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Who belongs to Putin's inner circle?

Emily Sherwin
March 11, 2022

The Russian president's consultations at long tables and endless video link meetings air on a loop on state TV. But behind closed doors, Vladimir Putin may have few confidants when it comes to the war in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government via teleconference (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Putin appears to be single-handedly running the show in this warImage: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP/picture alliance

This week, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba went into talks with his Russian counterpart hoping for a cease-fire. But he came out of his meeting with Sergey Lavrov empty-handed and frustrated, implying that even Russia's foreign minister didn't have "the mandate to negotiate." 

"It seems that there are other decision-makers for this matter in Russia," he said.

Indeed, many Russian political analysts agree that President Vladimir Putin is single-handedly running the show in this war, leaving little room for even his key ministers.

"Putin's role in making decisions has changed. From being something like the chair of the board and CEO of 'Russia Inc.' and listening to other shareholders, he has started to behave like a czar," said Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, whose current research focuses on the often secretive decision-making process in the Kremlin.

"More and more often Putin was making decisions by himself without taking care of reaching a compromise with other important players," he said.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting in the Kremlin  (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Putin seemed to show off his power and show up the members of his Security Council before declaring Donbas' independenceImage: Kremlin Pool Photo/Sputnik/AP Photo/picture alliance

In the dark about the invasion

Who might still have Putin's ear? To answer this question, it's worth going back to the early hours of February 24. Who actually knew the invasion was about to begin?

At that point, Putin had already publicly declared the independence of the breakaway separatist regions in Donbas in eastern Ukraine. But media observers have pointed out that even the Kremlin elites in charge of Russian state media were taken by surprise by news of the invasion, including those outlets associated directly with the presidential administration.

A woman watches TV with Russian President Putin speaking during a broadcast of a meeting of the National Security Council in St. Petersburg (EPA-EFE/Anatoly Maltsev)
Russian state TV has been repeating Putin's line on the war, calling it a 'special operation'Image: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE

"Usually our propaganda machine is well-prepared for all big events," said Roman Dobrokhotov, the founder of the renowned investigative media outlet The Insider. "Every week on Thursdays, the directors of our state TV channels and other big state media outlets gather in the Kremlin, and they get instructions about how to report about this and that. But no one explained to them that there will be war in Ukraine. Everybody thought that it was only about accepting Donbas as an independent state."

He pointed out that the state media line had been that the Russian troops stationed on the Ukrainian border would return home soon, and talk of a possible war was all "fake Western hysteria."

"It was Vladimir Putin with the minister of defense and the security services. Only they knew," Dobrokhotov told DW. 

Chief of Staff of the Russian Army Valery Gerasimov and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu sit at a table with folded hands (Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS)
Valery Gerasimov (left), the army's chief of staff, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu cut solemn figures at a recent meetingImage: Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin via REUTERS

The Kremlin's strongmen

Political analyst Nikolai Petrov agrees. He believes that among those who definitely did know about the war are the so-called "siloviki," members of Russia's law enforcement agencies, who are said to have gained increasing influence in the country in recent years.

That group includes Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces. Both are probably now running some of the day-to-day operations of the invasion. In late September, Shoigu went on a trekking holiday with Putin in the Siberian taiga. There are media reports that the trip may be when Putin informed his defense minister of his plans to take Kyiv.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a weekend trip to the Russian Siberian taiga forest with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin/ZUMA Wire/imago images)
Putin recently went on a Siberian trekking holiday with Defense Minister Sergei ShoiguImage: Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin/ZUMA Wire/imago images

Russia's spy chiefs Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), and Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), would also likely have known that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine was on the table, according to analyst Petrov. Putin himself is a former KGB foreign intelligence officer and both men have worked with him since the 1970s. But Petrov argued that Bortnikov and Naryshkin "do not look like thinkers who developed any kind of strategy" when it comes to the invasion.

Petrov pointed instead to another man who worked with Putin in the KGB in Soviet times: Nikolai Patrushev, known for his anti-Western views. He is the secretary of the Security Council, a body run by Putin himself. He "communicates with Putin pretty often because there are weekly Security Council meetings," said Petrov. Patrushev was a leading figure behind Russia's updated security strategy, published in May 2021. It states that Russia may use "forceful methods" to respond to unfriendly actions by foreign countries.

Nikolai Patrushev attends a Security Council meeting in Moscow (Photo by Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP)
Nikolai Patrushev has worked with Putin for years and is known for his anti-Western viewsImage: Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

Increasing isolation

If the circle of people Putin consults with is small, then the number of people who speak to the Russian leader in person is even smaller. Putin is known to have taken extreme measures to protect himself from COVID-19. Since the pandemic, he usually appears on television from his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo in the Moscow region. This has been fitted with a special disinfection tunnel for visitors. Jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny has taken to mockingly referring to Putin as the "old man in the bunker." Everyone who wants to meet Putin in person must reportedly isolate beforehand for 14 days — or sit at a very long table far away from him.

Petrov said that as a result of these precautionary measures, most of those involved in active government business speak to him via video link, because they don't have the time to quarantine so frequently. Replacing in-person-meetings with video calls could make it harder "to feel what exactly the person you are speaking with thinks about an issue," he told DW.

Shoigu and Gerasimov at a long table during a meeting with Putin (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS)
Even army chiefs Shoigu and Gerasimov are kept well away from PutinImage: Alexei Nikolsky/imago images/ITAR-TASS

Purges ahead?

Over two weeks into the war, Western security services have been publicly stating that the pace of the Russian army's advance invasion is seemingly slowing.

If that's true, it could mean those in Putin's inner circle could eventually become the target of his anger, according to Abbas Gallyamov, a political analyst and former speechwriter for the Russian president. "Whom he wants to purge is definitely the leaders of the Ministry of Defense, maybe the FSB. The people who didn't warn him that this will be a long, bloody war, not an easy 'blitzkrieg'," Gallaymov told DW. 

"But he will not do it right now, because he is at war. And punishing, for example, the Minister of Defense or the [Army's] Chief of the General Staff, would mean admitting that you failed."

Will NATO draw a red line for Putin?

Edited by: Jane Paulick