VLADIMIR Putin’s loyal defence minister sparked a swirl of speculation after he was “missing” from a key meeting to declare martial law.
Sergei Shoigu was not visible as the president spoke to Russia’s Security Council by video conference from the Kremlin yesterday.
It fuelled claims he is set to be replaced by “General Armageddon” – the ruthless commander recently promoted to take charge of the disastrous war in Ukraine.
Yesterday Putin announced sweeping restrictions on four annexed regions of Ukraine and six neighbouring areas of Russia, plus Crimea.
He closed borders, handed extra powers to governors and “mobilised” the local economy for the war effort.
Putin was seen speaking to a large TV showing the senior officials and military chiefs who make up the council.
Viewers spotted that Shoigu – who is under intense pressure over failures in Ukraine – was not shown on the screen.
More junior members were seen, including General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, and national guard director Viktor Zolotov.
Max Seddon, the FT’s Moscow bureau chief, tweeted: “Kremlinologists will note that Gerasimov and Zolotov, who aren’t permanent security council members, are there, and Shoigu – who is a permanent member – is not.”
The Kremlin denied the reports and insisted Shoigu did attend the meeting along with others who did not appear on screen.
But it stoked speculation about his future as Putin’s war chief.
Analysts say Shoigu – Putin’s old hunting buddy and most loyal lieutenant – is being lined up as a scapegoat.
He has been criticised after Ukrainian forces retook huge areas of the occupied east and south in a series of lightning counteroffensives.
Kirill Stremousov, the Kremlin-installed leader of occupied Kherson, suggested Shoigu should “shoot himself”.
And Vladimir Solovyev, one of Putin’s chief TV propagandists, said the defence ministry’s problems could be solved by Shoigu transferring “to another job”.
Some critics claim his main purpose has been to absorb flak for Putin’s failures – a role that could now go to Sergey Surovikin.
The commander – dubbed General Armageddon for his brutal bombing of civilians in Syria – was put in charge of the collapsing army earlier this month.
Insiders claim he is an “outright idiot” and Putin is taking the real decisions.
“Surovikin is not a tactician, nor a strategist, nor a commander,” reported the General SVR Telegram channel.
“Putin took on all these incarnations, and Surovikin does what the Supreme Commander says – and nods his head when asked.
“His role as ‘war chief’ is solely for collecting negativity intended for the president, and…at the same time to calm the people.”
Yesterday Surovikin made a farcical bid to justify his soldiers’ retreat from Kherson – claiming he is saving civilian lives.
He also admitted: “There is a difficult situation in the Kherson area.”
Today we reported the general is planning to blow up a dam and flood Kherson city as troops abandon the front line.
He has also ordered 60,000 terrified residents to leave their homes – feared to be “a cover for the mass forced removal of civilians”, the Institute for the Study of War said.
It is not the first time Shoigu has gone “missing”.
Early in the war he vanished from public view for a week after reports of a “heart attack”.
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