Since his rise to power 14 years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has surrounded himself with close friends. The hardliners in Putin's inner circle have increasingly gained the upper hand.
The Kremlin hardliners are hardly known in the Western world. They shy away from the spotlight and don't like giving interviews. Behind the scenes, these hawks have gained the ear of President Putin, driving Russia's confrontational course with the EU and US.
They're part of what Evgeny Minchenko calls "Politburo 2.0," a reference to the former Soviet Union's powerful committee of Communist Party functionaries. Minchenko, a well-known Russian political consultant, says that the hawks around Putin have become more influential than ever before.
That's at least partially a consequence of the confrontation with the West over Ukraine, according to Ian Bremmer, director of the Eurasia Group. The Kremlin has framed the conflict in "extremely nationalist, revanchist terms."
"For Putin this is about geopolitics rather than economics," Bremmer told DW. "So insofar as the 'doves' in the Russian elite are in the economic policymaking bloc, their influence on this policy is extremely weak."
Influence of the 'Siloviki'
According to Minchenko, three advisers in particular have benefited from the Kremlin's hard-line course: Sergei Ivanov, Sergei Shoygu and Igor Sechin. All three men belong to the so-called "Siloviki," which refers to the uniform-wearing security services, such as the military and intelligence agencies.
Ivanov is a former KGB man who currently serves as Putin's chief of staff. Shoygu is a general who has been defense minister since 2012. He comes second only to Putin in terms of his popularity. Sechin, a former intelligence agent and one of Putin's most trusted advisers, is the head of the state oil company Rosneft. Putin himself is a "Silovik," having served in the KGB
There's no such thing as a former member of the "Siloviki," according to Minchenko. That explains why Rosneft head Sechin wields influence over Russian national security policy, even though he doesn't belong to any official power structure.
Inner circle stable
Although the EU and US have sought to divide the Kremlin through targeted sanctions, this policy has actually rallied the hawks around Putin, according to Bremmer.
"Most of those figures were among the first targets of US and EU asset freezes and travel bans – but as we have seen, those measures had little effect," Bremmer said. "If anything, it may have led to an 'all or nothing' strengthening of these elites' dependency on Putin."
Many of the companies close to Putin have also been targeted by Western sanctions. But this has only increased the influence of the Putin loyalists among Russia's oligarchs, according to Minchenko. They made their fortunes mostly from large state contracts.
"Because of the weak economic situation, the most important figures in the politburo have received large compensation packages," Minchenko said. "Above all, that's the Kovalchuk brothers and Gennady Timshenko."
Yury Kovalchuk is the largest shareholder in Bank Rossiya. His borther Mikhail heads the Kurchatov Institute, which conducts research in the field of nuclear energy. Timchenko is an oil oligarch with a large share in the natural gas company Novatek.
Although the hardliners have gained in influence, their importance should not be overemphasized, according to Minchenko.
"If the hawks had won the upper hand, Russian troops would already be in Kyiv," he said. "That would be a victory for the hawks."
Bremmer is also careful when analyzing the role played by the "Siloviki" in the Kremlin. He believes that the conservatives are defining developments in Russia at the moment. But ultimately, the president has the final say over Moscow's course.
"It's a mistake to ascribe too much of the current policy to people around Putin," he said. "The policy is flowing from Putin himself, rather than from his advisers."