Russia's defence chief: diehard loyalist in Putin shadow



Russia's long-serving Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who held on to his post in a cabinet shake-up on Tuesday, is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin who shares his taste for macho stunts.

He has led a drive to modernise and acquire new weaponry for Russia's military, with the country boasting of a new generation of hypersonic missiles, as well as reinforcing its troop presence from the Arctic to the Pacific.

Under Shoigu's watch, Russian air strikes in support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria played a decisive role while causing numerous civilian casualties, according to monitors.

He took the post after two decades in charge of disaster management and has earned a reputation for diehard loyalty.

Shoigu, 57, comes from the remote Siberian Tuva region close to the border with Mongolia, and is one of the few representatives of Russia's ethnic minorities in top politics.

A construction engineer by training, he took a traditional route into Soviet politics, first working in construction organisations, then becoming a Communist Party official, following in the footsteps of his father.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, he switched to rescue and emergency work and headed the newly created emergency situations ministry from 1994 to 2012.

The ministry, whose remit involves everything from fighting forest fires to flood relief and airlifting disaster victims, was largely viewed as effective, despite some flawed operations.

In 1999, he was awarded the Hero of Russia medal, one of the highest state decorations.

Unquestionably loyal, he was seen as a safe pair of hands to take over the compromised defence ministry -- replacing sacked predecessor Anatoly Serdyukov, a civilian.

Shoigu has the rank of army general although he does not have a military background.

Under his leadership, the ministry has built new infrastructure on the far eastern Kuril islands claimed by Japan and in the Arctic.

- In the wild with Putin -

In December 2019 he reported to Putin that the first Avangard hypersonic missiles had been put into service, in a move hailed as a major coup for Moscow.

Regular war games involving thousands of troops show off Russia's military might and irk NATO.

Shoigu was one of the founders of the ruling United Russia party, of which he has been a senior official since 2001.

He rarely makes political statements and is reticent in interviews.

The defence chief has often accompanied Putin on macho fishing and wildlife-spotting trips, but knows how to stay in the background in his camouflage gear without stealing the limelight.

The trips have included Putin's Siberian fishing expedition with Prince Albert of Monaco in 2007.

Shoigu was also at Putin's side in 2008 when he shot a tiger with a tranquiliser dart and kissed it on the cheek in far eastern Russia.

In 2019, on their most recent shared break, Shoigu and Putin picked mushrooms together in Siberia.

Shoigu and his wife Irina met as students and have two daughters.

One, Ksenya, has been appointed to a government council to promote sport and fitness. The other, Yulia, heads a centre for psychological counselling at the emergency ministry.

Proud of his roots in southern Siberia, Shoigu issued a rare controversial statement in 2012, saying he backed moving the Russian capital to the region.