Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has paid a rare visit to Russian troops serving in occupied Ukraine – a visit that’s probably as much about optics as about the course of Russia’s invasion.
A short video released by the Russian Defense Ministry showed Shoigu in a helicopter and then briefly with commanders amid some heavily damaged buildings. It was not immediately possible to geolocate the video.
The Defense Ministry said Shoigu “inspected the forward command post of one of the formations of the Vostok [Eastern] forces in the South Donetsk direction.”
The video did not suggest Shoigu was close to the most active front lines.
Russian critics of Shoigu have frequently described him as remote and out-of-touch with the realities of the conflict. Yevgeny Prigozhin – boss of the Wagner private military company – has regularly appeared on the frontlines around the city of Bakhmut, often accusing the Defense Ministry of starving his fighters of resources and bureaucratic incompetence.
Prigozhin said Friday that his fighters have almost surrounded Bakhmut, the only place of any consequence that Russian forces may be able to claim anytime soon.
Shoigu’s visit may be intended as a riposte to Prigozhin’s forward presence, and also to galvanize Russian operations. While there have been incremental Russian gains around Bakhmut (at great cost), and a substantial escalation in Russian artillery, tank and aviation assaults in many areas, much of the long frontline is as it was three months ago.
That is despite Russia’s mobilization of 300,000 men last autumn and efforts to concentrate resources in the Donbas theater following the Russian withdrawal from nearly half of the Kherson region in the south in November.
The video released by the Defense Ministry showed Shoigu at a meeting with three senior officers involved in the conflict: Colonel Generals Mikhail Mizintsev, Sergei Rudskoy, and Rustam Muradov. This is probably intended to show that the Defense Ministry is firmly in control of the operation, despite Prigozhin’s comments.
But it’s somewhat puzzling that the man directly in charge of the whole operation – Valery Gerasimov – did not appear to be part of this well-choreographed visit.
Muradov’s presence is notable. The commander of the Eastern Military District, he has been frequently criticized by Russian military bloggers and even units under his command for tactics that have led to heavy casualties, especially around the town of Vuhledar, where Russian forces suffered catastrophic losses in January.
The pro-Wagner Telegram channel Grey Zone wrote of Muradov last month: “This coward is laying down at the control point and sending a column after column until the commander of one of the brigades involved in the Vuhledar assault is dead on the contact line.”
Despite the deployment of a sizeable Russian assault force, Vuhledar remains in Ukrainian hands.
In the Defense Ministry video released Saturday, Shoigu is seen as presenting awards to several soldiers, saying: “There is still a lot of work ahead. I really hope that you will continue to faithfully serve our country. Good luck, success, and, of course, come back home alive!”
Yet another hint that the Russian hierarchy expects a long slog to achieve the goals of the invasion, a far cry from the lightning campaign that was promised – and soon unraveled – one year ago.