A brilliant manager, Sergey Shoigu is rapidly re-establishing Russia's military as the strongest force in Europe and western Eurasia
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
Any comparison between the career path of Sergey Shoigu --- Russia’s defense minister --- and Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of Russia’s defense industries, is a study in contrasts.
Where Rogozin is a professional politician, Shoigu is as an apolitical technocrat.
In only one important respect do Rogozin and Shoigu resemble each other. Shoigu, like Rogozin, is a civilian not a soldier.
Shoigu was born in the region of Tuva in Siberia in 1955. His father was Tuvan and his mother was Russian.
The Tuvans are a Turkic speaking ethnic group who traditionally practice Shamanism or Tibetan Buddhism.
Shoigu’s ethnically mixed background has fed many stories -- that he is a practitioner of Shamanism or Buddhism, that he speaks nine languages including English, Japanese and Turkish, and that he has built up a collection of ancient Japanese samurai swords worth $40 million.
The reality is that he is a civil engineer. He graduated in 1977 from the Krasnoyarsk Polytechnical Institute -- a prestigious engineering college that has since been absorbed into Krasnoyarsk’s Siberian Federal University.
Thereafter Shoigu worked for about a decade in various posts in the Soviet construction industry.
A background in civil engineering is widely acknowledged to provide the best quality training for a projects manager and it is as a manager that Shoigu excels.
At some point Shoigu joined the Soviet Communist Party. In 1988 Shoigu he became a party functionary in the party organisation in the south Siberian city of Abakan. He also seems to have undertaken some work for the Communist youth movement, the Komsomol. This makes Shoigu the only member of the Russian government to have once been a Soviet Communist Party apparatchik.
In one of the most inspired --- and mysterious --- decisions of his career, Yeltsin plucked Shoigu from obscurity in 1991 and, before the USSR fell, appointed him the first chairman of the newly formed State Committee of the Russian Federation for Civil defense Matters, Extraordinary Situations and the Liquidation of Natural Disasters (“EMERCOM”).
Shoigu was promoted to full minister in 1994. The emergencies ministry he headed however continues to be called EMERCOM.
In the same year 1994, in a sign of growing trust, Yeltsin made Shoigu a major general in the Russian army and a member of Russia’s Security Council.
Shoigu has since had more promotions, and at the time of his appointment to the defense ministry he was a full general. The military uniform he wears reflects this. It does not mean he is or ever was a soldier.
Yeltsin’s reasons for appointing Shoigu have never been explained. In 1991 EMERCOM was newly established and unimportant. The best guess is that Shoigu was appointed because someone told Yeltsin he was available and was a good manager.
In the event Shoigu’s performance in the job has --- at least in Russia --- become the stuff of legend.
Despite what must initially have been a limited budget Shoigu was able to build up EMERCOM from scratch into a well-run organisation of 200,000 men.
What however captured the imagination of the Russian public was the inspirational leadership he provided.
In a crisis Shoigu proved to be an excellent hands-on manager and also a highly visible one.
Whenever a disaster happened Shoigu somehow always seemed to be there, taking personal charge, issuing crisp and clear orders and providing his subordinates with the help and support they needed.
This is very much the style of a civil engineer undertaking a big project and it is likely Shoigu learnt it during his work in the construction industry.
To the Russian public, accustomed to remote desk-bound ministers, it was something new.
Shoigu’s direct involvement in disaster management undoubtedly speeded response times and improved efficiency. The active presence during a crisis of the man in charge, able to assume responsibility, make quick decisions and cut through red tape, has repeatedly been shown to be essential. The muddled and bureaucratic response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans in 2005 shows the contrast.
Shoigu became Russia’s most popular minister. At a time in the 1990s when the Russian government appeared to be in a state of barely controlled chaos and the whole country seemed in danger of falling apart, he and his ministry provided a desperately needed example of efficiency and success.
Beyond efficiency, another reason for Shoigu’s popularity was his refusal to involve himself or his ministry in political conflicts.
Initially this may have reflected the political insignificance of EMERCOM. However even as he became popular Shoigu never sought to use his popularity to gain political influence. He seems to have been purely focused on his job.
The result was that Shoigu accomplished the astonishing feat of remaining a minister throughout the chaotic Yeltsin years without making any enemies. Even individuals like Berezovsky seem to have respected him, as did the Communists who were Yeltsin’s most bitter opponents.
This combination of ability and apparent lack of ambition explains Shoigu’s extraordinary political longevity. He is the only member of Putin’s government to have served in the Soviet Communist Party apparatus, to have been a minister under Yeltsin, and to have been appointed to head a ministry before the USSR broke up.
Shoigu’s popularity, and his lack of ambition and enemies, meant he managed the transition from Yeltsin to Putin with ease.
In 1999 he was made nominal leader of Unity, the new governing party formed that year. The actual leader was and remains Putin himself. Shoigu was given this role to give Unity a popular public face. He continued in that role when the party became United Russia, stepping down in 2005.
In May 2012 he finally stepped down from EMERCOM, handing over to his longstanding deputy Vladimir Puchkov.
There is no reason to think this resignation was anything other than voluntary. After more than a decade in a demanding post it is understandable if he wanted to move on.
On the day Shoigu stepped down from EMERCOM Putin appointed him governor of Moscow Oblast, presumably to compliment Sergey Sobyanin -- another capable manager whom Medvedev had just over a year before appointed mayor of Moscow.
This seems to have been part of a plan to reorganise and expand Moscow and to strengthen the government’s support there. Moscow was the only place in Russia where in the Presidential elections in March 2012 Putin’s vote fell below 50%.
In the event fate intervened and just a few months later in December 2012 Putin hurriedly appointed Shoigu Russia’s defense minister.
This appointment was unplanned and was a consequence of what might have been the single most disastrous appointment of Putin’s career.
Shoigu’s predecessor as defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was a former businessman and tax official Putin appointed to the post in 2007 to carry out a major shake-up of the Russian military.
Serdyukov’s reputation as a reformer continues to gain him plaudits from those like the writer Mark Galeotti for whom the word “reform” has acquired a kind of mantric quality.
The reality of Serdyukov’s time as defense minister was of repeated failures in procurement programmes, unwise attempts to import Western weapons that needlessly upset Russia’s defense industries and which exposed Russia to outside pressure (the Mistral ships being a case in point), widespread purges and chaotically conducted and insensitive reorganisations of military units --- all of which managed to antagonise Russia’s senior military and which caused morale to plunge.
It all finally imploded in autumn 2012 with public revelations of massive corruption at Oboronservis, a company affiliated to the defense ministry, with one of whose directors --- Yevgeniya Vasilyeva --- it turned out Serdyukov was having an affair.
Putin had to sack Serdyukov, and in order to stabilise a crisis situation in the defense ministry he turned to Shoigu.
It is a tribute to Shoigu’s reputation that news of his appointment was by itself sufficient to raise morale in the defense ministry.
It is testament to Shoigu’s abilities as a leader and a manager that morale has remained high ever since.
In place of the chaos, low morale and constant infighting of the Serdyukov years, the impression is of a defense ministry that has stabilised into a smoothly functioning machine, with the military at last spared constant reorganisation and able to concentrate on training itself and its troops the better to carry out whatever tasks it is given.
In the nature of things Shoigu’s work in the defense ministry is less visible than was his work for EMERCOM. However the conduct of the Crimean operation shows that Shoigu’s methods remain the same: painstaking administration during times of quiet; dynamic hands-on management in times of crisis.
Shoigu further consolidated his already immense popularity with the Russian public by an extraordinary gesture at the start of the 9th May Victory Parade earlier this year.
Before reviewing the troops he made the sign of the cross -- an act that had the whole of Russia buzzing and which went down well in a rapidly re-christianising country.
It was also a gesture that may have been intended to refute rumours of Shoigu being a practising Buddhist. He has since revealed that he was baptised into Orthodoxy by his Russian mother at the age of five.
Inevitably the theatricality of this gesture has sparked further speculation that Shoigu is positioning himself as Putin’s successor. Given that he is the second most popular official in Russia after Putin himself such speculation is understandable.
Arguing against it is the fact that at 60 Shoigu is barely younger than Putin himself, and that he has previously shown no ambition for such office.
Rather than speculate about Shoigu’s political prospects, it seems more useful to consider what he has already achieved.
In partnership with Rogozin - appointed deputy Prime Minister in charge of Russia’s defense industries a year before Shoigu’s appointment --- Shoigu is rapidly re-establishing Russia as a great military power --- by far the strongest in Europe and in western Eurasia. Widely expressed alarm in the West about the supposed “threat” from Russia --- though groundless and exaggerated --- is nonetheless a tribute to what Shoigu in partnership with Rogozin has already achieved.
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