Throughout the 36-hour armed rebellion that shook Russia this weekend, two officials key to waging President Vladimir V. Putin’s war in Ukraine were glaringly absent: Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the Kremlin’s top military commander.
But now, as Mr. Putin seeks to project an image of restored stability and control, he has been putting his defense minister on display, even if Mr. Shoigu has not addressed the public or even been heard speaking.
A soundless video of Mr. Shoigu visiting military positions was released on Monday morning, in what some Kremlin watchers interpreted as a tacit sign of support for him. Some military bloggers were quick to point out that the video appeared to have been shot on Friday, before the armed rebellion led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group.
Mr. Shoigu was also present on Monday as Mr. Putin convened a meeting of his top security chiefs. Footage played on state television showed him sitting around a table with his head bowed and his hands folded.
On Tuesday, as Mr. Putin praised his security forces in a grandly choreographed speech, Mr. Shoigu was again present, wearing his military uniform. Later, Mr. Shoigu held a meeting with his Cuban counterpart at the National Defense Control Center of Russia.
“In conditions when the United States has been carrying out an illegal and illegitimate trade and economic blockade of Cuba for many decades, we are ready to help the Island of Freedom, lend a shoulder to our Cuban friends,” Mr. Shoigu said, according to the Russian military’s Zvezda TV channel.
Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov are considered trusted allies of Mr. Putin, but in the past months they have largely stayed out of public view and have made only highly choreographed appearances, while Mr. Prigozhin published videos of himself on the front line amid corpses, with explosions booming in the distance.
Mr. Prigozhin has repeatedly and publicly criticized both men and complained that they have caused some of the Russian military’s problems. Other prominent Russian leaders have also criticized Mr. Shoigu and General Gerasimov.
In October, after Russia’s retreat from the Ukrainian city of Lyman, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya — who controls his own paramilitary force — wrote on the Telegram messaging app that Russia’s top military brass had “covered for” an “incompetent” general who should now be “sent to the front to wash his shame off with blood.”
Andrei Guryulov, a hard-line member of Russia’s Parliament from the ruling United Russia party, disparaged the military leadership around the same time.
“The whole problem is not on the ground, but on the Frunzenskaya embankment, where they still do not understand, and do not take ownership of the situation,” he said, referring to the location of the Defense Ministry. “Until something completely different appears in the General Staff, nothing will change.”
Even the staunch Putin ally Aleksandr Dugin, whose daughter was killed last autumn by a car bomb, called Mr. Putin and President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus “heroes,” but without naming them seemed to cast blame on supporters of Mr. Shoigu and Mr. Gerasimov for the Wagner rebellion.
“Those who made this situation possible, who committed it, and who could not prevent it, and when it all began, were unable to adequately respond, must be said goodbye to abruptly,” Mr. Dugin wrote on Telegram on Monday.
Mr. Shoigu, who was a very popular minister of emergency situations before becoming defense minister in 2012, has had a long and friendly relationship with Mr. Putin. Long before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the two were regularly photographed hunting, fishing and picking mushrooms. Ahead of Mr. Putin’s birthday in 2019, they vacationed together in the vast Russian taiga, taking long hikes. But he has never served in the military, which has been a cause of resentment among his critics.
General Gerasimov is seen as a consummate military man, though some analysts suggested at the time of his appointment that the Kremlin was looking to streamline military decision-making and appointed him in the hopes of getting a leader willing to carry out decisions coming directly from the top. He has not spoken to the public since the revolt.
Mr. Putin may have kept both men in charge as part of his decades-long efforts to place the sprawling Russian military more under his control.
“It’s a Russian paradox,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian security services.
Mr. Putin “needs someone quite weak and compromised to represent the military politically,” he added, “because what he remembers about the recent rise of history in the last 30 years is that even the most disastrous of wars produce popular generals.”
Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.