Sergei Shoigu, a popular and usually high-profile Russian minister, was last seen on March 11 when he held talks with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar. His unusual absence from the public eye has prompted reports he might be “unwell”, with Agentstvo, a respected Russian investigative website, quoting an unnamed source from Mr Shoigu’s inner circle saying he had “heart problems”.
On the same day of his meeting with Mr Akar, the defence minister visited a military hospital in Moscow to present medals to injured soldiers.
A week later, on March 18, state television reported the 66-year-old had again visited servicemen in hospital. The video that accompanied the report, however, was a week old.
The former emergency services chief is a native of Tuva, in eastern Siberia.
He and Putin have often gone on hiking trips together, and the two celebrated the Russian president’s 67th birthday in the Siberian wilderness.
Neither the defence ministry nor the Kremlin have commented on Mr Shoigu’s lack of public appearances.
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Agentstvo also noted Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, has not been seen in public since roughly the same date as Mr Shoigu, while General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia’s general staff, was also last seen on March 11.
On Wednesday, NATO estimated 7,000 to 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in the four weeks of war.
For comparison, Russia lost about 15,000 soldiers over 10 years in Afghanistan.
According to a senior NATO military official speaking on condition of anonymity, the figures are based on information from Ukrainian authorities, data released by the Kremlin and intelligence collected from open sources.
As per Ukraine’s General Staff of Armed Forces, Russia has also lost 530 tanks, 1,597 armoured vehicles, 108 planes, 124 helicopters and 50 drones.
Moscow rarely updates the figures of its military losses. The last time it did so, was on March 2, when it said 498 servicemen had been killed in Ukraine.
But a line in an article about the war in pro-Kremlin paper Komsomolskaya Pravda on March 21 read: “According to Russian defence ministry data … 9,861 Russian soldiers had been killed in action and another 16,153 had been wounded.”
The publication shortly after deleted the line and claimed its site had been hacked.
It said in a statement on its website: “Access to the administrative interface was hacked on the Komsomolskaya Pravda website and a fake was made in this publication about the situation around the special operation in Ukraine.
“The false information was immediately deleted.”
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While it is unclear how Komsomolskaya Pravda could have gained access to those figures — nor if they are true — the numbers suggest, once again, Russian troops are suffering significant losses.
President Putin publicly condemned remarks on the death toll among his military.
He said in a speech last week: “The collective West is trying to divide our society.”
By “speculating on military losses”, he added, nations are trying to “provoke a civil rebellion in Russia”.
The most eager agent in such a rebellion, Moscow said, is the UK.
On Thursday, March 24, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed Prime Minister Boris Johnson is considered “the most active participant in the race to be anti-Russian”.
The RIA news agency quoted Ms Peskov as saying: “It will lead to a foreign policy dead end.”
The remarks came as the Prime Minister joins a NATO summit and G7 meeting in Brussels.
Ahead of his talks with world leaders, he said Putin “has already crossed the red line into barbarism” and urged allies to “step up” and “tighten the economic vice” around the dictator.
Mr Johnson confirmed the UK will double the number of missiles it sends to Ukraine, promising 6,000 more units of anti-tank and high-explosive weaponry as well as a raft of new sanctions on Russia.