Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February, the international media have highlighted the influence and power of individuals linked to President Vladimir Putin. Russian oligarchs, as well as the 'siloviki' - the Russian president's inner circle - have been in the spotlight since the war in Ukraine began because of their links to the war, especially their funding and support.
Due to the strong influence these people maintain in the Kremlin, it has even been suggested that some of these obligarchs or siloviki could be Putin's future successor. The role of the silovarchs, Russia's political and business elite that emerged through the secret services, is noteworthy in this regard. This term - which combines the words oligarch and siloviki - was coined in 2006 by Daniel Treisman, professor of political science at the University of California. According to the political scientist, "oligarchs do not have as much political influence as people think, silovarchs are more powerful".
Hugo Crosthwaite, Eurasia analyst at Dragonfly, agrees, telling Business Insider that the silovarchs "clearly have considerable influence within the Russian state". Within this exclusive group are men who have worked in the armed forces, as well as in intelligence and national security.
"The so-called silovarchs are business elites who have leveraged their networks in the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) or the military to accumulate extreme personal wealth," explains Stanislav Markus, a professor of international business at the University of South Carolina, as quoted by Forbes. However, if there is one thing that unites them all, it is their common past linked to Putin. Many of these silovarchs met the president during his time in the KGB or in St Petersburg, where he began his political career.
Markus also notes that many of them "have risen steadily to control sectors and occupy important positions in the executive branch". They also have large stakes "in companies in sectors where profitability depends on government favour".
The oligarchs have greater wealth than the siloviki, although the siloviki undoubtedly enjoy greater political control. Because of this greater influence at the political level, there has even been talk of Putin's overthrow as the war in Ukraine unfolds. Michael Rochlitz, professor of economics at the University of Bremen, does not rule out this scenario. He suggests that the siloviki, especially those in the security services, 'could decide to intervene in the event of a major escalation', reports Al-Ain. In addition to a possible overthrow, the theory that Putin is suffering from a serious illness has recently gained momentum after images and videos of the president looking ill and making strange movements.
Within the president's inner circle, certain names stand out among the Russian leader's close circle. These include Alexander Bortnikov, Sergey Chemezov, Sergey Naryshkin, Nikolai Patrushev, Igor Sechin and Sergey Shoigu.
Bortnikov is the current head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), a position he has held since May 2008, replacing Nikolai Patrushev, another of Putin's strongmen. Bortnikov, 70, was a spy in the KBG as the Russian president and appeared on the list of those sanctioned by the European Union after the poisoning of political opponent Alexei Navalny.
In the years he has headed the FSB, Bortnikov "is credited with turning it into a state within the state, a security apparatus employing many tens of thousands of people, a brutal sword in charge of counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence and border security", explains Monica Attard, the former ABC Russia correspondent, quoted by The Sydney Morning Herald.
This is echoed by Diana Magnay, Moscow correspondent for Sky News, who notes that Bortnikov has increased "iron grip on Russian life and has been responsible for tens of thousands of arrests and a drastic tightening of restrictions on civil society"
However, Ukrainian intelligence claims that the FSB director and other names close to Putin "are considering various options to remove Putin from power". "In Russia's economic and political elite, a group of influential people is emerging who oppose Vladimir Putin," a Ukrainian official told The Kyiv Independent. This coup would aim to restore ties with the West destroyed as a result of the war against Ukraine. Attard also provides information on this point, recalling that Putin "is upset that Bortnikov misanalysed the Ukrainian army's capabilities".
Still on Russian intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin and Nikolai Patrushev, Bortnikov's predecessor, stand out.
Naryshkin is the head of the foreign intelligence service, SVR, and the head of the Russian Historical Society. He met Putin in St. Petersburg, when the current president worked in the city's city hall. Naryshkin, like the FSB director, was accused of being behind Navalny's poisoning.
The other Kremlin strongman, Patrushev, was also sanctioned for his alleged involvement in the Russian opposition case. He is also accused of masterminding the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with Polonium-210 in London, and organising the 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro. Patrushev, like Putin, was a KBG spy during the Soviet era. Subsequently, he headed the FBS until 2008, when he was taken over by Bortnikov. He is currently the head of the Security Council.
In the military sphere, Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu stands out. The military officer, of Ukrainian and Tuvan origin, is a government figure who has held a high-level post since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shoigu, one of Putin's closest friends, played a key role in the annexation of Crimea and military operations in Syria.
Another of Putin's close associates is Sergey Chemezov, CEO of Rostec, a state-owned defence company. The silovarch met the Russian leader during his time in East Germany. His position in charge of the Russian company has allowed him to build up a large fortune. Chemezov owns several luxury yachts as well as luxurious villas in Spain. Another key silovarch in Putin's circle is Igor Sechin, head of the state oil company Rosneft. Like Chemezov, he holds one of Russia's great fortunes. Forbes estimates that Sechin has a net worth of approximately $800 million. He also owns two of the world's most valuable yachts.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, however, critical voices have also emerged against the war. Kremlin advisor Anatoli Chubais, for example, has decided to resign and leave the country over alleged disagreements with the government. On the other hand, many oligarchs, fearful of seeing their fortunes eroded by Western sanctions, have expressed their disagreement with the Kremlin's actions.
Criticising Russia's 'special operation' in Ukraine, however, has its consequences. In recent months, several oligarchs have died 'in strange circumstances'. A day after the invasion began, Alexander Tyulyakov, the deputy director general of Gazprom's Unified Settlement Centre (UCC) for Corporate Security, was found dead in his home.
Then, in early March, oligarch Mikhail Watford, who has Ukrainian roots, was found hanged at his home in England. In the same month, Vasily Melnikov was stabbed to death in his home in Nizhny Novgorod along with his wife and two children.
In April, Sergey Protosenya "hanged himself" in his villa in Spain. His wife and daughters died from a stabbing attack. A day earlier, Vladislav Avayev, former vice-president of Gazprombank, was fatally wounded in his Moscow home. As on other occasions, his family was also killed.
"In all cases, there are widespread suspicions that the deaths may have been faked as suicides, but who did this and why?" Grzegorz Kuczyński, director of the Warsaw Institute's Eurasia Programme, tells Fortune. Writer John O'Neill tells the New York Post that "what we are seeing now are classic Soviet-era tactics".