It’s been five months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine and began their relentless assault on their far-smaller neighbor. The Western press has focused heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who masterminded the invasion over many years and has overseen its execution.
But Putin isn’t working on his own.
He is surrounded by a cabal of equally ruthless lieutenants just as eager to deceive the West with bombast and rhetoric.
These henchmen – and occasional women — are not just wily, they’re extremely well-compensated thanks to their close proximity to Putin’s kleptocratic machine. Long-serving and devoted, the Russian leader owes this creepy crew a perverse debt of gratitude for helping him achieve his horrifying goals.
Here’s a look at the top seven characters in Putin’s orbit of war.
The heir apparent
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Security Council, is Putin’s closest advisor, long-time personal friend, and the Kremlin hawk who could easily take over the reins of Mother Russia — at least temporarily — if Putin were to become incapacitated. Patrushev is highly influential in the Kremlin bureaucracy and is one of the principal architects of the Putin doctrine — which seeks to return former Soviet-era states (like Ukraine) to Russian control.
Patrushev is Putin’s evil twin, with both twins, in this case, being evil. Their relationship dates back to 1975, when they worked together in the KGB. Like his boss, Patrushev — who’s served as a spy operative for 50 years — has likely authorized targeted killings of numerous Russian “enemies.” Among his victims are former FSB officer and vocal Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned in Britain in 2006, along with Chechen separatist leaders hunted down and killed as part of a counter-terrorism program during the late-1990s.
At 71, Patrushev, like Putin, is a committed athlete who regularly plays volleyball and swims nearly three miles a week. He doesn’t abuse alcohol, which is uncommon for Russian males, favoring the occasional glass of wine over hard liquor. He is a workaholic and never late for meetings. It’s likely Patrushev helped hatch the plan for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and Putin’s attack against the rest of the Ukraine this past February. Patrushev is also a rabid anti-American propagandist who recently accused Washington of running a biological weapons program in Ukraine. Even more outlandish, he’s suggested that the US is planning to drop a nuke on Ukrainian territory and then blame Russia for it.
The talking head
Dmitriy Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, epitomizes the Russian proverb “You can piss into his eyes and he will say it’s God’s dew.” This maxim describes folks who are so shameless in their ability to tell lies, that they remain unfazed even when directly challenged to their face. Peskov has served as Putin’s spokesperson since 2008. His job, essentially, is to create an alternate reality in which Russia’s geopolitical activities are perceived as benign — if not downright righteous — while covering up the atrocities committed by Putin and the Kremlin.
Peskov, 54, excels at this job, judging by the fact that most Russians seem to support Putin’s “special operation” into Ukraine — launched, Putin has said, to “de-Nazify and demilitarize” the nation. Peskov was even able to trick the Biden security team into believing that Russia might actually not launch its armies against Ukraine, causing Washington to hesitate until Putin’s forces encircled and attacked the nation on February 24.
Like others in Putin’s world, Peskov has managed to become a multi-millionaire from repeating his boss’ lies. He owns a $10 million real estate empire, travels on private jets and yachts, drives luxurious vehicles and, of course, sports designer watches. His third wife and two adult children from a pair of previous marriages are also “bathing in gold,” as another Russian saying goes, and own multimillion-dollar homes all over the world. Peskov’s 24-year-old daughter Elizaveta Peskova studied business and marketing in Paris and held internships at Louis Vuitton and with the European Parliament. There are rumors that Peskov may be divorcing his current wife, a 47-year-old former Olympic ice-dancing champion Tatyana Navka. Peskov married Navka in 2015 after apparently charming her with his “elegance and perseverance” as well as “buoyant” dancing style.
The saucy spokeswoman
Maria Zakharova is the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman and one of the most colorful personalities in Putin’s circle. At 46, she is the first female spokesperson in the history of Russia’s Foreign Ministry and has held the job since 2015. Half warrior-half seductress, Zakharova is known for her combative communication style and the quick-witted barbs that she likes to deploy against Western officials, often laden with sexual innuendo. By day, Zakharova’s briefings are filled with Putin’s lies — such as portraying Ukraine as being overrun by Nazis and in need of immediate liberation by Russian forces. By night, she floods social media with suggestive selfies wearing bright red lipstick and provocatively poses in strapless dresses. In early July, Zakharova posted a sexy video of herself fondling two strawberries with her mouth and tongue to the tune of the patriotic Russian song “Kalinka,” performed by the Red Army Choir.
But the main targets of Putin’s propaganda minister are the Biden Administration, US democracy, and Western values in general. Last month, Zakharova posted on her Telegram channel a bizarre photo of two transgender Biden Administration officials, Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, and Sam Brinton, deputy assistant secretary responsible for nuclear issues within the Department of Energy. In the photo, which was taken at the French ambassador’s Bastille Day party, Rachel Levine sported a “masculine”-styled admiral’s uniform, while Sam Brinton wore a more “feminine”-looking blue, floral patterned dress with a sweetheart neckline, blazer, and blue, strappy heels. “Answer this question honestly: are these the values you would like to impart on your children? Or shall we put up a fight for our own?,” wrote Zakharova, mocking Western liberalism and democracy.
Margarita Simonyan, 42 is Putin’s Propaganda Queen. Officially, she is the Editor-in-Chief of RT, Russia’s global network of television channels, websites, and social media accounts broadcasting to non-Russian speaking audiences in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, German, and Russian. In reality, Simonyan is no journalist. RT is Putin’s pet project: a Russian state-funded and state-directed news outlet created with the primary goal of publishing pro-Kremlin content to influence foreign, and especially Western, audiences about Russia and Putin. Putin created RT in 2005 as Russia Today. But in late 2013 Putin issued an Executive Presidential order to “restructure” the network and call it “RT” — concealing RT’s affiliation with Russia.
in Russia, she graduated from high school with a Gold Medal for top academic performance, completed vocational training in broadcasting and later obtained a university degree in journalism.
Putin is on a first-name-basis with Simonyan and likely personally approved her candidacy for this high-profile role, which she assumed at the age of 25 in 2005. He’s also rather friendly with her: In 2019, during a ceremony in the Kremlin, in which Simonyan was given a state award for her patriotic reporting, Putin used the Russian word “ty”— which is a sign of familiarity — rather than “vy,” which is a more formal version of the English “you”. Simonyan also has a yellow phone on her desk with a direct secure line to the Kremlin.
RT content ranges from “animated genitals,” a dancing vagina and penis — and their friends “laughing breast” and “overly-eager hand” — to Simonyan-issued threats of nuclear war if Russia is denied victory in Ukraine.
The hockey bro
Arkady Rotenberg, 70, a billionaire Russian businessman, has been Putin’s pal since the 1960s, when he and his brother, Boris, met a young Putin in their hometown of St. Petersburg while attending a training center for sambo — the Russian martial art and combat sport favored by the Soviet military. As chairman of the executive board of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, Rotenberg regularly plays hockey with Putin and was once his judo sparring partner, a sport Putin says transformed him from a young hooligan into a statesman. Awarded by Putin with billions of dollars in oil and gas contracts, Rotenberg owns a $38 million yacht, a luxury hotel in Rome, a large estate in Surrey, England, and several villas in Italy and France.
Vladimir Potanin, 61 is another Putin’s pal, hockey partner, and the richest man in Russia, reportedly worth $25 billion. Potanin was one of the “Big Seven” Russian oligarchs who helped reelect Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin to the Russian presidency in 1996. Yeltsin, who became the first Russian president after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, presided over one of the darkest, most tumultuous and chaotic periods in Russian history. While the West foolishly expected Russia to turn into a Jeffersonian democracy, Russian leaders schemed to defraud the country’s major natural resource companies. Potanin’s relationship with Putin dates back to 2000, when Yeltsin hand-picked Putin as Russia’s next President, while Potanin was busy masterminding the “loans-for-shares” program that enriched oligarchs like himself. As a result of this massive fraud, yesterday’s communists turned into capitalists overnight, and Russia became a modern mafia state ruled by siloviki (intelligence operatives) with virtually unlimited power and financial resources at their disposals.
The culture kapo
Sergei Pavlovich Roldugin, 70, is a childhood friend of the Russian president who introduced Putin to his future, and now former, wife Lyudmila and is the godfather of their eldest daughter, Maria. A graduate of the Leningrad State Conservatory, Roldugin is a professional cellist who serves in various senior positions in St. Petersburg music and arts organizations, including the famed Mariinsky Theater and the St. Petersburg State Conservatory. But Roldugin’s role in Putin’s inner circle has nothing to do with mastering Tchaikovsky (though it does help). Indeed, whereas most of Putin’s inner-circle come from the worlds of espionage, Rodulgin’s artsy background is the perfect cover for safeguarding a portion of Putin’s personal fortune — including up to $2 billion managed via Roldugin’s brother that were exposed by the Panama Papers. In his autobiography, Putin says he and Roldugin “met [in 1977] and have never parted. He is just like a brother to me. Before, when I had nowhere to go, I went to him and slept and ate with him.”
The second-generation sycophant
Ramzan Kadyrov is the brutal leader of the Russian province of Chechnya whom Putin recently promoted to lieutenant-general in the Russian military as a reward for his role in the Ukraine invasion. Like his father, Akhmad Kadyrov — who fought for Chechen independence but then later switched sides — the junior Kadyrov is a staunch Putin supporter. In 2015, he was implicated in the murder of the prominent Putin critic Boris Nemtsov who was gunned down on a Moscow bridge while he was preparing a report about Russia’s role in the Crimea conflict. Today, Kadyrov is gearing up to send four Chechen battalions to Ukraine to help replenish exhausted Russian forces. His fighters, known as Kadyrovtsy, are feared for their viciousness and have been on the hunt for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, presumably to assassinate him. Kadyrov, 45, along The Wagner Group’s Dmitry Utkin, is one of Putin’s two principal hitmen outside of Russia, covertly killing off his boss’ enemies without getting Putin’s hands dirty. The Chechen warlord said in July that he is standing ready for Putin’s order to blow Western countries to “smithereens.”