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Michael Rochlitz

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Michael Rochlitz is a research fellow at the Institute for Sociology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and an Associate Fellow at the International Center for Institutional and Development Studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

The Russian government's security and defense apparatus has grown in influence. This is indicated by a more aggressive foreign and a more repressive domestic policy. But how far does the power of the so-called siloviki extend and what is their origin?

Alexander Bortnikow, head of the FSB, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev, the Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin and the Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev speak during a meeting of the Security Council in the Kremlin on December 28, 2018. (& copy picture alliance / Mikhail Klimentyev / TASS / dpa)


Since 2012, the internal policy of the Russian government has become visibly more repressive and has taken on increasingly aggressive foreign policy. At first glance, this development appears to be a product of strengthened security and defense apparatus, the so-called Silovikiwho ultimately won the upper hand in the struggle between rival groups at the forefront of Russian politics. However, this is less due to the fact that the Siloviki took control of Russian politics. Rather, Vladimir Putin's interpretation of how the world works has become increasingly the worldview of the Siloviki adjusted, which explains the authoritarian turn in Russian politics in recent years.


Is Russia a state controlled by its own security services? It is widely believed that Russia's so-called "power ministries," the authorities empowered to use armed force against threats to national security, have become the dominant actors in Russian politics in recent years. "Sila" means "force", "power", "violence" in Russian, and in the eyes of many observers it is Siloviki, Members of the power ministries who shaped Russian domestic and foreign policy more intensively after Putin's return to the presidency in March 2012.

This view is underpinned by Russia's increasingly repressive domestic policies, as well as more violent foreign policy. Since the spring of 2012, Russian civil society has been subjected to a whole series of attacks that appear to have originated directly from a script by the security services. The annexation of Crimea, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and the Russian intervention in Syria also seem to be in line with the worldview of the hardliners in the military and security authorities. At the same time, the question remains who is ultimately pulling the strings in Russia at the moment and who by and large determines politics. Is Putin under the control of the siloviki? Or is it, on the contrary, that Putin has the siloviki under control and balances their power with that of other influential groups?

Internal turf wars

On the surface, it seems that Putin is in control of the siloviki. The siloviki, however, do not represent a unified association that would be able to influence politics in a coordinated manner, but rather consist of a number of rival ministries, authorities and groups that are deeply divided by personal and business disputes. At the head of these groupings are close confidants of Putin from the 1990s and early 2000s, with the Russian president being the only person who would be able to strike a balance to prevent either group from becoming too powerful.

It is not of primary interest to any of the siloviki groups to influence the political direction of the country. They are more interested in maintaining the status quo, which in the past has enabled them to amass considerable fortunes. With the presence of "top siloviki" at or near the top of "Gazprom" and "Rosneft", the state-owned gas and oil companies, the siloviki control an important part of Russia's revenues from commodity sales. The security services are also involved in all kinds of protection money deals, extortion and "hostile takeovers" of companies. These activities range from collecting protection money from lower-ranking police officers to "hostile takeovers" in which officers from the middle ranks of the security forces take part, to the expropriation of entire companies from business rivals by top siloviki. While the "predatory behavior" of the Russian security services continues to have a strong negative impact on the investment climate and the country's economy, many observers believe that it is precisely through this distribution of resources among the rival factions that Putin is able to keep these groups under control.

When it comes to access to these resources, the different Silowiki factions are in fierce competition with each other, for example to ensure that no authority poaches in the territory of a rival. These internal "siloviki wars" take place largely in secret from the public, but the struggle sometimes breaks through to the surface. An example of this is the open letter in which Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Federal Drug Control Service, complained to the Kommersant newspaper about the trench warfare between the siloviki - his agency was previously under heavy fire from the Federal Security Service ( FSB) advised [The letter can be called up at: (Russian) - Note d. Red.]. In another example, the Deputy Head of Anti-Corruption at the Ministry of the Interior committed suicide in 2014 by jumping off the balcony on the fifth floor when he was being investigated and he was being held in custody by the FSB. The case had highlighted the bitter rivalry between the FSB and the Interior Ministry.

The intense fighting between the rival factions of the siloviki makes it unlikely that they would be able to pursue a common agenda to influence the politics of the country. However, the extent to which Putin is able to control the various factions is also questionable. Sometimes Putin's frustration at the excessive greed of the Russian police and judicial authorities becomes visible, for example during his address to the Federal Assembly in December 2015. In this speech, Putin complained that of the 200,000 cases opened in 2014 by the investigative authorities against Russian entrepreneurs were, only 15 percent ended up with a conviction. At the same time, however, it was the case that 83 percent of the entrepreneurs who were investigated lost their company in whole or in part as a result of these investigations, following the visibly frustrated President of Russia [The speech is available at: http://en.kremlin. ru / events / president / news / 50864 (eng.) - Note d. Red.].

Does the tail wag the dog?

Putin's penchant for solving conflicts behind the scenes also undermines his ability to effectively control and balance the conflicting siloviki factions. At different times, the various groups, and the FSB in particular, have taken advantage of Putin's weakness by presenting him with a fait accompli that required clearly visible intervention to put things right post factum to straighten up again. The 2007 conflict between the Federal Drug Control Service, headed by Viktor Cherkesov, on the one hand, and the FSB, on the other, is one such example. Putin originally asked his longtime ally Cherkesov to investigate some cases of shady behavior by the FSB; the FSB then only increased the stakes, to the point where Putin had no choice but to sacrifice Cherkesov if he wanted to avoid a potentially destabilizing public scandal. Another recent example is the conflict over the Bashneft oil company. Here Igor Sechin, head of the state-owned oil company "Rosneft", who is often described as the head of one of the most important siloviki groups, had an eye on this oil company owned by Yevgeny Yevtushenkov; Yevtushenkov has always been unwaveringly loyal to Putin. Although Sechin already had an extraordinary amount of power at this point in time, he ultimately also brought "Bashneft" under his control. The Bashneft case raises doubts as to whether Putin is actually able to use the allocation of pension sources to strike a balance between the various siloviki factions. Ultimately, it once again looked as if Putin had been driven by developments that he was no longer able to keep completely under control.

In summary, it can be stated that the siloviki are not able to control Putin in a coordinated manner, but that Putin's ability to curb the predatory behavior of the various security services in Russia is also limited. So the question remains who will ultimately pull the strings in Russian politics. This is where the siloviki have actually gained influence in recent years, and in a more subtle way than one might expect if one just looks at power relations and control skills.

The worldview of the siloviki: enemies everywhere

The siloviki are divided by their respective economic interests, but they are united as a whole by a special worldview. This can be summarized in a few central points. The most important is that the siloviki strive for a strong and centralized state backed by a well-funded and extensive security and defense apparatus. From this point of view, such a strong state is necessary because Russia is threatened by external forces that are trying to disrupt the Russian state from inside and outside, since they envy Russia's status as a great power and its natural resources. The fight against this external threat requires a realpolitical perspective that can only be fully understood by siloviki. As a result, they are uniquely qualified to lead Russia in these uncertain times. The view of the siloviki on domestic and foreign policy, as well as on western and international institutions, is characterized by a high degree of cynicism and the belief that politics is above all a game of lies and deceit. This disaffection with political decision-making has its roots in the Soviet Union's defeat in the Cold War and the subsequent decade of political and economic chaos Russia experienced in the 1990s, as well as in the perceived permanent lack of respect for the West by the siloviki Russia. The worldview of the siloviki today thus contains certain elements of schizophrenia, through which predatory behavior within Russia comes in harmony with the sincere belief that all dangers to the country are of external origin.

Putin himself comes from the Russian security services, but in his first years as president his worldview differed in some respects from that of the siloviki. The economic collapse of the Soviet Union had taught him that market competition is far superior to state intervention in the economy. This led to a series of pro-market reforms early on as President of Russia. Likewise, in the early 2000s, Putin tried to get Russia to become more active in the international community, relying on cooperation rather than confrontation. At that time, the economic liberal factions and the siloviki factions in the government had roughly equal influence on Putin and Russian politics.

All of this changed from the late 2000s, slowly at first, then markedly with the start of Putin's third term as President in 2012. Since then, Putin's worldview has moved very much closer to the perception of the siloviki, especially with regard to the increasingly cynical view of Western political norms and institutions. In this sense, the siloviki have gained significantly, albeit indirectly, control over the shaping of Russian politics. A number of factors were responsible for this change in Putin's worldview.

Probably the most important was that the West failed to take Putin's offer of cooperation seriously. Often Russia was treated more like a junior partner and not as a world power - as Russia is in Putin's eyes - deserves. This perceived lack of respect coincided with a series of regime changes in former communist countries, the so-called colored revolutions, in which - often with help from the West - pro-Russian regimes in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan fell. In 2008 and 2009, the economic crisis added an element of acute vulnerability to external shocks. The Arab Spring of 2011 and the expulsion of the then Tunisian President Ben Ali and the Egyptian President Mubarak from power further increased uncertainty among the Russian elite. As the political protests after the 2011 Duma elections began to resemble a colored revolution in Russia itself, Putin responded by clearly adopting a strategy that put political control over economic and political liberalism.

As a result, the liberal wing in the Russian government lost much of its influence after 2012. After long-standing finance minister Alexei Kudrin left the government in September 2011 due to a dispute with then prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, the liberals around Medvedev were sidelined shortly after Putin's return to the Kremlin. The dismissal of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in November 2012 is one of the most striking examples. At the same time, a small group of key figures in the siloviki became the informal nexus of political power. Prominent members of this group included Sergei Shojgu as the successor to Serdyukov, Sergei Ivanov, who headed the presidential administration until 2016, the head of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, the director of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, then Viktor Solotov, who headed the President's Security Service until 2014 and is now at the head of the National Guard, the head of the Committee of Inquiry, Alexander Bastrykin, and Yevgeny Murov, who headed the Federal Security Service until 2016. This concentration of political power in a small group of people from the security services has meant a considerable narrowing of the potential sources of information that Putin uses. Since he is not a fan of the Internet or reading newspapers, Putin mainly relies on the reports of his close confidants as a source of information. And since most of his closest advisers are now part of the siloviki, only a few voices remain that could provide the president with an alternative view of things.


In summary, it can be stated that Russia's move from 2012 to more repressive domestic politics and a more self-confident foreign policy stance was not a result of lobbying by siloviki, and not even the influence of a number of important siloviki. Rather, it seems that Putin's interpretation of how the world works is increasingly resembling the worldview of the siloviki, and that he is therefore relying more and more on the power ministries to implement politics. Putin's frustration with the constant reciprocal fighting and predatory behavior of the Russian security services shows that he is with some certainty aware of the cost of relying heavily on the siloviki for the country. But that seems like a price he is willing to pay in order to maintain political control.

Translation from English: Hartmut Schröder

Reading tips

  • Galeotti, Mark: Putin's Hydra: Inside Russia's Intelligence Services, CFR Policy Brief No. 169, European Council on Foreign Relations, May 11, 2016; https: // .
  • Rivera, David W .; Rivera, Sharon W .: The Militarization of the Russian Elite under Putin, in: Problems of Post-Communism, 64, 2017, No. 4: pp. 221–232.
  • Reddaway, Peter: Russia’s Domestic Security Wars: Putin’s Use of Divide and Rule Against His Hardline Allies, Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot 2018.
  • Soldatov, Andrei; Rochlitz, Michael: The ‘Siloviki’ in Russian Politics, in: D. Treisman (ed.): The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putin’s Russia, Washington, D.C .: Brookings Institution Press 2018.

The Russia analyzes are jointly published by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.