FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu speak after a military parade on Victory Day, marking the 77th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, on Red Square in central Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2022. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo
LONDON, Feb 20 (Reuters) – His army has staged three humiliating withdrawals from Ukraine in the past year and nearly 200,000 of its men have been killed or wounded, according to US officials, but Russia’s defense minister remains in his post thanks to the president Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader has several reasons for keeping Sergei Shoigu, 67, in his post, according to senior Western officials, veteran Kremlin watchers and former Western military commanders: He is ultra-loyal, helped Putin become president and decision-maker on Ukraine is not his concern alone.
“Loyalty always trumps competition in Putin’s inner circle,” said Andrew Weiss, a Putin specialist at the Carnegie Endowment think tank, who served in various political roles on the US National Security Council and has written a book on Putin.
Putin has publicly admitted that it is difficult for him to fire people and that he often deals with such matters personally, Weiss said.
“Several people in senior positions, whose performance at work leaves much to be desired, including Shoigu, benefit from this underappreciated sentimental side of (Putin’s) personality,” he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about Shoigu or its own performance in Ukraine.
A feisty character who trained as a civil engineer, Shoigu has held senior positions in Russia’s power structures uninterruptedly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, serving as Emergencies Minister under the late President Boris Yeltsin.
Appointed defense minister in 2012, he is part of Putin’s inner circle and has enjoyed hunting and fishing holidays with him in his native Siberia.
Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik analytics firm and a Kremlin watcher, said Putin prefers to work with people he knows well, despite any flaws they may have.
A senior NATO diplomat and a senior EU official said they still saw Putin and his generals as the main decision-makers on Ukraine, not Shoigu.
The Kremlin says it will achieve its objectives in Ukraine in what it calls its “special military operation” and has dismissed Western casualty estimates as exaggerated. Russian forces still control about a fifth of Ukraine and kyiv suspects they are preparing for another major offensive.
However, the Russian invasion is seen as having shed a grim light on Moscow’s army, which was driven back by Kiev, defeated in north-eastern Ukraine and forced to surrender in the southern city of Kherson.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, Mark Trevelyan in London and John Irish in Paris, Spanish editing by José Muñoz in the Gdańsk newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)