Two men who sit at the top of the Russian military’s top-level hierarchy have been noticeably absent in recent weeks. Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia Valery Gerasimov disappeared from view on March 11. Given that Russia is at war, this was strange. It would be expected of Gerasimov to attend a ceremonial event, maybe during one or more of the many funerals for Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine. Shoigu was selected personally to be Russia’s defense minister by President Vladimir Putin in 2012. Informally, Shoigu is known as a toady and catchfart to Putin, and they often travel together. So his absence was more evident since he's Putin's frequent traveling companion.
It was all a little bizarre, particularly in light of the influx of high-level arrests in the last few weeks. Some speculated that it was possible that the main reasons Shoigu and Gerasimov had no desire to meet with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was because they weren't the current leaders.
The mystery was resolved–or may have been exacerbated–this week when Shoigu resurfaced. For a brief moment, Sergei Shoigu was back on Russian TV screens, in the corner of a teleconference with Vladimir Putin.
The Russian defense minister, possibly the most accountable for the shaky efforts to fight Ukraine, had not been visible for more than 12 days. Also, the head of General Staff of Russia's military force, Valery Gerasimov, had also gone AWOL. Rumors had started to circulate that they might have been punished for their planned invasion, which had failed to capture important Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv and Kyiv and forced Russia into economic deprivation.
Russians have already seen Putin insult and browbeat the head of Russia's foreign-intelligence agency, Sergei Naryshkin, during a telecast meeting on the fate of Russian-controlled territory in the eastern region of Ukraine. Journalists have filed reports of an investigation within the FSB (Federal Security Service) directorate responsible for foreign intelligence, including into Ukraine, and the detention of a senior official of Russia's national guard.
The absence of Shoigu has been a point of discussion leading to Vladimir Putin's Mini-Me, his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, being asked questions regarding Shoigu's location at Thursday's propaganda dump.
“The defense minister has a lot to deal with right now, as you can understand,” Dmitri Peskov, who is the Kremlin spokesperson, said at the briefing, debunking the rumor that Shoigu was unwell. “A special military mission is currently in the process. This is certainly not the best time to conduct media events. It's understandable.”
In order to defuse the situation, the Kremlin came up with the idea of a video conference featuring Shoigu. It was noticed that after being confronted with a problem and recognizing it as a problem, the Kremlin quickly brought Shoigu on the air. The video released on Thursday included a teleconference of the security council with Vladimir Putin, where Shoigu was reported to have shared “progress in the special military operation and efforts being made by the military to provide humanitarian aid, ensure security, and restore vital infrastructure on the liberated territories.”
However, you wouldn't be able to tell because the sound was switched off. Then Shoigu was seen for only a few seconds in front of a number of Russian flags in an unidentified place. One of his arms moved, proving that it was not just a photo of the minister returning to the television screen to debunk rumors concerning his death. And, then, the man was gone.
The same group of people in the Kremlin who assured Putin that taking Ukraine would be a breeze appear to have believed that this would resolve the Shoigu issue. Many viewers have observed that the quality of the video with Shoigu is not great, creating the impression of the camera recording a screen instead of a real human (there are valid reasons for thinking this). Shoigu doesn't speak. He uses one arm for a moment. Others have also noted that Shoigu’s appearance looks identical to his previous television appearances.
Shoigu may well be alive and surrounded by Russian hookers. However, the best way to dispel any rumors about his disappearance wasn't an improvised video conference, where he had only a shaky video connection that was silenced.