Vladimir Putin has lost confidence in his defence minister and has sidelined him just as Ukraine launches its biggest counter-offensive of the war.
Media reports backed up by Western intelligence said that the Russian president had ordered his military commanders to report to him directly rather than to Sergei Shoigu, whom he blames for the stalled invasion of Ukraine.
Putin and Mr Shoigu had been considered close allies but iStories, a Russian investigative reporting outlet, said that this bond had now fractured.
“Relations between Putin and Shoigu have changed so much that the defence minister does not even dare to promote decisions that the military considers necessary,” it said, quoting sources in the defence ministry.
As evidence, iStories highlighted Mr Shoigu’s last major appearance on Russian television. That was on July 4 in Putin’s office, when he reported the conquest of Luhansk – which makes up half of Donbas.
During the meeting, which was supposed to mark a rare Russian military success, iStories said Putin told Mr Shoigu that generals commanding Russian forces had already informed him of the news.
“The president made it clear that he communicates directly with Shoigu’s subordinates and it is not clear what role the minister of defence plays,” reported iStories. “Decisions on some key appointments in the ministry of defence are made without taking Shoigu’s opinion into account.”
‘Ineffectual and out-of-touch leadership’
This analysis appears to be borne out by looking at Mr Shoigu’s other television appearances, publicity opportunities that are used by Moscow to communicate the prominence, gravitas and authority of certain figures.
Since his meeting with Putin on July 4, Mr Shoigu has been on television only a handful of times and always in secondary roles. His last prominent appearance was a month ago on July 31, when he was filmed saluting and standing to attention at a ceremony in St Petersburg to celebrate Russia’s navy.
His apparent fall from grace was also highlighted on Monday by the British Ministry of Defence.
“Shoigu has likely long struggled to overcome his reputation as lacking substantive military experience,” said the MoD.
Even though he often wears a military uniform decorated with various medals or ribbons and is referred to as a general, Mr Shoigu has never actually served in the Russian army.
Putin is likely to be aware that Mr Shoigu’s lack of military experience is not playing well with Russian soldiers, who have taken huge casualties fighting a failing war that the defence minister planned.
The MoD’s analysis added: “Russian officers and soldiers with first-hand experience of the war probably routinely ridicule Shoigu for his ineffectual and out-of-touch leadership as Russian progress has stalled.”