Putin, defense minister general Sergey Shoigu (green uniform), and admiral Vladimir Korolev, head of the Russian Navy.

MOSCOW (Reuters) - From Damascus to Doha, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has been showing up in unexpected places, a sign of the military’s growing influence under Vladimir Putin.

In the past few months, at times wearing his desert military uniform, Shoigu has held talks with Syria’s president in Damascus, met Israel’s prime minister in Jerusalem and been received by the Emir of Qatar in Doha.

The defense ministry’s forays into areas long regarded as the preserve of the foreign ministry are raising eyebrows in Russia, where strict protocol means ministers usually hold talks only with their direct foreign counterparts.

The military is reaping political dividends from what the Kremlin saw as its big successes in Crimea, annexed from Ukraine after Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms seized control of the peninsula in 2014, and Syria, where Russian forces helped turn the tide of war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

“That has translated into more top-table influence,” said a long-serving Russian official who interacts with the defense ministry but declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The Kremlin and the defense and foreign ministries did not respond to detailed requests for comment for this article, but three sources who know both ministries well confirmed the trend.

The growth of the military’s influence has caused discontent among some Russian diplomats and unease among Western officials about the harder edge it is giving Russia’s foreign policy.

Foreign policy-making has become more bellicose and more opaque, and this makes new Russian military adventures more likely, some Western officials say.

“If you allow the defense ministry a bigger say in foreign policy it’s going to be looking for trouble,” said one, who declined to be named because of the subject’s sensitivity.

Shoigu’s high profile has also revived talk of the long-time Putin loyalist as a possible presidential stand-in if Putin, who is seeking a fourth term in an election in March, had to step down suddenly and was unable to serve out a full six-year term.

Shoigu, 62, is not involved in party politics but opinion polls often put him among the top five most popular presidential possibles. His trust rating is also often second only to Putin, with whom he was pictured on a fishing trip this summer.
Much more: Backed by Putin, Russian military pushes into foreign policy

Indeed, makes sense. I dare say this has gone on for awhile, the military gaining influence. It is likely that Shoigu, for example, pushed Putin to go into Crimea in the first place...