moscow that year, known as the “October coup”. This set off the journey of Mr. Shoigu, the current Defence Minister, who is now guiding the military campaign against Ukraine.

Mr. Shoigu’s Russian Rescue Corps, which was created in 1990 for a quick response during natural calamities and emergencies, soon took the shape of an armed militia. With Mr. Shoigu’s rise in the hierarchy, the force became increasingly powerful. It was later renamed Ministry for Emergency Situations, with Mr. Shoigu at the helm.

Mr. Shoigu was new in the new power structure of Russia but his family, it is said was close to President Yeltsin. Mr. Shoigu’s family hailed from Tuva, the region south of Siberia and near Mongolia. Mr. Shoigu’s father Kozhuget Shoigu and Boris Yeltsin prospered during the Soviet era. It is said that the Kozhuget Shoigu, who was an important worker of the Communist Party of Soviet Union in the distant region, had struck a close friendship with Yeltsin early in their careers.

Apart from natural disasters, the 1990s brought a new wave of threat in the form of extremism. Islamist fighters fuelled by strong subnationalism of the Russian Caucasus - South Ossetia, and Dagestan – unleashed waves of terror strikes targeting apartments in capital Moscow, Dagestan’s Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk of Rostov. The terror attacks highlighted the vulnerability of Russia. After years of financial instability, and now extremism — Russia underwent a difficult period of transition from the tight governance of Soviet era to the chaotic democracy of the 1990s.

During this period, especially during the Chechen war, it was the young politician Vladimir Putin who emerged as the most popular figure. Mr. Shoigu witnessed the gradual fading away of Yeltsin due to declining health and diminishing popularity. During Yeltsin’s vulnerable period at the helm, his old challengers Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov re-emerged as political threats. To counter this opposing group, the Unity Party was created in September 1999. With blessings from President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it was Sergey Shoigu who became the leader of the Unity Party.

On the last day of the 20th century, Yeltsin announced his resignation. In the presidential election of 2000, the Unity Party supported Vladimir Putin as the presidential candidate. Thus began the phase of Mr. Shoigu’s service under Putin.

Mr. Putin’s initial years coincided with the war on terror launched after the 9/11 attacks. Global terrorism made its way to Russia with the 2004 attack on a school in Beslan that left hundreds of children dead. Over the coming years, President Putin countered and suppressed terrorism at home with an iron hand, while stabilising the Russian economy. He diversified Russia’s foreign affairs and made it part of new block consisting of Brazil, India and China – BRICS. Though Mr. Shoigu remained in charge of the same Ministry till 2012, it’s widely believed his Tuvan roots made him appear a bit of an outsider in the internal power play of Kremlin.

By 2014 the world was undergoing rapid transformation with the United States and NATO carrying out operations in Libya, Afghanistan. Russia’s old concerns about its security resurfaced. As Defence Minister of Russia, Mr. Shoigu has been the face of the high-profile military deals with traditional allies of Russia such as India. He often visited New Delhi to negotiate big-ticket agreements, involving trademark military products such as the S-400 weapons system.

Mr. Shoigu, however, gained more popularity at home with his role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which was the precursor of his role as one of the main drivers behind the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. Treasury and the EU have imposed sanctions on Mr. Shoigu. Though international sanctions have cast a shadow on the three decades of service of Kremlin’s Minister of Defence, it will be too early to write him off.

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