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Tipsheet

So, Is This the Man Whose Head Will Be Served on a Platter to Putin Over the Fiasco in Ukraine?

Yuri Kochetkov/Pool Photo via AP

The Russian military has been embarrassed. They’re paying for this Ukrainian invasion with buckets of blood. Their vehicles either run out of gas, get stuck in the mud off-road, and are then blasted apart by anti-tank weapons, specifically Javelins. Ukrainians are putting up a ferocious resistance that’s prevented Russians from making much headway in some of their top objectives. Russian troops are reportedly abandoning vehicles in that 40-mile convoy outside of Kyiv after multiple Javelin attacks. They don’t want to be incinerated while waiting in those vehicles. This is a logistic nightmare for Moscow thought they could roll into Ukraine with much resistance—a gross miscalculation. 

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The Ukrainian military has not disintegrated. The Ukrainian people are taking up arms. One Russian intelligence official said that this operation was teetering on total disaster. So, who’s to blame? Who will be served as a sacrifice? Who will have their head placed on a pike for this humiliation? That could be Vladimir Putin’s top military official, defense minister Sergei Shoigu, who is not a professional soldier. He’s a civil engineer. He’s also a grade-A ass kisser when it comes to Putin so you can see why he’s solidly inside that inner circle that’s been chewed out in recent days for this Ukrainian calamity. 

The Wall Street Journal did a lengthy profile of the man. Shoigu earned his spurs with the Russian operations in Syria and the Crimean annexation in 2014. He modernized the armed forces, gave them throwback uniforms that looked like the ones Stalin issued during the Cold War, and totally backed Putin’s agenda of Russian nationalism and antagonizing the West. Now, all those modernizations turned out to fall well short of their operational capacity (via WSJ):

Victories in Crimea and Syria helped propel Mr. Shoigu and the military to the center of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin power structure, with an upper hand over the feared intelligence services that had previously been the main supporters of the Russian president, who is himself a former spy.

Russian troops’ failure to quickly seize Ukraine, however, has shown Mr. Shoigu’s changes, while real, didn’t create the fearsome fighting force he touted. Poor logistics, flawed strategy and ill-prepared troops mean any victory will be immensely costly, and an occupation hard to sustain.

Experts on the Russian military place some of the blame on Mr. Shoigu’s willingness to back Mr. Putin’s plans, even if they are unrealistic. That has meant agreeing with assumptions the Ukrainian military would quickly fold in the face of a superior force and that Russian troops would be greeted as liberators.

“Beyond Putin, this is very damning for one person in particular, and that is Sergei Shoigu,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, Va. “By agreeing to these assumptions and this type of operation, he has essentially thrown the Russian military into a disaster.”

It is hard to predict how this plays out for Mr. Shoigu. His acquiescence to the invasion demonstrated loyalty to Mr. Putin’s political objectives in Europe. But if the operation fails, the Kremlin leader would likely look for a scapegoat. “It all depends on how this all ends for Putin,” said Mr. Kofman.

Whether or not Russia prevails in Ukraine, Mr. Shoigu’s initial strategy to quickly topple the Ukrainian government with minimal losses has failed. After 11 days of fighting, Russian troops have failed to take any major city and have suffered unexpectedly heavy casualties. Ukraine has gotten global support and Western sanctions are on track to cripple the Russian economy. To make up for its military setbacks, Russia has increasingly resorted to indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian areas.

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Yeah, if I were a betting man, I’d say Mr. Shoigu could be slated for one of those permanent vacations. If not one of those, he might suffer a ‘tragic accident’ that you often see in these countries when the authoritarian leader is not pleased with his top men. You know, the ones where the guy ‘shoots himself in the face nine times and throws himself over a bridge’—those types of accidents.  

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