When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Sergei Shoigu Enigma, 'Last Man In The Bunker' With Putin

Gloom and uncertainty increasingly surround Putin as his would-be blitzkrieg of Ukraine stalls. The world wonders whether he'll double down, or if could be betrayed by his entourage. Sergei Shoigu, the man running Russia's military, is iron-clad loyal. He also hasn't been seen in public in two weeks.

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu in Saint Petersburg, 2017

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Shoigu in Saint Petersburg, 2017

Anna Akage
By the end of December 1942, anyone who understood anything about the war could not help but realize that Germany had lost.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

Adolf Hitler's entourage could have avoided the terrible consequences for themselves and the rest of the world by simply deposing the mad Führer. They might have even remained the political elite in a country that was not yet utterly destroyed. But they did not; they simply watched as the war was lost and the country went to hell. Right to the very end, Hitler's Germany was the perfect example of a regime that avoided collapse by shrinking a nation's power to a single bunker.

For almost a month now, Russia has been fighting a war against Ukraine. During this time, the world community has begun to learn a lot more about Russia's army and intelligence.


It turns out that one of the largest armies in the world drives tanks from the second half of the 20th century; the logistics and commanders are completely unprepared for a war they themselves unleashed, and the data collected by special services on the readiness of the Ukrainian army and sentiments in Ukrainian society are not only untrue but are directly contrary to the Russian narrative. Moreover, leaks from Putin's inner circle were all over the Western press weeks before the war.

Russian disarray

"Russia has no intelligence," Russian journalist Maksim Katz says. "There are not and never have been people with a serious military background, but there are plenty of Chekists (secret service operatives)"

Katz reports how the invasion was prepared in advance, with huge money and entire branches of the FSB, Russia’s counterintelligence agency, spent on internal work to destabilize Ukraine. "But it's not clear now what they were doing. They were bullshitting their superiors," he writes. "If not for the situation in general, where you have a large country with nuclear weapons, this would simply be a disaster: for 20 years of investment in the army and special services we have neither. That U.S. intelligence, which knew in advance everything about the impending attack down to the dates, shows it received information from the closest circle of decision-makers."

Runaway Russian oligarchs have already surrendered their national interests in favor of securing their bank accounts. Even the highest-ranking officials are in disarray. All, from the French president to his own defense minister, is kept at a 5-meter-long table by Putin. A purge has already begun in the army and the FSB.

All of this now puts Putin himself in an unknown place, both physically and otherwise. He is either in a bunker in Siberia or in a castle in Crimea. Many Russian journalists believe that he was certainly not at a rally at Luzhniki Stadium, during which he appeared to “celebrate” the annexation of Crimea to Russia.

Is it really possible that one man, even against the will of the moneyed and clan interests, against officers and ministers, with millions of ordinary Russians growing poorer with every day of the war, is single-handedly leading the country into a protracted war and no one can stop him? Sadly, as history has shown, this answer is yes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a face-to-face meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a face-to-face meeting with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the Kremlin

Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUMA

Putin's inner-circle

The Financial Times names Putin's last five associates as foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, 72, foreign intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin, 67, secretary of Russia's security council Nikolai Patrushev, 70, chief executive of the energy company Rosneft Igor Sechin, 61, and defense minister Sergei Shoigu, 66.

Most consider Lavrov nothing more than a talking head, and decoy; he was the first to advocate a diplomatic solution to the conflict and constantly insisted on negotiations. There is no doubt that the introduction of troops into Ukraine came as a surprise to him.

The others on the list suffered in the eyes of Putin globally by failing to collect data on the situation in Ukraine. Think back on how Naryshkin trembled and stammered during the meeting on the proclamation of independence of Donetsk and Luhansk.

There's the hope of preserving at least something is preferable to chaos and civil war.

Indeed, it is Shoigu who deserves special attention. Little has been said about him in the Russian media, but this man has made a brilliant career out of his loyalty to Putin. Russian investigative journalist Vladimir Osechkin considers Shoigu to be Putin's only successor and his most loyal underling.

At the same time, Shoigu sits deep within the longstanding corruption schemes of the Russian army. This is also the reason why his deputies submitted to Putin such unrealistic reports and forecasts of military operations in Ukraine. In a state of chaos, it is impossible to keep track of multi-billion dollar embezzlement from the state budget.

With Russia's military situation on the ground in Ukraine deteriorating, questions back in Moscow have been raised about Shoigu's whereabouts. First by exiled independent media Meduza, and more recently in a report published Wednesday by Agentstvo, another independent news outlet that has tracked official reports to conclude that no new images of Shoigu have been seen since March 11.

A system devouring itself

"The system is beginning to devour itself," Osechkin says. "It's even reaching the people closest to the director of the Rosgvardia [National Guard of Russia], which indicates that a personnel war is now taking place: who will agree with whom on what and who will set whom up."

According to the journalist, these personnel decisions mean the weakening of the power bloc, which evidently has people who are aware of the destructiveness of Putin's actions.

Yet Putin remains in power, and the war continues against all odds. Online magazine Meduza, which is banned in Russia, writes that it is easier for the Euro-Atlantic bloc to isolate Russia than to try to influence an artificial change of power in the Kremlin.

"There is a consensus in Western countries that attempts to artificially change the Russian regime from within could lead to more problems. It could cause Russia's territorial collapse, loss of control over weapons of mass destruction, millions of refugees, a religious radicalization of the population in certain Russian regions, an unprecedented energy crisis, and revolutions in other post-Soviet countries."

The fear of the collapse of the state and the uncertainty that Putin's entourage saw in the 1990s may be the main reason why none of Putin's cronies dare to eliminate him politically or physically. For those in his bunker, sliding into the abyss, the hope of preserving at least something is preferable to chaos and civil war.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

That Man In Mariupol: Is Putin Using A Body Double To Avoid Public Appearances?

Putin really is meeting with Xi in Moscow — we know that. But there are credible experts saying that the person who showed up in Mariupol the day before was someone else — the latest report that the Russian president uses a doppelganger for meetings and appearances.

screen grab of Putin in a dark down jacket

During the visit to Mariupol, the Presidential office only released screen grabs of a video

Russian President Press Office/TASS via ZUMA
Anna Akage

Have no doubt, the Vladimir Putin we’re seeing alongside Xi Jinping this week is the real Vladimir Putin. But it’s a question that is being asked after a range of credible experts have accused the Russian president of sending a body double for a high-profile visit this past weekend in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

Reports and conspiracy theories have circulated in the past about the Russian leader using a stand-in because of health or security issues. But the reaction to the Kremlin leader's trip to Mariupol is the first time that multiple credible sources — including those who’ve spent time with him in the past — have cast doubt on the identity of the man who showed up in the southeastern Ukrainian city that Russia took over last spring after a months-long siege.

Russian opposition politician Gennady Gudkov is among those who confidently claim that a Putin look-alike, or rather one of his look-alikes, was in the Ukrainian city.

"Now that there is a war going on, I don't rule out the possibility that someone strongly resembling or disguised as Putin is playing his role," Gudkov said.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest