Five days after the aborted coup by Evguéni Prigojine, the head of the Wagner Group, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Choigou, appears in the hot seat. One name regularly comes up to replace him: Alexei Dioumin, a former bodyguard of Vladimir Putin.
Long considered a political ally of Vladimir Putin but also one of his few friends within the Russian elite, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appears to be in a delicate situation since Yevgeny Prigojine’s failed uprising.
For weeks, the Wagner group had openly targeted him, accusing him of being responsible for the “weaknesses” of the Russian army in Ukraine. For some, his operation to Moscow will have proved his claims. In the higher authorities, Sergueï Choigou would appear as the one who did not know how to prevent the advance of the militia.
If for now the Kremlin has preferred to show its support for its minister, the rumors about his possible replacement are multiplying. And one name regularly appears for his legacy: Alexeï Dioumine.
“It is very likely that Alexei Dioumin will become defense minister,” pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov wrote on his Telegram channel on Tuesday, June 27.
“But it won’t happen immediately, so you can’t believe that Shoigu was removed from office at Wagner’s request,” he continued. “It seems Dioumin is now the favorite (for the Ministry of Defense),” raves Abbas Gallyamov, former speechwriter for Vladimir Putin, also via his Telegram channel.
From bodyguard to governor
“This name does not come out of nowhere. Alexei Dioumin has been in the service of Vladimir Putin for a long time and he has had the opportunity to prove himself to the leader of the Kremlin on many occasions”, explains Stephen Hall, specialist in Russia at University of Bath, England.
At 50, this former army electronics engineer, the son of a teacher and a military doctor, is the governor of the Tula Oblast south of Moscow, a region that concentrates the largest Russian military industrial enterprises. But before that, Alexei Dioumin mainly spent fifteen years in the Russian Presidential Security Service as Vladimir Putin’s personal bodyguard.
He was by his side the day the Russian president, during the second Chechen war in the early 2000s, boarded the wrong helicopter to bring him back to Moscow. Alexei Dioumin tried to warn him, in vain. If Vladimir Putin returned safely to Moscow, the first device borrowed by his bodyguard caught fire and crashed. “I thought it was the end,” he told Russian media outlet The Kommersant.
The perfect example, according to him, of the president’s “luck.” Alexei Dioumin was also there the night Vladimir Putin, traveling in Siberia, was almost attacked by a bear. The story goes that his bodyguard then scared the animal away by emptying his gun into the snow. “So many moments that allowed him to win the trust of his boss”, sums up Stephen Hall.
From 2014, the bodyguard’s career experienced a meteoric acceleration. He joined the GRU, the military intelligence services. According to several sources, he is responsible for the emergency evacuation to Russia of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during the Maidan revolution – an implication that the person in question has always denied, despite the success of the operation.
“But above all, he plays a key role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and proves his military skills and his abilities as a strategist,” the specialist further notes. Because of these successes, he won the Hero of Russia medal and in 2015 became chief of staff of the ground troops before becoming deputy defense minister.
“With this CV and this experience, Vladimir Putin would therefore have no difficulty in justifying this choice to the Ministry of Defence”, sums up Stephan Hall. “Like the current minister, Alexei Dioumin is seen as loyal to the regime, but more importantly, he has gained a reputation as someone who is very competent … which Sergei Shoigu is struggling to claim at the moment.”
However, his transition to the Ministry of Defense will be lightning fast. He will join Tula Oblast a few months later. “Putin was cleaning up his entourage, wanted to get rid of the governor of the moment and took the opportunity to place his pawns”, the specialist sums up. Another proof therefore of the closeness between the two men.
The “success session” or a potential competitor?
Since then, Alexei Dioumin has remained fairly erased from the public scene, but his intimate connection with the head of the Kremlin has earned him regular mention as his possible successor as head of state. While the next presidential election is scheduled for 2024, “appointing him as head of the Ministry of Defense could therefore be a way to prepare for the deadline”, according to Stephan Hall.
With several hypotheses: “E many points, Vladimir Putin must see in Alexei Dioumin a potential heir”, he states. “So it might be a good way to test him before 2024, with the aim of elevating him in the ranks of power.”
“But that’s not to mention that Putin hates feeling in competition. Propelling him to this position during a war where the Russian army appears to be in trouble could also be a way to ensure that he fails and that he will not pose a threat to the leader of the Kremlin”, he raises.
Because even though he is not yet an official candidate, there is no doubt about the desire of Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for 20 years, to run for a fifth term at the head of the country.
Another obstacle: Alexeï Dioumine is reputed to be close to the head of Wagner Evguéni Prigojine. “But he could ultimately turn this to his advantage and become a minister of compromise, the one who would agree among the Russian elites and thus ease the tensions resulting from the conflict in Ukraine”, concludes Stephen Hall.
“Either way, it would have the benefit of being seen as a desire for change — a breath of fresh air — in the way this war is run, which is skating on.”