Vladimir Putin’s defence minister has vanished with “heart problems” as the Kremlin’s war effort in Ukraine stalls.
Sergei Shoigu has not been seen for 12 days and old footage or pictures have been shown of him on TV, say reports in opposition media.
On March 18, Shoigu, 66, was mentioned in a Kremlin website report saying he and Putin had discussed “the progress of the special operation in Ukraine” with permanent members of the security council.
But videos and pictures were not shown.
On the same day, state-controlled Channel One aired a story about Shoigu presenting awards.
Yet an image used with the report was the same as shown on 11 March.
Earlier in the war, he had been more visible and frequently quoted.
His circle said he was unwell – with heart problems, investigative news outlet Agentstvo was told by a source close to the minister.
Shoigu is seen as one of Putin’s closest and most loyal allies.
However, strains have appeared over the conduct of the war with him and other leading army and security chiefs.
Shoigu’s daughter Ksenia, 31, appeared with her baby in pictures recently in Ukrainian blue and yellow colours.
In June last year his sister Larisa Shoigu, 68, died of Covid.
It comes as furious Putin has started a witch-hunt of his most trusted inner circle to find the “guilty men” responsible for the failure of his war strategy.
The Russian president is said to be “incandescent” as his military plans were leaked to the West, who shared them with his Ukrainian enemies.
The failure is seen as one of the main reasons several of his top generals and elite forces have been eliminated during the four weeks of warfare.
Putin is said to be growing weary of his close ally and vacation friend Sergei Shoigu, Russia ’s defence minister, who is in overall charge of the stalling military operation.
Long-time ally FSB security service head Alexander Bortnikov- spoken as a stand-in should Putin fall in a coup – is also under pressure, as is Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff.
Another target of Putin’s fury is Igor Kostyukov, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Armed forces, who may face imminent removal.
A source said: “He is incandescent that US and UK intelligence appear to know the Russian army’s next moves all the time, starting with predicting the invasion before he was ready to acknowledge it.”
It comes as the Kremlin admitted more than 10,000 Russian soldiers have so far been killed in Ukraine, with thousands more injured.