Since the start of the Ukrainian invasion, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov have become pivotal figures in the war unleashed by Vladimir Putin.
When Putin is not alone on screen, they are usually around. From the very beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Shoigu and Gerasimov became the face of war.
The two are very close to Putin. They were, for example, Putin’s military arrangement during his TV announcement on February 28 about putting the Russian nuclear forces on alert.
It is not surprising that the Kremlin decided to put Shoigu and Gerasimov in the spotlight. In Putin’s eyes, they are the architects of the successful campaign to annex Crimea in 2014, Russia’s military strategy in Syria, as well as support for pro-Russian rebels in the Donbass region.
The duo are also seen as among Putin’s most loyal followers. Interestingly, both were appointed within weeks of each other to their positions in 2012.
It was said that Shoigu would remain in office as long as Gerasimov remained loyal to the staff and vice versa. However, these twins on the front lines of implementing the will of the Russian President in Ukraine have different backgrounds and profiles.
Sergei Shoigu is the ostensible eternal heir, one of the rare members of the first circle of power who had as much influence under Boris Yeltsin at the end of the 1990s as influence under Putin.
The 66-year-old began his political career at the end of the Soviet era and became defense minister in 2012 despite his lack of military experience, something uncommon under Putin, who is keen to keep senior officers out of the position. However, Shoigu also does not have any experience with secret services, which is less common among those close to Putin.
His remarkable quality is that he is a “servant of the tsar and father of soldiers,” the Russian daily Moscow Times wrote, quoting Mikhail Lermontov’s famous poem “Borodino” in praise of the heroism of the Russian army.
Sergei Konvis, a politician from the Siberian region of Tuva, from which Shoigu hails, described the lyric as a “perfect chameleon”, able to change itself at will to suit the pleasure of its leaders.
Thus, under Yeltsin, he became Minister of Emergency Situations. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the State Department had become a true state within a state, with more than 350,000 men and even a special police force ready to deploy to fight any conflagration on Russian soil. He was a very active minister and never failed to visit the scene of the tragedy that made him so popular – and the assumption that he would be Yeltsin’s successor.
However, it was Putin who took power in 2002. Apparently, Shoigu did not take offense and immediately put himself at the service of the new Kremlin strongman. He notably headed the United Russia party, at Putin’s expense, in order to strengthen the president’s grip on the Russian political game.
Shoigu also invited Putin several times to his home in Tuva, where he gave high-level parties.
He is not just one of the prominent courtiers, according to “The Guardian” Shoigu is described as responsible for the extensive modernization of the Russian army. As defense minister, Shoigu also oversaw the feared Russian military intelligence service, or GRU, which is suspected of escalating assassinations in Europe in 2010, including the attempted poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.
Valery Gerasimov Valery Gerasimov has attained legendary status. The soldier was born in 1955 in Kazan, one of the most populous cities in Russia, and served in the armored divisions of the Red Army throughout the former Soviet Union.
Gerasimov was also one of the commanders of the North Caucasus Army during the Second Chechen War (1999-2009). The BBC reported in 2012 that the famous journalist and critic of the Russian government, Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in 2006, described him as an example of “a man who knew how to uphold his honor as an officer” during that war. Gerasimov’s claim to fame was that he arrested and convicted a Russian soldier accused of brutally murdering a Chechen woman during the conflict.
Gerasimov, described by Shoigu as a “head-to-toe military man,” led operations in Ukraine in 2014, in Syria and now, again, in Ukraine.
His international fame, however, is based on a misunderstanding. He is said to be the inventor of Russia’s “hybrid warfare,” which combines the use of conventional weapons with non-military methods – such as disinformation or cyberattacks – to prepare the ground for soldiers. There is even a “Gerasimov Doctrine” named after this military approach.
But the inventor of this term, Mark Gallotti, a British expert on Russian military affairs, has repeatedly tried to correct the record. He asserts that there is no official doctrine in Russia and that Gerasimophis is not a war theorist.
The misunderstanding stems from Gerasimovjav’s speech in 2013, in which he said that “the boundary between war and peace is becoming increasingly blurred” and that “non-military means of achieving strategic goals have gained importance.”
The speech seemed prophetic to observers after the annexation of Crimea, as such unorthodox means (pro-Russian propaganda, pseudo-operations) were used to justify war aims.
According to the Financial Times, the “Gerasimov Doctrine” has gained traction and the chief of staff’s rhetoric has been closely studied in Washington. But Gerasimov’s analysis “did not describe how the Russian army should act, but despite the West’s operation,” Ruslan Bokov, director of the Russian Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told the newspaper.
Gerasimov believed that hybrid warfare was what the United States used to provoke the Arab Spring uprisings and that Washington was trying to use it against Moscow.
“Unfortunately, like a creature in a horror movie, the idea of the “hybrid warfare” doctrine has taken root in Washington analyst circles. There have been whole theories in which the “Gerasimov Doctrine” is an essential part, wrote Michael Kaufman, one of the leading American specialists in the Russian army. From the ‘Chaus’ theory of political war against the West’.
As Galeotti wrote, Gerasimov and his mythological cult personified the return of the Russian military villain, “although he may not have written the damned speech himself.”
This article was translated from the original into French.