Putin’s allies: Inside Putin’s inner circle – including famed ‘Kremlin hawk’

Putin is ‘making himself look weak’ says body language expert

As the  conflict nearly reaches its tenth week of terror, many have stepped forward, including a number of Russian oligarchs, to denounce illegal invasion. By March, the  confirmed more than 15,000 Russians had been arrested for anti-war protests. But, despite the prevalent outrage, as well as the invasion drawing out for months instead of “days”, Putin’s decision to continue with the “special military operation” currently appears unshakeable.

Putin’s circle is said to have significantly reduced over the past 10 years, and it’s likely to have shrunk even further since the start of the Ukraine war.

Investigative journalist and expert on the Russian intelligence apparatus, Andrei Soldatov, told The New Yorker that Putin was said to have previously listened to “several dozen” people who came from a “strange mix” of backgrounds, from actors and journalists to priests.

Mr Soldatov said: “But now it looks like, starting in 2016, 2017, this circle has been getting smaller and smaller.

“And what I’m getting from my sources is that these days, Putin listens to only three or four people.”

Several internal changes have taken place within the Russian military and security services since the invasion was launched.

From Putin publicly of the SVR during the Russian Security Council meeting, to placing officials , tensions have been bubbling within Putin’s circle.

READ MORE: Ukraine welcomes ‘turning point’ in war with Russia

Putin, Nikolai Patrushev, Alexander Bortnikov

Putin’s allies: Inside Putin’s inner circle – including famed ‘Kremlin hawk’ (Image: GETTY)

Putin has also been taking extreme isolation measures since the COVID-19 pandemic, now famously sitting foreign leaders as well as his own officials and the very end of comically long tables when carrying out talks.

So, while Putin appears to be pulling the strings tighter around his inner – and outer – circles, who are the few people he seems to be keeping close?

Putin’s inner circle

Putin appears to have become increasingly reliant on a select few officials whom he’s known for decades through sharing a mutual background in the Soviet-era security agencies, as well as his belief that western states are Russia’s sworn enemies.

These officials are said to include Russian security council secretary Nikolai Patrushev, FSB security service director Alexander Bortnikov, as well as friends of Putin including his “personal banker” Yuri Kovalchuk, and Mikhail Kovalchuk, Yuri’s physicist brother, who is also the director of Moscow’s Kurchatov Institute for nuclear research.

SVR director Sergei Naryshkin and Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu are also deemed to be included in Putin’s inner circle.

In his book, “All the Kremlin’s Men”, Moscow journalist Mikhail Zygar says Yuri Kovalchuck has become the “de facto second man in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage”.

Mr Zygar continued his analyses of Mr Kovalchuck in the New York Times: “He is…an ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism. This appears to be Mr Putin’s worldview, too.”

Yuri is also said to have hosted the wedding of Putin’s daughter, Katerina Tikhonova, at his ski resort in 2013.

Security council secretary Mr Patrushev, 70, however, is said to be Putin’s closest associate, having formed close ties with the president during their early years as KGB officers.

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Putin and Patrushev in 2008 in helicopter

Putin and Mr Patrushev’s friendship dates back decades – here pictured in a helicopter in 2008 (Image: GETTY)

Putin, alexander bortnikov

FSB director Bortnikov, a termed “Putin loyalist”, is said to be one Putin’s most trusted advisors (Image: GETTY)

Mr Patrushev was termed by Politico as a “Kremlin hawk”, being at the heart of all political discussions and decisions, and is said to have been one of Putin’s key advisors during Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as well as the ongoing Ukraine invasion.

FSB director Bortnikov, another termed “Putin loyalist”, is said to be one of the Russian President’s most trusted advisors.

Despite his key responsibility in the FSB focusing on law enforcement services in Russia and defining domestic affairs, Mr Bortnikov is believed to fuel significant anti-western trope to the President.

Tatiana Stanovaya, security expert and founder of political think-tank R Politik said: “We can imagine that he [Bortnikov] delivers to Putin on an everyday basis reports about hostile American influence or Western influence inside of Russia, and how Western secret services are trying to undermine political stability.

SVR director Narushkin, who also heads the Russian Historical Society, is said to have proved particularly important in providing the president with ideological grounds for his actions, according to Mr Soldatov.

Defence Minister Shoigu has allegedly been instrumental in organising the invasion of Ukraine, and is believed to be the most influential voice the president hears, Mr Soldatov said.

He said: “Shoigu is not only in charge of the military, he’s also partly in charge of ideology – and in Russia ideology is mostly about history and he’s in control of the narrative.”