4 min read

How is the Russian Media Spinning Shoigu’s Demotion?

How is the Russian Media Spinning Shoigu’s Demotion?

Last week, Vladimir Putin replaced Sergei Shoigu, his minister of defense, with Andrei Belousov, an economist. 

Shoigu was a controversial figure in Russian life. He is known to have a close relationship with Putin and had served as Russia’s minister of defense since 2012, but according to FilterLabs.AI’s analysis of Russian soldiers’ social media sites, Shoigu was unpopular with his troops. He also received harsh criticism from some, like the now-deceased mercenary commander Evgeny Prigozhin, who never dared to challenge Putin directly. He absorbed criticism of the Russian military’s ongoing struggles in Ukraine. To borrow a phrase from the television show Succession, he was a “pain sponge.”

FilterLabs has been using Talisman, its data analysis and visualization platform, to track narratives about Shoigu’s demotion, both in the mainstream media and in social media discussion. We wanted to glean insight not only into why Putin relieved Shoigu of his command, but also into what the Kremlin and the Russian public are thinking about the next phases of the war.

Looking over Talisman’s findings for the past several months, we saw that sentiment in news stories about Shoigu actually dipped sharply even before his reassignment. It started to fall when his deputy defense minister, Timur Ivanov, was arrested for corruption. 

The drop appeared both in the mainstream press…

…and on social media.

Before the Ivanov revelations, stories about Shoigu in the mainstream press had a generally positive tone. He was announcing Russian military advances, reporting Ukrainian casualties, and updating the public on ship building and new training grounds. 

But with the arrest of Ivanov, the narrative changed fast. Through Talisman’s analysis of a wide range of online discourse, we could see that stories about Ivanov’s arrest typically yoked him to Shoigu. “Political Blow to Shoigu? What Is Behind the Detention of Deputy Minister Ivanov,” read one headline. Another story noted that Prigozhin, the mercenary commander, had accused Ivanov of theft. 

In the days after the Ivanov arrest, there were multiple reports, both in the news and in social media, of military projects unfinished or abandoned. It was a far cry from Shoigu’s previous coverage, which emphasized projects completed under his leadership. Some commentators speculated that Ivanov’s arrest had given Putin the pretext (if he needed one) to remove Shoigu.

On May 12th, that’s exactly what happened. Some mainstream media coverage tried to present Shoigu’s new position as a lateral move, even a promotion, but others described him as “let go,” “dismissed,” or just “fired.” Regardless of how the change is characterized, the reason for Shoigu’s reassignment was runaway military costs. Putin’s spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, told reporters it had to do with the fact that “The budget of the Ministry of Defense and the security bloc was quite recently around 3%, then it grew to 3.4%. And most recently it has grown to 6.7%.”  In both social media and mainstream news, Talisman detected another dip in sentiment related to Shoigu, which had begun to recover after its late April plunge. 

The ability to observe shifts in attitude as extensive as those Talisman detected in the online discourse surrounding Shoigu—particularly, as in this case, when such a shift appears across a broad range of online discourse, from Kremlin-sponsored news to local forums and chats—may provide an important signal that can help predict future policy moves. 

There are two main takeaways from the whole affair. The first is that while the Russian military is advancing in Ukraine, the war effort is proving costly at home, even unacceptably so. Before Shoigu’s fall, he was announcing one successful military project after another. But as soon as he had outlived his usefulness, there were stories about runaway costs and failed projects. In one damning instance, a commenter on VK reported that the construction of a military hospital for veterans, supervised directly by Ivanov, was frozen indefinitely. The Russian military-industrial complex remains inefficient, and often corrupt. It makes some sense that Putin would put an economist in charge of it. (Although American historians might remind him that putting economists in charge of your war machine doesn’t always work out like you’d hope.) 

Second, high-level corruption poses a problem for Russia’s conservative politicians. On the one hand, they insist that discussion of “Russian corruption” is at best disinformation and at worst the work of Western saboteurs. On the other hand, Ivanov’s arrest is tantamount to admitting that there is in fact graft in the highest reaches of the government. 

How to square the circle? The answer might be anti-Semitism. Stories about Ivanov emphasized his foreignness: his wealth, his wife’s holidays in Cote d’Azur, and his son studying in England (not at the front). Several posts online accused Ivanov of being Jewish (his wife has Israeli citizenship) and speculated darkly about the influence of the Israeli government in Russian affairs. In other words, playing on anti-Semitism provided a way to claim that Ivanov is not really Russian, but a traitor in their midst. 

As the war drags on, this kind of scapegoating could easily become more common.

FilterLabs.AI is a data analytics company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We leverage natural language processing and tailored data modeling to scour and analyze global online communications and deliver hyper-local insights. Learn more at filterlabs.ai.