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Even for a leader as cloistered as Vladimir Putin, the torrent of bad news from Ukraine should be impossible to ignore.

The Russian army’s rapid withdrawal from kyiv last week highlighted the extent of its failure, leaving behind the bodies of Russian soldiers and the burning carcasses of hundreds of tanks and other military vehicles. The goal of a knockout blow against kyiv has been abandoned and Russia faces the toughest sanctions ever decreed against a superpower.

Was it the misinformation of a group of yes supporters that led the Russian leader down this path? That’s what US and European intelligence backed last week, saying the Kremlin leader was now raging against his advisers, especially the military leaders who got him into this mess. “His senior advisers are too scared to tell him the truth,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said.

The Kremlin’s response was predictable.

“It seems that neither the State Department nor the Pentagon knows what is really going on in the Kremlin,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman. “They just don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t understand President Putin. They don’t understand the decision-making mechanism. They don’t understand our working style.

Few can claim to do so at this point.

“From what I know, the circle that Putin speaks with is very small,” said Farida Rustamova, a freelance Russian journalist who has reported on the mindset of officials since the war began. “Only a handful of people are allowed to see it in person and they have to be at a distance. And very few have access to the phone with him. But this access is only one way, because Putin contacts them, not the other way around.

Every week, Putin holds a video call with his security council, a group of mostly hardliners and technocrats that has become his wartime cabinet since the invasion of Ukraine.

Among them are the siloviki, the security chiefs who appear in pole position to Putin’s ears. Among them are Nikolai Patrushev, the former KGB officer Putin met in Leningrad in the 1970s, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov whom Putin has also known for four decades, technocratic Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Naryshkin, the Putin’s foreign intelligence chief.

Who has Putin’s ear?  Inside the president’s inner circle |  Vladimir Poutine
Vladimir Putin leads a cabinet meeting in March via video link. Photograph: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

Their distrust of the West and their tendency towards conspiracy theories make them natural allies of the Russian president at war. But even they appeared to be safely under Putin’s thumb in a televised meeting days before the invasion, a political play that left Naryshkin stuttering as Putin bullied him into “speaking clearly”.

“It is clear that this is an extremely centralized system which only became more centralized during the war,” said Vladimir Gelman, professor of Russian politics at the University of Helsinki. “The Kremlin is like the solar system, Putin being the sun and all the planets in different orbits around it. At the security council meeting…it really showed how little influence the council members had.

Outside of those meetings, which are almost always behind closed doors, insiders say you’re waiting for him to contact you.

That includes the government’s economic bloc, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina, Rustamova said.

And that would also include Shoigu and Army Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.

The pair disappeared from public view for nearly two weeks last month, sparking rumors that defense chiefs had already been punished for Russia’s chaotic start to the war.

In a hugely embarrassing episode, the Ministry of Defense was forced to admit it sent conscripts on combat missions after some were captured and killed in Ukraine. Putin had previously denied that there were any conscripts fighting in Ukraine.

But despite signs that Putin was angry with Shoigu, analysts warned he was unlikely to sack the defense chief amid a major military operation.

“[Shoigu] made himself totally indispensable and that’s how he came back,” said Andrei Soldatov, an author who has written extensively about Russian security services. “Who could replace him? He is the third or second most popular politician in the country.

The Russian leader values ​​loyalty and as a result his cabinet after two decades in power is populated by loyalists.

“Putin likes to repeat the phrase ‘there is no one else to do the job,'” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of political analysis firm R.Politik. “Shoigu is his person. He has… failures at work, shortcomings, mistakes. But will someone else do better? So I wouldn’t draw any conclusions about how Putin is tearing his hair out about how Shoigu betrayed him and let him down.

Critics have pointed to the reported detentions of several high-level FSB officers and the dismissal of a top Rosgvardia, or National Guard, general as evidence of a growing schism over the course of the war or a possible purge for its poor execution.

But experts said the Kremlin ranks appear to be largely holding steady, with little discernible change among Putin’s advisers as he seeks to shore up support under heavy pressure from the west.

“I think [Putin’s] unhappy with the performance,” Soldatov said. “But that doesn’t mean the people inside are ready for a coup or anything like that. It’s just wishful thinking.

Who has Putin’s ear?  Inside the president’s inner circle |  Vladimir Poutine
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is one of Vladimir Putin’s most loyal advisers. Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/EPA

Seeking leverage from the Kremlin, Western countries have sanctioned oligarchs seen as loyal to Putin, betting he could listen to financiers who hold billions in assets.

Among those hit by British sanctions is Roman Abramovich, the billionaire former owner of Chelsea who unexpectedly surfaced during informal talks in Istanbul and Kyiv last month, where he and two members of the Ukraine squad claimed to have been poisoned.

But the oligarchs themselves say it’s been years since they’ve had the ear of the Kremlin, long since driven out by former KGB hawks and other loyalists Putin has installed over the past 20 years. .

“There is no point in people like me trying to talk to the Kremlin,” said an oligarch who has known Putin since the 1990s. Observer. ” It does not work like that. Let’s not be naive. We haven’t had access for years.

Business leaders said they were kept in the dark about the invasion until it began, when Putin called many of them to a meeting to demand their loyalty.

“This conflict was obviously not discussed with the business community,” the oligarch said. “We were just told the day after the invasion that everything would be fine but there was no choice. This is not a debate or a discussion. The system has grown over the years; of course, there were different blocs at first, but after Crimea it became clear that there was no place for the more so-called liberal wing. And the pandemic has made the summit even more isolated.

Some of these former Liberal advisers have already left the country. Anatoly Chubais, the privatization chief under Boris Yeltsin who had transitioned into a state-backed leader and then adviser to Putin on environmental issues, resigned and left Russia for Turkey last month. Arkady Dvorkovich, a former Kremlin economic adviser, resigned as head of the Skolkovo Foundation under state pressure after criticizing the war in an interview.

Who has Putin’s ear?  Inside the president’s inner circle |  Vladimir Poutine
Roman Abramovich, the former owner of UK-sanctioned Chelsea FC, attends talks between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul in March. Photography: AP

And Alexei Kudrin, another top liberal adviser who has known Putin for decades, also advised him to drop the invasion, Rustamova said. According to his sources, Kudrin spoke to Putin shortly after the war started. During the conversation, he “warned Putin of the consequences of the war: that the economy would return to the early 1990s and that this could lead to social instability. But there was no reaction from Putin to any of this. Putin has the same answer to anyone worried about this war: Russia had no other choice.

“There’s a general attitude that even if someone could reach him, it wouldn’t really make a difference, that his mind is set,” Rustamova said.

All of this runs counter to the idea that Putin was deceived about the scale of the war – he instead chose not to listen anymore. The natural competition between Putin’s advisers, even among extremists, also means that they would likely be keen to point out the mistakes of others.

“It’s impossible to hide everything,” Stanovaya said. “We know that there is serious competition within the security services. So if the military makes a mistake, we know there are plenty of people out there willing to talk about it, from [Chechnya head] Ramzan Kadyrov at the FSB. So I wouldn’t say that Putin is misinformed now. But it is possible that he will receive his information late.

As the war continued, this factionalism only grew stronger. Kadyrov, Chechnya’s dictatorial leader who has feuded with Russian security services, also strongly criticized the negotiations led by Kremlin adviser Vladimir Medinsky.

After Medinsky announced that Russia would withdraw some forces from Kyiv, Kadyrov said that “Medinsky made a mistake, made an incorrect wording … And if you think he [Putin] going to abandon what he started as it is presented to us today, that is not true.

“Factionnalism is still a feature of the Russian political system,” said Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London. “However, given that this is an invasion gone wrong, these factional splits may have an existential benefit.”

The rumor mill, where the temporary disappearance of a public figure like Shoigu can quickly lead to breathless predictions of a purge or a coup, also has its own momentum during the invasion.

“Given the opacity of the regime, the plot about palace coups becomes a dynamic in itself that can be completely divorced from what is happening on the ground,” Noble said. “And it’s not just a storm in a teacup that is imagined by Western observers. It is very plausible that these are precisely the conversations, rumors and whispers that take place in Moscow.

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