Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has been in office for more than a decade, and he is not only a political ally of President Vladimir Putin, but also one of his few friends within the Russian elite, but their relationship seems to be at stake.
The two men swam together in remote Siberia, shared fishing trips and played on the same ice hockey team.
Now, their friendship, and their decades-spanning political career, faces its biggest test after the armed rebellion of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who criticized the defense minister's handling of the invasion of Ukraine.
It seems that Putin survived the rebellion after the surprising mediation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. But Shoigu's position remains fragile due to the unprecedented intensity of Prigozhin's criticism of him and his ministry.
Prigozhin succeeded in seizing the headquarters of the Russian Army's Southern Command in "Rostov-on-Don", the city of Rostov on the Don River, which is the nerve center of military operations in Ukraine.
Wagner's commander accused Shoigu of fleeing "like a coward" and vowed that he would "be stopped".
Since then, the Minister of Defense has disappeared, and he remains in hiding.
The Wagner commander had earlier accused Shoigu and his other opponent, Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, of being responsible for the deaths of "tens of thousands of Russians" in the war and of "handing over territory to the enemy".
- "The biggest loser" -
The director of the French-Russian Observatory, Arnaud Dubien, believes that "the biggest victor on this night is Lukashenko," while "the biggest loser is Shoigu."
But even before the rebellion broke out on Friday night, Shoigu was under tremendous pressure due to Prigozhin's criticism and the failure of the Russian armed forces to make progress.
On June 12, a video clip spread widely of Putin and Shoigu attending a medal distribution event in a military hospital, and the Russian president appeared in the video turning his back on the defense minister in clear contempt.
Shoigu has a long political career unparalleled in post-Soviet Russia, and his presence in the center of power in Moscow predates that of Putin himself.
Shoigu hails from the Tuva region in southern Siberia, and is among the few ethnic minorities who held a high position in the government after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
His rise began in 1994 when he was appointed Minister of Emergency Situations in the early years of Boris Yeltsin's presidency.
His presence became familiar to Russians, as well as being one of the most popular politicians in the country, as he moved around to deal with disasters ranging from plane crashes to earthquakes.
Shoigu served in the government with about a dozen prime ministers, and he has held the defense portfolio since 2012, when he was appointed governor of the Moscow region before Putin appointed him defense minister in the same year after a corruption scandal brought down his predecessor Anatoly Serdyukov.
- 'On the verge of collapse' -
Shoigu was given the rank of general immediately after his appointment as defense minister, despite his lack of any high-level military experience, but he successfully oversaw operations including the intervention in Syria in 2015 that kept Moscow's ally Bashar al-Assad in power.
On his 65th birthday, Putin gave him a special gift of one of Russia's highest honors, the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, which he added to a box full of decorations.
But the less successful invasion of Ukraine—which the Kremlin initially hoped would see Russian tanks roll into Kiev—continually raises questions about its future.
“Prigozhin wanted to send a message that Shoigu and Gerasimov should be fired because they are incompetent and there is a need to change the strategy,” says Pierre Razeau, a researcher at the France-based Institute for Mediterranean Strategic Studies.
Meanwhile, signs of friendship and joint photos of hunting trips, as in 2017, are absent.
Instead, Shoigu appears in lackluster interviews reporting to Putin or showing his face at the edge of a screen while the president oversees a video conference.
Prigozhin also targeted the Shoigu family, particularly Ksenia's son-in-law, Alexei Stolyarov, a fitness blogger who distanced himself from the war and opposition media said he liked a post opposing the invasion.
Russian-speaking channels in the Telegram application are full of speculation about who could succeed Shoigu, and the most likely alternative is the governor of the Tula region, Alexei Dyumin, who previously held high positions in the army and presidential security.
In this regard, the Bremenk channel said on Telegram, "The Shoigu group is on the verge of collapse, and Sergey Kuzugitovich (Shoigu) himself is a disgrace and will most likely resign."