Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked attack on Ukraine in February, but the invasion was the culmination of two decades in power that have been enabled by world leaders, billionaire oligarchs, and other powerful figures.
Putin, a Soviet KGB officer-turned-politician, has effectively stayed in power for over two decades. He served his first two terms as Russia’s president from 2000-2008, and was elected president again in 2012. He also served as the Russian prime minister from 1999-2000 and 2008-2012.
In his latest term as president, Putin drastically escalated conflict with Ukraine, including with the 2014 annexation of Crimea by force, a move deemed by most of the world to be illegal and illegitimate. His time in power has also been marred by reports of murdered dissidents, a steady rotting of democracy in Russia, and interference in foreign elections, including in the US.
Still, influential figures have continued to support Putin, either through direct support, like partnerships or reliance on Russian energy products, or indirectly, by uncritically echoing his talking points or allowing him to proceed relatively unchecked. Here are some of the key figures who have enabled Putin’s power.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been in lockstep with Putin — his presidential predecessor and successor — over the country’s war efforts since the February invasion.
Medvedev, a close Putin ally who’s leveled genocidal threats against Ukraine, was elected president in 2008, following the latter’s first two terms. Russia’s constitution at the time limited Putin to two consecutive terms, but he managed to maintain power in Medvedev’s administration, serving as prime minister from 2008 to 2012.
When Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012 in an election marred by allegations of fraud, Medvedev took his place as prime minister, a position he held until 2020 when he stepped down to ease Putin’s efforts to overhaul Russia’s constitution.
Putin also appointed him deputy chair of the Security Council of Russia, a position he still holds today.
Medvedev has provided increasingly aggressive support for Putin’s Ukraine invasion, issuing several bellicose statements about the conflict, as well as Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In June, Medvedev threatened to strike «targets in the West» after the US agreed to provide Ukraine with advanced rocket systems and later expressed a desire to «disappear» all of Moscow’s enemies.
In September, he reiterated Putin’s thinly veiled nuclear threats, emphasizing that Putin’s warning was «definitely not a bluff, and earlier this month, framed Russia’s ongoing, unprovoked war as a sacred conflict with «Satan.»
A loyal and longtime friend to Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was once considered a possible successor to the Russian presidency.
But as the official responsible for Russia’s war in Ukraine, Shoigu has become a lightning rod for criticism amid the oft-failing war effort.
Shoigu has marked a steady ascent through Russia’s elite, utilizing his close relationships with powerful people, including Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, and then Putin himself. Shoigu and Putin’s friendship appeared to go beyond politics: The two often vacationed together in the Siberian woods where they would go fishing and hiking
Despite having never actually served in the military, Shoigu has executed Putin’s defense aspirations for years, spearheading the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and contributing to Russia’s intervention in Syria the following year.
The West sanctioned Shoigu just one day after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. But months of mounting Russian military failures have sparked rumors of a rift between Putin and Shoigu. Even so, Shoigu has remained silent, despite his apparent role as Putin’s scapegoat.
«Shoigu is willing to basically be Putin’s bulletproof vest,» Mark Galeotti, who heads the Russia-focused consultancy Mayak Intelligence, told Insider’s Sophia Ankel.
Nikolai Patrushev, who serves as secretary of Russia’s Security Council, is another longtime Putin ally and one of the exceedingly few people in power known to have the president’s trust.
Patrushev and Putin are old KGB comrades whose relationship dates back to 1998, and is regarded as one of the most powerful siloviki, as the close aides who advocate force are known. Galeotti told The Washington Post in July that Patrushev has long been the «devil on Putin’s shoulder whispering poison into his ear.»
Since the war began, Patrushev has undertaken several foreign trips on behalf of Russia’s war effort, speaking for Putin on a variety of topics as the 70-year-old president grew increasingly reclusive.
«His ideas form the foundations of decisions taken by Putin,» Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the Russian political consultancy R.Politik, told The Post of Patrushev. «He is one of the few figures Putin listens to.»
Since the invasion, Patrushev has emerged as a dependable frontman and frequent public promoter of Russia’s war. His prominence on the global stage has prompted questions about his personal aims and whether or not he may be seeking Putin’s power for himself.
The Kremlin has brushed off suggestions that the security secretary has amassed new powers, but some intelligence experts see Patrushev as Putin’s likely replacement should the president fall ill.
Dozens of Russian oligarchs were among the first to be hit with Western sanctions in the immediate aftermath of the invasion over their close ties to President Putin.
Many of these ultra-rich, Russian businessmen helped fuel Putin’s meteoric rise to power and helped keep him there.
Several of the «original» oligarchs amassed their power during the «perestroika» reforms to Russia’s economy and political system in the late 1980s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these men bought up industrial companies being sold off by the state, padding their pockets and increasing their influence.
When Putin took the presidency in 2000, he vowed to crack down on corruption in the government, exiling certain oligarchs. But men who remained friendly to Putin — and who vowed to stay out of politics — were able to grow even richer, leaving Putin to his political machinations without much of a check.
A new wave of Russian security elites emerged in the 1990s. These quasi-military elites would come to be known as silovarchs — a combination of the word oligarch and siloviki, a reference to the Russian military.
Hugo Crosthwaite, a lead analyst at security intelligence firm Dragonfly, told Insider’s Sam Tabahriti that the siloviki are much more a part of Putin’s close circle and partial to his regime.
«Siloviki are ultimately closer to the president than oligarchs are,» he said.
But some of these siloviki and Oligarchs wield more «Putin power» than others.
Roman Abramovich has emerged as one of Russia’s most recognizable oligarchs thanks to his previous ownership of Chelsea Football Club, a top-flight London soccer team which he oversaw for nearly two decades.
In recent months, Abramovich has found himself in the spotlight after he was sanctioned by the European Union and the UK following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As Western officials were seizing his many assets, including his massive yacht, Abramovich was acting as an unofficial envoy in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in the spring.
Though not an official member of the negotiations team, Abramovich’s access to such conversations offer insight into what is believed to be his close relationship with Putin. European officials say Abramovich has «privileged access» to the Russian president and has maintained close ties with Putin for decades, Insider’s Grace Dean and James Dean reported in April.
Abramovich himself has repeatedly denied any financial links to Putin or a close relationship with the president. But Western officials say the oligarch and his businesses have received «preferential treatment and concessions» from Putin, including tax breaks and grants.
The Times of London reported that Abramovich met with Putin in March and handed the president a handwritten note from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seeking peace, which Putin promptly dismissed.
Timchenko, a billionaire trader and businessman who faced US sanctions ahead of Russia’s invasion, is another notable oligarch with close ties to Putin. The sixth richest man in Russia, Timchenko was the wealthiest oligarch to face US sanctions earlier this year.
The two men have been friends since the early 1990s, according to The Guardian, when Putin, a rising political star at the time, gifted Timchenko an oil export license to aid the St. Petersburg oil trader.
Timchenko emerged as a co-founder of Gunvor Group, a Swiss-based trading house that exports billions of dollars of Russian oil. Both the company and Putin have rejected allegations that the Russian president was a «sleeper» beneficiary of Gunvor’s activities, profiting off oil exports, The Guardian reported.
But the US in 2014 sanctioned Timchenko along with other members of the «Russian leadership’s inner circle,» alleging that Timchenko’s energy sector activities had direct links to Putin. Timchenko said he had sold his stake in Gunvor the day before he was sanctioned by the US in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea.
Timchenko remains the founder and owner of the private investment firm Volga Group which is a major shareholder in Russia’s massive natural gas producer Novatek.
China and Russia are not formal allies, but ties between the two countries, particularly related to trade and defense, have expanded over the past decade. The two countries consider each other strategic partners, and said in February their relationship has «no limits.»
In early February, as concern mounted over the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine, Chinese officials asked Russian officials to wait until after the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, according to Western intelligence officials.
The intelligence report indicated that Chinese officials had some level of prior knowledge about the planned invasion, although it wasn’t clear if Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Putin had communicated directly. But the request to delay may have emboldened Putin to actually go through with it, Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations, told Insider.
Following the invasion, as Western countries issued crippling sanctions against Russia, China continued to purchase Russian oil and gas, serving as a lifeline for the Kremlin to continue with the war efforts. China, which is the largest purchaser of Russian oil, has even quietly increased its purchases since the war began.
Xi has also refrained from condemning the invasion, though in September Putin acknowledged the Chinese leader had concerns about the war. But when the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories as illegal, China abstained.
Like China, India has also maintained its relationship with Russia throughout the war, continuing to buy energy products. India also drastically increased its purchases of Russian oil in the spring at highly discounted rates, essentially helping to fund the war efforts in Ukraine.
India has refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion, and the two countries have referred to their relationship as a «special and privileged strategic partnership.»
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did criticize the war in September during a face-to-face meeting with Putin. «Today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this,» Modi said. Putin acknowledged Modi’s concerns and said he too wanted the war to end as soon as possible.
However, fear of losing the support of China and India may have actually encouraged Putin to escalate the war, in hopes of ending it sooner. And when the United Nations Security Council voted to condemn Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories, India also abstained.
Belarus, along with its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has been Putin’s most important ally on the world stage. The country, located north of Ukraine, is Russia’s only ally in Europe.
Belarus has deep ties to Russia and the two remained close even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The countries are connected by a number of political, economic, and defense deals, including the Union State, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of post-Soviet states that Putin has propped up as NATO’s counterpart.
Lukashenko, who has been referred to as Europe’s last dictator, and Putin have a close relationship, with Belarus supporting Russia in the war effort. Belarus served as a staging ground for Russian troops prior to the invasion and has since been used by Russia to launch ballistic missiles into Ukraine. Hospitals in Belarus near the Ukrainian border have also taken in wounded Russian soldiers.
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has forged deep ties with Russia and Putin.
While in office, Schröder, who served as chancellor from 1998 to 2005, supported building the first undersea gas pipeline that would directly deliver Russian natural gas to Germany. Three weeks after leaving office, Schröder became head of the board of shareholders for Nord Stream, the company behind the pipeline, despite concerns about a conflict of interest or wrongdoing.
He has since made nearly $1 million a year from energy companies controlled by the Kremlin, The New York Times reported. Schröder has been one of Germany’s most prominent proponents of importing Russian energy to fuel the country’s industrial economy.
As Germany was forced to confront it’s reliance on Russia’s oil and gas in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, some placed blame on Schröder, who critics say has promoted Russian energy at the expense of Germany’s long-term interests.
Schröder was also criticized in August after having a private meeting with Putin during a trip to Moscow. He told German media he had nothing to apologize for and said the West should properly acknowledge Russia’s «real fears of being hemmed in» by antagonistic countries, The Guardian reported. He also recommended Ukraine remain neutral and that both sides needed to compromise.
Schröder is now being investigated by Germany’s Social Democrats, the party he has been a part of since 1963, over his ties to Russia and Putin.
Olga Skabeyeva has emerged as perhaps the most passionate and prominent Russian TV propagandist among a sea of TV propagandists who have been pushing the Kremlin’s talking points since the war began.
Nicknamed the «propagandist-in-chief» and the «iron doll of Putin TV,» Skabeyeva has been a dependable, frequent face in Putin’s war effort, delivering intense, often-fabricated rants on the government-owned TV channel Russia-1 about Russia’s military struggles, Western leaders, and the Ukrainian army.
Skabeyeva has built her career over the last 15 years of the Putin regime serving as a mouthpiece for the administration, experts told Insider’s Michelle Mark earlier this year. She hosts the political talk show «60 Minutes» on Russia-1 alongside her husband Yevgeny Popov, offering polarizing and divisive — though almost certainly Putin-approved — analysis and propaganda.
In April she sparked international outcry after she said on television that Russia was in the middle of World War III, marking a notable shift in the Kremlin’s acceptable rhetoric regarding Ukraine.
Sarah Oates, a professor and senior scholar at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism previously told Insider that Skabeyeva’s inflammatory words were no accident, as Russian TV presenters often receive their talking points directly from the government.
Vasily Gatov, a Russian media researcher and visiting fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, compared her to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and called her a «monster» in an April interview.
Tesla and SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk in recent months has pushed Kremlin talking points to his 118 million followers on Twitter, the site he now owns.
On October 3, Musk tweeted a poll suggesting a Ukraine-Russia peace plan that included holding elections in four Ukrainian territories Russia claimed to have annexed in a move that was widely decried as illegitimate and illegal. The plan also suggested Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014, be acknowledged as part of Russia, that Ukraine remain neutral, and a water supply to Crimea be guaranteed.
Musk’s peace plan was so favorable to Russia and specific to water rights in southern Ukraine that one leading Russia analyst, Fiona Hill, said it had the Kremlin’s fingerprints on it, though Musk has denied speaking to Putin.
Musk’s tweet sparked harsh criticism from Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, who suggested the billionaire was supporting Putin. But Musk has continued to chime in about the war, including in a tweet emphasizing the importance of Crimea to Russian national security, another point pushed by the Kremlin.
Former President Donald Trump has often bragged about his close relationship with Putin and frequently downplayed the national security threat posted by Russia, ignoring warnings from US intelligence agencies.
In 2014, after Putin invaded Crimea, Trump praised the Russian president in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference and said the rest of Ukraine would fall «fairly quickly.» He later claimed the people of Crimea would rather be with Russia.
When US intelligence agencies concluded Russia had interfered in the 2016 election through an online disinformation and propaganda campaign intended to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, Trump doubted them, accepting Putin’s denials. He later acknowledged the meddling, but has frequently dismissed it or contradicted US intel.
In 2019, Trump’s first impeachment was over an accusation that he withheld aid to Ukraine, which was still in ongoing conflict with Russia, in order to find dirt on Biden, his political opponent.
And since the war began, Trump has continued to push Kremlin talking points and praise Putin. When Russia invaded in February, Trump lauded Putin’s justification for invading as «genius» and «savvy.» In October, Trump appeared to take blame for the invasion away from Putin and place it on US leadership — exactly where the Russian president says it belongs.
«They actually taunted him, if you really look at it, our country and our so-called leadership taunted Putin,» Trump told right-wing network Real America’s Voice. «I would listen, I would say, you know, they’re almost forcing him to go in with what they’re saying. The rhetoric was so dumb.»
Trump also pushed a Ukraine-Russia peace deal after Putin threatened the use of nuclear weapons, playing into Putin’s plans in a way that some experts described as «dangerous.»
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has frequently repeated Putin’s talking points by sharing them on «Tucker Carlson Tonight,» one of cable news’ most-watched shows. Just before Russia invaded Ukraine, Carlson devoted a 15-minute segment to talking about how the US should not care about the looming conflict between the two countries.
He claimed concern over the conflict was not about protecting Ukraine but because Democrats «want you to hate Putin» and that NATO doesn’t want Russia to exist. He also said NATO’s «one and only goal is to hold back the development of Russia,» echoing claims made by Putin.
He’s also repeatedly attacked the country of Ukraine, whose citizens have mounted a society-wide response and begun to regain territory seized by the Russian invaders who have left mass graves in their wake.
Following the invasion, Carlson acknowledged Putin and Russia were to blame but continued to spread their messages to his massive audience. In March a leaked memo showed the Kremlin even instructing Russian state media to play clips from Carlson’s show «as much as possible,» Mother Jones reported.
At various points Carlson has defended Putin, downplayed the threat posed by Russia, repeated unsubstantiated and unlikely claims pushed by the Kremlin that the US was behind the Nord Stream pipelines sabotage, and falsely said the US is only providing aid to Ukraine as «payback for the 2016 election.»
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