Putin’s Favorite 'Project Managers' Could Become a Risk to the Regime

December 05, 2023
Andrey Pertsev

This analysis was originally published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

New favorites have appeared in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle in recent years. Using their access to the boss, they come up with new projects to manage, promote themselves in the media, and try to impress everyone with their professionalism. Their approach not only distinguishes them from veteran members of Putin’s entourage, but helps shore up the system.

Putin appreciates their efforts. As a result, they are even starting to overshadow the previous generation of Putin favorites, most of whom worked with him in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. These old friends were never elevated because of their professionalism, and they don’t create value—they guard it. In contrast, the new favorites have to earn their place at the top table. Increasingly, they’re becoming the regime’s engine. But when they eventually demand a reward, the system won’t be able to give it to them.

Autocratic regimes breed nepotism and, in Putin’s case, this has been true from the very start. Two of his St. Petersburg friends, Alexei Miller and Igor Sechin, were made the respective heads of state-owned energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft. Tycoons close to Putin, like the Kovalchuk brothers, the Rotenberg brothers, and oil trader Gennady Timchenko, acquired major assets. And Nikolai Patrushev, an old KGB colleague, succeeded Putin as head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1999.

The list of Putin’s St. Petersburg favorites is a long one. But the idea was always simple: give power and resources to those you trust. Experience and expertise were of secondary importance. Sechin, for example, knew next to nothing about oil production before his appointment.

There were, of course, also professionals around Putin in this period, but they largely held technocratic positions that offered few rewards. The most lucrative roles were almost always reserved for the president’s favorites. In the mid-2010s, Putin’s St. Petersburg pals were joined in the inner circle by members of his court. Bodyguards were put to work as deputy ministers, or governors. Anton Vaino, who essentially worked as Putin’s personal valet, was made Kremlin chief of staff.

All of these favorites are best characterized as “guardians”: they control given resources, or certain sectors, for the president. And their ascendancy largely coincided with a time of economic prosperity in Russia driven by rising global commodity prices.

However, Putin’s favorites are changing. His St. Petersburg friends continue to control resources and hold key positions, but a new group is snapping at their heels. Typically, these men—they are mostly men—are professionals who devise projects that tickle Putin’s fancy. The first such favorite was Sergei Sobyanin, who made his name as governor of Tyumen region.

Since becoming mayor of Moscow in 2010, Sobyanin has sought to transform the capital into an Asian-style metropolis: modern, but devoid of civil society and local community. And he has long understood how to get Putin’s attention: for example, knowing the president is interested in transport, Sobyanin shows him new roads, electric trains, and water taxis.

Sobyanin’s rise has provided others with an example to follow. One of these is Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin, who oversees the construction sector. Khusnullin regularly discusses new infrastructure projects with Putin, giving the president the impression Russia is developing in the face of Western sanctions.

Another is Kremlin deputy chief of staff Sergei Kiriyenko, who presides over a vast machine for entertaining Putin: recruitment competitions, training for officials, arranging courses for students, and endless youth forums. His latest project is a vast exhibition called “Russia” that is supposed to be the main event of Putin’s reelection campaign.

This cohort also includes Yuri Trutnev, presidential envoy to Russia’s Far East, and Putin aide Maxim Oreshkin. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin pulls in Putin with the promise of a modern, highly digitized form of government. And Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko is attracting attention with his sporting events and IT projects.

If the St. Petersburg favorites are the regime’s “guardians,” these men are its “builders.” Admittedly, their constructions are largely cosmetic. But they have won over Putin.

Regular contact with the president is what guarantees a place in his inner circle. The new favorites need reasons to meet with Putin, so they keep coming up with new projects. They likely recall the fate of Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, whose career took off in 2011 after he proposed the All-Russian People’s Front, but stalled when Putin lost interest, and no more project proposals were forthcoming. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also pays attention. When Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine faltered, this skilled and cunning courtier seemed to fall out of favor. But he quickly adapted.

There are two main reasons why Putin’s favorites have changed. Firstly, a restless and aging autocrat needs to be entertained. Secondly, as the years go by, Putin is increasingly preoccupied with his legacy: he wants objects, events, and structures to outlast him. In both cases, ambitious officials can sense an opportunity for career advancement.

Be that as it may, a court filled with project managers is not necessarily a boon to the regime. Unlike the “guardians,” the “builders” owe their rise as much to their own merits as to the Russian president. They set up new initiatives, defy sanctions, and nourish the illusion that there are lots of causes for celebration in modern Russia. In fact, they tend to do more for the system than it does for them.

They are even starting to accumulate resources: raising money for their own projects, setting up pet companies, and lobbying for the appointment of regional governors. Going forward, their appetites will only increase: after all, they are the regime’s benefactors, not its beneficiaries. Rosneft, for example, would not notice the loss of Sechin, and would clearly benefit from a more competent manager.

If we end up in a situation in which Putin and his St. Petersburg friends are unwilling to meet the demands of the new favorites, we could see sabotage, or even open discontent.

Enterprising and competent officials know full well they can survive without Putin. Whether the regime can survive without them, though, is another matter. Either way, their project management skills have helped them enter the president’s inner sanctum—and will come in handy in a Russia without Putin.


Andrey Pertsev

Andrey Pertsev is a journalist with Meduza website.

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors, unless otherwise stated. Photo shared by the Russian presidential press service (Kremlin.ru) under a CC BY 4.0 license.