There has been some commentary recently about the various factions and their influence on President Putin so I thought I would set out some details of the main factions, their sub-groups and specific individuals. The web of factions and influencers is like a tangled bowl of spaghetti and whilst I have done my best to disentangle that web into a readable format, brevity requires that some details have been compressed or omitted.
The factions have evolved due to a number of factors such as ideology, strategy, background and opportunity but it is important to note that the relative influence of the factions will shift from time to time and especially the influence of the various sub-groups. In addition, even though an individual may be aligned with one faction, that same individual may also be nominally aligned with another faction.
This is particularly evident in the Security Council of the Russian Federation (SCRF) where the intelligence and defence factions have extensive cross-over and enjoy mostly equal footing. For the purposes of this post I have ignored the Duma and the Federation Council who wield important powers, but there is no question that the SCRF is the inner sanctum with Putin as its Chair. If you don’t sit on that Council, your influence may be constrained although there are exceptions such as Yevgeny Prigozhin and others who are discussed later. Nevertheless, the fact that the SCRF is the dominant internal Council tells us a great deal about Russia, namely, that national security trumps all else.
The SCRF consists of thirteen permanent members and eighteen others who may be called as required. Those eighteen have some ‘stand-alone’ influence on Putin but they would also be well aware of their position in the grand scheme of things.
Intelligence shares equal billing with Defence as the most influential faction.
As Putin is ex-FSB, it will be no surprise that the FSB sub-group have considerable influence in the Intelligence faction. Led by Alexander Bortnikov, the FSB is in charge of internal security and counterintelligence, as well as other aspects of state security and intelligence gathering in some countries, primarily those of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Bortnikov sits on the SCRF.
Next is the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headed by Sergey Naryshkin who also sits on the SCRF. The SVR is Russia’s primary civilian foreign intelligence agency tasked with gathering information outside the CIS. It reports directly to President Putin on foreign intelligence collected via human/electronic signals and cyber methods.
The Federal Protective Service (FSO) has a range of functions which extend far beyond protecting the President, members of the government and assorted VIPs. The FSO is charged with defending Russian government networks and has extensive electronic eavesdropping capabilities through its subsidiary, the Special Communications and Information Service. The FSO is represented on the SCRF by Anton Vaino.
Special mention must be made of Nikolai Patrushev who was formerly the Director of the FSB. Since 2008 Patrushev has been the Secretary of the SCRF placing him third (after Putin and Medvedev) in that hierarchy and giving him enormous influence. Patrushev and Putin served together in the KGB and have known each other since 1976 – some believe he is Putin’s closest friend and confidant. For a number of reasons, Patrushev is occasionally referred to as the most dangerous man in Russia which is quite a feat considering some of the others.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is an obvious member of this faction and sits on the SCRF.
Next is the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) which is Russia’s primary military intelligence agency and is responsible for Russia’s military intelligence service and special forces. The GRU answers to the Chief of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, and the Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu. The GRU does not sit on the SCRF and nor does Gerasimov – both are represented by Shoigu which magnifies his influence. (Gerasimov is a member of the second tier to the SCRF).
Although not part of the official defence establishment or a member of the SCRF, Yevgeny Prigozhin (founder of the Wagner Group) is a known influencer and confidant of Putin. He is also the Head of the Internet Research Agency which engages in online operations on behalf of Russian business and political interests, primarily through social media channels. Prigozhin straddles at least three factions.
Political (inc Foreign Affairs)
There are numerous sub-groups: Foreign Affairs led by Sergey Lavrov; the State Duma and United Russia Party faction led by Boris Gryzlov; the Rodina faction led by Dmitry Rogozin; the Presidential Executive Office faction led by Anton Vaino (also represents the FSO on the SCRF); the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) led by Leonid Slutsky; and, the Communist Party faction led by Gennady Zyuganov.
Lavrov has considerable influence as does Gryzlov as he heads the State Duma and in particular, Putin’s political party, United Russia. But Lavrov has the advantage as he sits on the SCRF whereas Gryzlov doesn’t. (Not relevant but Lavrov is known to have a short temper and will use very undiplomatic language in describing his opponents and in private, the Heads of other governments).
Zyuganov (Communist Party) has influence as Putin is aware there is still a sizable rump of Russians (~17%) who believe Russia would be better off under the old ways. In fact, the “Communist Party of the Russian Federation” (and its affiliates) is the second largest after Putin’s United Russia party. However, Zyuganov does not sit on the SCRF nor is he one of the second tier advisors.
Leonid Slutsky (LDPR) appears to wield more influence than his party’s results at the most recent election would suggest. Note that there is nothing ‘liberal’ (as we normally recognize it) or democratic about Slutsky or the LDPR. He does not sit on the SCRF or the second tier advisors but is well known as a cunning and unforgiving individual.
Industry/Business (inc the oligarchs)
Oligarchs have an unusual alliance. Collectively, they control trillions of dollars’ worth of entities both publicly and privately owned. But it is an inescapable fact that every oligarch owes their continued existence to Putin and would also recognise that their fortune, not to mention potentially their lives, could be snatched away should they step away from the path. Therefore, whilst industry/business is well settled behind Putin, it is difficult to know how many of the oligarchs do so for ideological reasons or, whether it is simply prudent.
It isn’t surprising that individuals such as Igor Sechin (CEO, President and Deputy Chairman of Rosneft) and Viktor Zubkov (former Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and now Chairman of Gazprom) have direct access to Putin and are known to be very close allies. In many respects, they speak for the oligarchs as a whole although a few individual oligarchs also have access to Putin.
No oligarch or business leader sits on the SCRF or is a second tier advisor.
Above all, Putin reigns supreme and his hold on power is unchallenged. The members of the SCRF are all Putin appointees and have strong allegiance to him. In a number of cases their careers almost mirror Putin in that they have risen through the ranks from relatively obscure roles in regional centres to the pinnacle Council – and that cannot always be mere coincidence.
There are no individuals who display moderate/pro-west characteristics in either the first or second tiers of the SCRF, or almost anywhere else. In part, this leads us to understand why some in the west consider Russia ‘unreformable’ into a western style democracy (and all that entails*) and their solution is the dissolution of the Russian Federation – a preposterous idea that fails every known fact about Russia and Russians yet it still gets traction with a few.
Russian politics is tough and marked by the ebb and flow of alliances resulting in the periodic ascension of one faction, or individuals within that faction, over another. Control over these factions and individuals requires a deft hand and although Putin is very likely to anoint a successor prior to his retirement, it is unclear who that may be. Names currently include Dmitry Medvedev, Sergei Shoigu, Sergei Lavrov and Nikolai Patrushev.
Whatever happens, there is no doubt that in more ways than the west cares to admit, Putin is a valuable force that keeps the more extreme elements of the government under control. But that is not an acceptable viewpoint for most – Putin is routinely cast as a deranged oppressor who might unilaterally launch nuclear missiles at the west or at a minimum, nuke Ukraine. Western media also frequently carry stories of an imminent political coup against Putin but both stories are just fairy tales manufactured by mainstream journalists (that, or CIA planted).
Instead, I suggest Putin is the cork in the bottle and his undoubted powers of manipulation have served the west well. To be clear, I’m not implying Putin is a good guy but in the current circumstances, believe we are better off with the Devil we know, at least until the Ukraine conflict is over. With any luck, negotiations between Russia and the USA (Zelenskyy will be told to acquiesce) will occur sooner, rather than later.
If Putin suddenly leaves his position through terminal ill health with the conflict still underway and fails to fully anoint a successor, some of the alternative Presidential contenders who hail from strong factions will be much less appealing to the west, and especially for Ukraine. * Some in the west still cling to an alternate vision that Russia develops a reformist approach that builds and expands on the changes introduced by Gorbachev. This would see the current structure largely dismantled and the wholesale re-organisation of the political, defence, business and social elements of the nation. Consequently, Russia would engage in vastly increased co-operation with the west (at the expense of many of its current alliances) and adopt the western approach on a raft of issues. Forget it. The coalition of reformists have very low national support having secured only 13 seats in the 450 seat Duma, have no influential bloc and, if nothing else, the forces who would oppose their ascent to power are solidly entrenched and utterly ruthless.