Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a video link in Saint Petersburg on October 10, 2022.
Gavriil Grigorov | Afp | Getty Images
President Vladimir Putin is known to keep a loyal cadre of officials and aides close to him, with the majority of his inner circle having served the Russian leader for many years during his 23 years in power.
Putin has made no bones of his expectations of absolute loyalty from those closest to him. Once asked in a wide-ranging 2018 interview whether he was able to forgive people when they made mistakes, Putin replied saying, “Yes. But not everything.” When pressed by journalist Andrei Kondrashov to elaborate on what he could not forgive, Putin’s response was emphatic: “Betrayal.”
For those who have worked with the president for more than two decades, it’s no surprise that Putin values and demands loyalty among his inner circle, many of whom he has kept close since he rose up the ranks in Russia’s Soviet security service, the KGB, before his ascendency to the presidency in late 1999.
“Neither in our country nor abroad have I seen bosses who keep disloyal people around them,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, told CNBC Tuesday.
“But for Vladimir Putin, loyalty alone is not enough. Three qualities are needed: 1. Professionalism, 2. Efficiency, 3. Loyalty,” he added in emailed comments.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin (R) and his spokesman Dmitry Peskov (L) attend the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meeting at the Congress Hall in Bishkek on December 9, 2022.
Vyacheslav Oseledko | Afp | Getty Images
Peskov, a top Kremlin official widely seen as a member of Putin’s inner circle, has been press secretary for 23 years. Likewise, most of the people within Putin’s inner circle — made up of his closest ministers and confidants and often referred to as “Siloviki” (or “people of force”) referring to senior officials that have backgrounds in the military or security services — have mostly served the Russian leader for years, overseeing the silencing of opposition figures and movements that have challenged him.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been in post since 2004 while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has held his position since 2012, having previously been considered as a potential leadership candidate himself.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L), Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev (L) seen during the SCTO Summit, on November 23, 2022 in Yerevan, Armenia.
Contributor | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Putin’s inner circle also includes Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, as well as the heads of Russia’s state security services, the FSB, and its foreign intelligence counterpart, the SVR. There are also the more ideologically influential propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian Security Council.
The council’s deputy is nationalist Dmitry Medvedev, who also served as Russia’s former prime minister and president up to 2012, alternating with Putin. Medvedev was always subservient to Putin in either role but he remains close to the president and is a vocal supporter of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and ideological enmity with the West.
Russian analysts are not convinced that qualities such as competency and loyalty are valued equally in the Kremlin, with Russian scholar, historian and author Sergei Medvedev noting that “loyalty has always been more important than competency” in Russia.
“Russia is not like an efficiency-oriented, competency-oriented meritocracy,” Medvedev, author of “A War Made in Russia” and “The Return of the Russian Leviathan,” noted.
“It’s a very archaic and medieval — and in some sense, Byzantine [excessively complicated] — system of personal loyalty, and Putin will keep anyone — even the most inefficient managers like ex-president [Dmitry] Medvedev, for instance, as long as they show their loyalty,” Medvedev told CNBC.
Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov once worked for Putin, having served in Russia’s energy ministry in 2002. Disillusioned with the path Russia has taken during Putin’s tenure, however, Milov now firmly counts himself among Russia’s mostly exiled or imprisoned opposition movement and lives abroad.
Knowing Putin well, Milov said that the president “100%” values loyalty above competency and noted that “professionalism and efficiency are also the flip sides of having the ability to challenge things.”
“You don’t like what is going on? You want to make it better, and you apply your talents and your decisiveness to actually try to fix them to change things. This is not how Putin wants it to happen. He’s the only guy who’s entitled with changing or keeping things right,” Milov said.
He said that Putin’s demand for absolute loyalty was borne out of deep insecurity and fear of competition.
“That is one of the major problems,” he told CNBC Wednesday. “My personal experience of seeing him and somehow working with him is that he’s an extremely unremarkable person. He likes the most average [person] you can get, so he’s extremely insecure when there is open competition or open talent exposed and capable of achieving better than him.”
Milov believed Putin was inherently paranoid of a plot to overthrow him, saying the unspoken rule among those around him was to not be too conspicuously talented or to challenge the status quo.
“But in general, if there is a rule [it’s one of] ‘don’t stick your head out, because I will then immediately see you as competition, and I annihilate competition’ — that’s that’s his approach.”
An attachment to loyalty can lead to blind spots, analysts note, most recently seen in the ill-fated invasion of Ukraine and the rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s power, status and influence before his fall from grace.
When Russia first launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, analysts said it was likely that Putin had been told by his closest military officials that the invasion would be effortless, and Ukraine would be conquered easily before a pro-Russian government was installed in Kyiv.
But within the first few weeks of the war it became apparent that Ukraine was mounting far more resistance, and its allies far more support for Kyiv, than had been anticipated in Russia.
A serviceman of pro-Russian militia walks nest to a military convoy of armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) on a road in the Luhansk region, Ukraine February 27, 2022.
Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu (R) during the annual Navy Day Parade on July 30, 2023, in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Contributor | Getty Images
During Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, as it calls its invasion, questions have been raised about the strategy and competency of Russia’s military leadership. Shoigu has been openly ridiculed and criticized by a section of military bloggers in Russia, particularly those loyal to Prigozhin, the convict-turned-businessman-turned-paramilitary leader of the Wagner Group of mercenaries who also enjoyed Putin’s favor.
When the high-profile acrimony between Prigozhin and the defense ministry descended into open rebellion in the summer, however, Putin ultimately sided with his long-serving and proven loyal defense minister and endorsed the ministry’s edict that Wagner Group fighters would have to sign contracts with the ministry.
Kirill Shamiev, a Russian political scientist and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC that loyalty is “a very key asset in authoritarian settings because you develop this trust over the years. And if a person proves their trust in a war setting, this is very important for an authoritarian leader.”
The rise and fall of Prigozhin
Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash this summer, several months after he led an ill-fated rebellion against the Russian defense ministry and an attempt to march on Moscow.
When the rebellion was called off, Putin appeared on television, vowing to punish “treason from the inside,” saying that “unreasonable interests and personal ambition lead to treachery.”
After initially coming to a deal seemingly allowing Prigozhin and Wagner fighters to be exiled to Belarus, Prigozhin and a number of top Wagner commanders died in a plane crash over Russia in August.
The Kremlin has vehemently denied that it ordered Prigozhin’s death and said an investigation would take place into the accident. It called Western speculation that it ordered Prigozhin’s death as revenge for his mutiny “an absolute lie.”
FILE – Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin, around his factory which produces school meals, outside St. Petersburg, Russia on Monday, Sept. 20, 2010.
Alexei Druzhinin | AP
Prigozhin reportedly pledged his loyalty to Putin in a face-to-face meeting following the rebellion but analysts said his fate was sealed when he openly challenged the state and, ultimately, Putin himself.
“I think it was a powerful message to the elite that Putin is in control,” Sergei Medvedev noted, saying the president “meticulously waited for these couple of months before executing his revenge.”
A figure like Prigozhin — seen as an anomaly given his close alliance with Putin but informal and combative relationship with state institutions — won’t be allowed to emerge again, they note.
“I’m pretty sure the Kremlin will never, ever again let anyone create this military power Prigozhin had — or the social or political media influence Prigozhin used to have,” Shamiev said.