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Putin's inner circle closes in around him

Russia Ukraine Invasion
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, second left, and Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov, left, during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has surrounded himself with yes men for years, feasting on their praise, rewarding their greed, and looking the other way as they plundered the country.

All Putin asked for in exchange was unconditional loyalty, something that has been put to the test following his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

But in the four weeks since he ordered his military to cross into the neighboring nation, his tight circle of confidants has shown signs of strain. The Russian leader and ex-KGB intelligence officer hasn't responded well to pushback. He's turned his ominous glare on those who have shown any hesitation and has pledged to "purify" Russia of traitors.

Sergei Shoigu, Russia's defense minister since 2012, disappeared from the public eye with "heart problems," just days after it was reported Putin had started a witch hunt to root out disloyal members of his inner circle following news that the United States and Britain received leaks of his military plans.


Shoigu, who was in charge of the bloody invasion that has led to the deaths of up to 15,000 Russian soldiers, hadn't been seen in 13 days until he resurfaced on Thursday in footage of a Kremlin security council meeting that aired on Russian state-run television.

Several independent Russian media outlets, however, suggested the video might be old footage of Shoigu.

The Pentagon revealed on Wednesday that it has also not been able to contact Shoigu or other top Kremlin military officials.

His daughter, Ksenia, 31, was purportedly posing for pictures in Ukrainian colors of yellow and blue.

His disappearance from the public eye follows the first admission by a top Russian official that the deluge of Western sanctions caught the country off guard.

"Nobody who was predicting what sanctions the West would pass could have pictured that," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a group of students at Moscow State Institute of International Relations on Wednesday. "It's just thievery."

Russia Ukraine Invasion
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, right, and Head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia and First Deputy Defense Minister Valery Gerasimov listen to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The admission isn't likely to sit well with his boss, who has already ordered the arrest of multiple senior military commanders, accusing them of everything from squandering fuel to intelligence failings in the field that have led to Russian losses.

Putin has also been dismissive of longtime ally Alexander Bortnikov, the Federal Security Service (FSB) head, and has snapped at Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, the Daily Mail reported. It's rumored that Bortnikov would be a stand-in leader should Putin fall in a coup.

Putin has also ordered two other FSB officers, Col.-Gen. Sergey Beseda, chief of the FSB's "Fifth Service," and his deputy, Anatoly Bolyuk, to be put on house arrest.

Russia's inability to quickly capture Kyiv has undoubtedly led to Putin's emotional spiral, Russian analysts have said.

Until recently, Putin's advisers, "fearful of his responses, seem to have told Putin what he wanted to hear," said Russian journalists Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis.

Now, faced with the reality of Ukrainian resistance and the weight of global sanctions against his country, Putin's inner circle is closing in on him.

"He is no longer the same cold-blooded, clear-eyed dictator that he was in 2008," former CIA Director John Brennan told NBC News.

Another Western diplomat told the media outlet that there was worry about what an increasingly erratic Putin might do.

"The main concern is the information he's getting and how isolated he is," the source said. "We don't believe he has a realistic understanding of what's going on."

Likely adding to his headache is the resignation of Anatoly Chubais, Russia's former climate envoy and the man who gave Putin his first job at the Kremlin. Chubais is best known for reforming Russia's economy in the late 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union. The privatizations under him helped then-President Boris Yeltsin create a large number of very wealthy Russian oligarchs.


"Yes, Chubais has resigned of his own will," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "But whether he has left [Russia] or stayed, that's his personal affair."