Brussels, SAEDNEWS: When Putin is not alone on the screen, they are usually around. Since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, Shoigou and Gerasimov have become the faces of the war.
The two are extremely close to Putin. They were, for example, Putin's military cortège during his television announcement on February 28 about having put Russia's nuclear forces on heightened 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 the support for the pro-Russian rebels in the Donbas region.
The duo is also perceived to be being among the most loyal of Putin's followers. Interestingly, both were appointed within weeks of each other to their respective posts in 2012.
It has been said that Shoigu will remain in office as long as Gerasimov remains chief of staff and vice versa. However, these two men on the front line of implementing the will of the Russian president in Ukraine have very different backgrounds and profiles.
Shoigu is the eternal heir apparent. He is one of the rare members of the first circle of power to have had as much influence under Boris Yeltsin at the end of the 1990s as under Putin.
The 66-year-old apparatchik began his political career at the end of the Soviet era, becoming defence minister in 2012 despite lacking military experience. It is a peculiarity not uncommon under Putin, who is keen to keep senior officers out of this position. However, Shoigu also does not have any experience of the secret services, which is much less common among those close to Putin.
His great quality is that he is “a servant to the tsar and a father to soldiers”, writes the Russian daily Moscow Times, paraphrasing 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, where Shoigu comes from, described him less lyrically as a “perfect chameleon”, capable of transforming himself at will to suit the pleasure of his leaders.
Thus, under Yeltsin, he became the minister of emergency situations. By the turn of the 21st century, the ministry had become a veritable state within a state, with more than 350,000 men and even a special police force ready to be deployed to combat any fire on Russian soil. He was a very active minister who never failed to visit the scene of a tragedy, which earned him great popularity – and a presumption that he would be Yeltsin's successor.
However, it was Putin who took power in 2002. Shoigu did not seem to take offence and immediately put himself at the service of the new strong man of Kremlin. He notably headed the United Russia party, in the pay of Putin, in order to cement the president's hold on the Russian political game.
Shoigu has also invited Putin several times to his house in Tuva, where he has organised high-profile fishing parties.
He is not just an outstanding courtier, however. According to “The Guardian”, Shoigu is described as being responsible for the vast modernisation of the Russian army. As defence minister, Shoigu also supervised the feared Russian military intelligence service or GRU, which is suspected of having stepped up assassination operations in Europe in the 2010s, including the attempted poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018.
Valery Gerasimov has attained mythic status. The career soldier was born in 1955 in Kazan, one of the most populous cities in Russia. He served in the armoured 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, had described him as an example of “a man who knew how to preserve his honour as an officer” during that war. Gerasimov’s claim to fame was that he had arrested and convicted a Russian soldier accused of brutalising and murdering a young Chechen woman during the conflict.
Gerasimov, described by Shoigu as a “military man from head to toe”, 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 Russian “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 for this military approach.
But the inventor of this term, Mark Galeotti, a British expert of Russian military issues, has repeatedly tried to correct the record. He emphasises that there is no such official doctrine in Russia and that Gerasimov is not a war theorist.
The misunderstanding stems from a speech Gerasimov gave in 2013, in which he said the “border between war and peace had become increasingly blurred” and that “non-military means of achieving strategic goals had gained in importance”.
The speech seemed prophetic to observers following the annexation of Crimea, where such unconventional means (pro-Russian propaganda, false-flag operations to justify wartime goals) were used.
According to the “Financial Times”, the “Gerasimov doctrine” gained traction and the speech of the chief of staff was studied very closely in Washington. But Gerasimov's analysis “did not describe how the Russian army should act, but how he thought the West operated”, Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Russian Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told the paper.
Gerasimov thought hybrid war was what the US had used to foment the Arab Spring uprisings and that Washington was trying to use it against Moscow.
“Unfortunately, like a creature in a horror movie, this idea of a 'hybrid warfare' doctrine has taken hold in Washington analyst circles. There have been entire theories in which the 'Gerasimov doctrine' is a central piece of ‘chaos theory’ of political warfare against the West," wrote Michael Kofman, one of the leading US specialists on the Russian army.
As Galeotti wrote, Gerasimov and his mythical doctrine embodied the return of the Russian military villain, “even though he probably didn't even write the damn speech himself” (Source: FRANCE 24).