With the Russian military stagnating in its invasion of Ukraine and suffering significant losses of men and armaments, many are wondering what happened to the huge sums of money designated by the Kremlin to create a well-trained and well-equipped army. Former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev provided one answer on Twitter: “The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus.”
The man responsible for the invasion, Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, who had no prior military service before he assumed his defense post in 2012, bears much of the blame for this alleged thievery and the military’s consequent failings in Ukraine.
More a politician and a friend of the oligarchs than a general, Shoigu began developing a personality cult as Russian Minister of Emergency Situations, a post he held from 1999 to 2012, followed by a brief stint as governor of the Moscow region. The first to appear on the scenes of disaster, he presented himself to the public as a hero who had come to the rescue, just as Putin did when he launched the war in Chechnya. Considered the second most popular public figure in the country, Shoigu was chosen by Putin to lead, along with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the candidates list of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party for the Duma elections last September and has been mentioned as Putin’s possible successor.
As Minister of Defense, Shoigu vowed to continue the Kremlin’s ambitious plans for sweeping military reform, with a goal of modernizing 70 percent of Russian armed forces by 2020. Since then the Kremlin has spent tens of billions of dollars (roughly one third of the state budget) on defense, despite the country’s stagnating economy. But, judging from the campaign in Ukraine, the results of the modernization effort are seriously lacking.
The encrypted telephone system that Russian military planners introduced for secure battlefield communications, for example, can be intercepted by the Ukrainians, so officers and soldiers are using unsecured phones and radios. In addition to heavy casualties, logistical problems and desertions, there have been numerous reports of fuel shortages and Russian armored vehicles breaking down because of poor maintenance—all of which have slowed the Russian army’s advance.
General David Petraeus noted in a recent interview: “The Russians, starting with their intelligence assessments and understanding of the battlefield and their adversary, and then every aspect of the campaign, all the way down to small unit operations, have proved woefully inadequate.” This is not to mention Russia’s failure thus far to defeat the Ukrainian air force, despite its overwhelming advantage in numbers.
So where did all the money for Russia’s military overhaul go?
The Ukrainian outlet NV recently accused Shoigu of “managing the budget of the Russian Ministry of Defense like his personal piggy bank.” The defense minister allegedly owns a lavish mansion outside Moscow, photographed by Alexei Navalny’s investigative team using high-tech drones, which has an estimated value of $18 million. And he is accused of using his position to bolster his family’s entrepreneurial ventures. A company owned by Shoigu’s daughter, Ksenia, earned 2.1 billion rubles in state construction projects over three years, reportedly relying on the help of oligarch Gennady Timchenko, a friend of both Shoigu and Putin. Shoigu also shares the ministry’s budget largesse with his subordinates, and according to Navalny, the Ministry of Defense once flew a group of generals to the Seychelles for a fishing vacation. Quipping that “fishing there is obviously more interesting than in the Crimea,” Navalny estimated the cost to Russian taxpayers of the flight alone was at least $200,000.
To counter negative publicity, Shoigu maintains an active public relations department, with a staff of several hundred, which scours the media in order to reprimand journalists who publish critical articles and suppress reports of military mishaps. Just last week Shoigu sent a letter to the Russian Ministry of Culture, demanding that Ukrainian President Zelensky’s film and television work be banned from Russia as part of the defense ministry’s measures to “shape a positive opinion of Russia’s armed forces.” Shoigu doubtless had a say in Putin’s recent decision to deprive Russians of access to independent media. With generals dying one after another on the Ukrainian battlefield, the Kremlin’s “special military operation” is a potential public relations nightmare.
Heads are starting to roll as a result of the military’s failure to accomplish a swift occupation of Ukraine. The deputy chief of Russia’s National Guard (Rosgvardia), which has suffered tremendous losses in the conflict, has just been arrested; earlier, Sergei Beseda, chief of the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch was also put behind bars, along with his deputy, reportedly for providing poor intelligence ahead of Russia’s invasion.
There has been some speculation that Shoigu, too, might have recently lost standing with Putin over the war—but it is hard to imagine Putin ditching his long-time defense minister in the midst of the Ukrainian campaign. The two have worked closely together for over two decades, and such a move would seriously undermine Putin’s own credibility. As journalist Andrei Soldatov told The Daily Beast, “The problem Putin is facing here is there is nobody in the military who is that popular to replace Shoigu. Shoigu got rid of all the popular generals.”
Whatever the outcome of the Ukrainian campaign, Shoigu is likely to continue to have Putin’s support. He and the Russian president have had a close personal relationship for years. Putin often vacations with Shoigu in the latter’s native Siberia, where they have been filmed riding all-terrain vehicles, hiking and fishing. As The Spectator once observed: “Putin and Shoigu are both throwbacks to Soviet times. They regard themselves as ‘muzhiks’ (real Russian men) who love sports and hunting.” Unfortunately for Russia, both men also share such a desperate need to demonstrate their machismo that they decided to inflict devastating armed aggression on a sovereign neighbor that posed no military threat.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has predicted that “Putin will not survive the defeat of his army. He gets support because he is perceived to be a strongman; what does he have to offer once he demonstrates incompetence and is stripped of his coercive power?” If the Russian army does ultimately fail in its mission to occupy Ukraine—and Putin is forced out of office—Shoigu, of course, would go as well. And instead of heading off to fish for Siberian pike, the two muzhiks might end up in the Hague, sitting in the dock at a war crimes tribunal.