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Putin's inner circle

Although several political and business figures have condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin still has strong domestic support
El presidente ruso Vladimir Putin preside una reunión del Consejo de Seguridad por videoconferencia en la residencia de Novo-Ogaryovo, en las afueras de Moscú, Rusia, el jueves 3 de marzo de 2022 Andrei Gorshkov, Sputnik, Kremlin vía AP

Andrei Gorshkov, Sputnik, Kremlin vía AP  -   Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 3, 2022.

Thousands of people have been arrested in Russia for protesting against the invasion of Ukraine. Even political elites and oligarchs have spoken out against Moscow's military operations. However, in the case of the latter, this move might be due to fear of losing their privileges in Europe after the imposition of sanctions.

Despite the voices - both civilian and political - that have opposed the war, there is an important circle close to President Vladimir Putin that supports his decisions against Ukraine, the so-called 'siloviki'.

First, there are the military leaders, those who coordinate attacks against Ukrainian targets and play a key role in strategic decision-making. This includes Sergei Shoigu, Russia's defence minister, and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

El ministro de Defensa ruso, Sergei Shoigu Mikhail Tereshchenko, Sputnik, Kremlin via AP
Mikhail Tereshchenko, Sputnik, Kremlin via AP - Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu

Both recently met with Putin during the operation in Ukraine. In fact, during that meeting, the Russian leader decided to put deterrence forces, including nuclear weapons, on "alert" in response to Western sanctions, which Putin considered "illegal".

Both Shoigu and Gerasimov responded to Putin's decision with a resounding "yes". The defence minister defended the aim of the "special military operation" in Ukraine. According to Shoigu, the invasion is aimed at "protecting the Russian Federation from the military threat posed by Western countries".

El presidente ruso Vladimir Putin (R) se reúne con el ministro de Defensa Sergei Shoigu (2L) y el jefe del Estado Mayor Valery Gerasimov en Moscú el 27 de febrero de 2022.  AFP/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY
AFP/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY - Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (2L) and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov in Moscow February 27, 2022.

He also assured that the offensive would continue until "the established objectives are achieved". So far, the Russian authorities have reported the deaths of 498 Russian servicemen during the invasion, while more than 1,500 were wounded. Shoigu's spokesman announced that the families of the dead would receive compensation and all necessary assistance. Earlier, the minister oversaw joint operations in Belarus with his Belarusian counterpart.

Shoigu, who has a Ukrainian mother and Tuvan origin, an ethnic Turkic Siberian, came to Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union and became minister for emergency situations. In 2012 Putin promoted him to defence minister, despite his lack of defence experience.

El presidente ruso Vladimir Put, a la izquierda, y el Estado Mayor ruso Valery Gerasimov hablan entre sí durante una reunión ampliada de la Junta del Ministerio de Defensa ruso en el Centro de Control de Defensa Nacional Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin via AP
Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin via AP - Russian President Vladimir Put, left, and Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov talk to each other during an expanded meeting of the Russian Defence Ministry Board at the National Defence Control Centre.

As Dmitry Gorenburg, a Russian political analyst, points out to Fox News, Shoigu is one of the few people to hold a high-level post since the collapse of the USSR. "If you look at who was serving as a minister in 1999 and is still around, there are only two names: one is Shoigu, the other is Putin," Gorenburg says. In addition to being a minister, Shoigu is a figure close to Putin. The two have hunted together on several occasions and he has even been tipped as a possible successor. The Russian minister has played a key role in the annexation of Crimea and Russian military missions in Syria.

Gerasimov was also another man close to the president who played a key role in the Crimean campaign. The Kazan-born general gained experience in this field during the second Chechen war. Within Russian military circles he is considered "a thoughtful leader", "a good organiser", "a true patriot". Even Shoigu has described him as "a military man to the core". By contrast, Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian politics, describes Gerasimov in the BBC as a 'tough bully'.  

La policía detiene a manifestantes durante una acción contra el ataque de Rusia a Ucrania en San Petersburgo, Rusia, el lunes 28 de febrero de 2022 AP/DMITRY LOVETSKY
AP/DMITRY LOVETSKY - Police detain protesters during an action against Russia's attack on Ukraine in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022
Security and Intelligence

"The West needs this figure (Alexei Navalny) to destabilise the situation in Russia, to promote social unrest, strikes and new Maidans." These words were uttered by Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia's Security Council. However, this was not Patrushev's first controversial statement. In 2015 he told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that "the United States would prefer that Russia did not exist as a country at all".

The current head of the Security Council, who hails from St. Petersburg, is one of the president's most loyal figures. Like Putin, he worked for the KGB during the communist era and later headed the successor organisation, the FBS, from 1999 to 2008

El secretario del consejo de seguridad de Rusia, Nikolai Patrushev, en la IX conferencia de Moscú sobre seguridad internacional en Moscú, Rusia, el jueves 24 de junio de 2021 AP/ALEXANDER  ZEMLIANICHENKO
AP/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO - Russia's security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev at the 9th Moscow conference on international security in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Patrushev has been considered an 'unofficial delegate' of the Kremlin in the Balkans and the mastermind of the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro. At the time, two former Russian spies were accused of organising the coup, although Moscow denied their involvement.

The other two 'siloviki' within intelligence and security are Alexander Bortnikov and Sergei Naryshkin. Bortnikov became head of the FBS after Patrushev's departure. In recent years he has intensified "tight control over Russian life and has been responsible for tens of thousands of arrests and a drastic tightening of restrictions on civil society", as Diana Magnay, Moscow correspondent for Sky News, explains. 

Alexander Bortnikov, jefe del Servicio Federal de Seguridad (FSB) AP/PAVEL GOLOVKIN
AP/PAVEL GOLOVKIN - Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB)

Patrushev was one of the figures sanctioned by the West in March 2021 for his involvement in the Navalny case. Washington even pointed to the FBS as responsible for the poisoning of the Russian opposition figure.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst, tells Sky News that Patrushev is likely to deliver "every day reports to Putin about hostile American influence or Western influence inside Russia, and how Western secret services are trying to undermine political stability".

Sergei Naryshkin, head of the foreign service, SVR, concludes this intelligence trident. Naryshkin also heads the Russian Historical Society, so, according to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and security services expert, the head of the SVR "has proved to be very important in providing the president with ideological foundations for his actions", as he explains to the BBC. Putin has, on several occasions, appealed to Russia's historical past when referring to Ukraine. He even went so far as to claim that the country was created by Lenin.

Sergei Naryshkin, jefe del Servicio de Inteligencia Exterior de Rusia Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin via AP
Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin via AP - Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (FSB)

During the Security Council meeting to recognise the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, Naryshkin had a rather uncomfortable episode with Putin. As the president pressed him for a statement on the decision, Naryshkin's nervousness grew. "Speak clearly!", "Speak clearly, Sergei!", shouted Putin. "Yes, I support the proposal to recognise its independence," Naryshkin finally declared. 

Politics and diplomacy

Within Putin's political circle, Anton Vaino, the president's chief of staff, is worth mentioning. Vaino is regarded as a key figure in Putin's decision-making. For this reason, the politician is included in the list of those sanctioned by the European Union.

El presidente ruso, Dmitri Medvédev, gesticula tras escribir "¡Buena suerte!" en una tubería del gasoducto Nord Stream, cerca de la ciudad rusa de Vyborg, el 9 de abril de 2010 REUTERS/ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK
REUTERS/ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gestures after writing "Good luck!" on a Nord Stream pipeline near the Russian city of Vyborg, 9 April 2010.

Former Russian President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is another of Putin's close associates. The current deputy chairman of the Security Council has spoken out on several occasions since tensions with the West increased due to the deployment of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. Following the imposition of sanctions, Medvedev stressed that this was "a fantastic reason for a final review of relations with all the countries that have imposed them". "Russia really does not need diplomatic ties with the West", he remarked. 

El presidente ruso, Vladimir Putin, a la izquierda, y el ministro de Asuntos Exteriores, Serguéi Lavrov AP/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO
AP/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

On the diplomatic front, the work of Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister since 2004, is more than significant. During the crisis with the West, the head of Russian diplomacy has played his role with firmness and sarcasm. After a meeting with his British counterpart, Liz Truss, Lavrov went so far as to say that the meeting was like a conversation between a "deaf man and a mute". 

Finally, the role of Yori Kovalchuk, an oligarch who has come to be described as Putin's "banker", is noteworthy. Despite holding no political office, Kovalchuk maintains a strong influence over the president.

El empresario ruso Yuri Kovalchuk PHOTO/REUTERS
PHOTO/REUTERS - Russian businessman Yuri Kovalchuk
Russia is not Putin

A few people control power, call the shots and push a whole country to war. They even silence nationals who raise their voices to condemn the violence and brutality in Ukraine. More than 8,000 Russian citizens have been arrested for protesting against their government's ongoing offensive on Ukraine.

Still, people continue to take to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg to show their rejection of the Kremlin and to demonstrate to the rest of the world that a large part of the Russian people do not defend Putin's actions.

Una mujer sostiene una pancarta "Stop the war" durante una protesta contra la invasión rusa de Ucrania en el centro de Moscú el 3 de marzo de 2022 PHOTO/AP
PHOTO/AP - A woman holds a "Stop the war" banner during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Moscow on 3 March 2022.

"I want to apologise to the Ukrainians. We did not vote for those who triggered the war," laments Tatyana Usmanova, a Russian activist. "We, the Russian people, are against the war that Putin has unleashed. We do not support this war, it is not being waged in our name," stresses Marina Litvinovich, another activist.

"I am against the war. I was born in 1941 and I know what it means," Valeria Andreyeva told Al Jazeera. Even Elena Osipova, one of the few survivors of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, has decided to come out to protest against the war in Ukraine with several banners. However, like other people and even children, Osipova was detained by the police.