The war in Ukraine has led to infighting among Russia’s most influential players. These are the 7 people you need to know.

Composite image of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images, Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images, Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

  • Russia’s war in Ukraine has led to infighting among several of the country’s key players.

  • Putin is at the helm, and other influential figures include army generals, politicians and warlords.

  • These are the seven people you need to know.

When Russian troops entered Ukraine last February, its once formidable army expected to quickly take control of its much smaller neighbor.

But a war that was supposed to end in weeks has now dragged on for more than a year, with Russia suffering heavy casualties and embarrassing defeats on the battlefield.

The war also revealed complex relationships and contentious rivalries between some of Russia’s key players, including army generals, politicians and warlords.

That’s all you need to know about the most influential people inside and outside Putin’s inner circle.

Vladimir Poutine

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

At the helm of the war in Ukraine is, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A former KGB agent, Putin has been president or prime minister of Russia since 1999.

During this time, he cemented his position as almighty by crushing all political opposition, restricting the media and centralizing power.

Putin’s forces started the war when they invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, under the baseless pretense that Russia’s neighbor needed to be “demilitarized and denazified.”

While all-out war broke out last year, the conflict technically began in 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Reports suggest the Russian leader has become increasingly isolated and lives in an information vacuum surrounded by a tight circle of yes-men.

Military analysts believe that as long as he is in power, Putin will not give up on his goal of taking over Ukraine. And he is unlikely to relinquish control in Russia anytime soon.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Yevgeny Prigozhin

The leader of the Wagner group Yevgeny Prigozhin.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon linked to Putin, has become a key player in the conflict due to his role as the founder of the mercenary group Wagner.

His relationship with Putin began after he established a catering business in the 1990s that received lucrative government contracts, earning him the nickname “Putin’s chef”.

He only admitted to being the founder of Wagner in September last year. Prior to the war in Ukraine, it was widely considered de facto private military service for the Kremlin.

Prigozhin has notoriously recruited convicts to join the fight in Ukraine, and the controversial paramilitary group has played a key role in the fighting, particularly around the hotly contested town of Bakhmut.

In recent months, Wagner’s incendiary leader has found himself embroiled in a public feud with senior Russian officials, in particular Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov.

He criticized them by name for not supporting his fighters with what he believed to be the required amount of weaponry, and fussed over who should take credit for Russian war victories.

He also spoke scathingly about Russia’s elite for protecting their children from being drafted into war – and he even gave Putin a rare dig.

Prigozhin has long been a close ally of Putin, but his growing influence and heightened vitriol towards Russian leaders appear to have caused the president to distance himself.

The feud also led to speculation that Prigozhin may have political ambitions of his own, which he denied.

Sergei Shoigu

Sergei Shoigu

Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defense Minister.Russian Defense Ministry/Vadim Savitsky/Handout via Reuters

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is known as Putin’s right-hand man and one of his most loyal henchmen.

There was a time when Shoigu, who has been defense minister since 2012, was a popular public figure in Russia and even touted as Putin’s potential successor.

He was also known for his pleasant hunting and fishing trips with the President in Siberia.

However, his position appears to have weakened since the start of the invasion of Ukraine – which he had played a key role in planning and which he now oversees.

Russia’s failures in Ukraine may have undermined his decades-long rise to the highest echelons of power and led to allegations of a rift between him and Putin.

There have been constant rumors that Shoigu will be ousted, but he has retained his position so far.

If Russia fails in Ukraine, experts say Shoigu and Russia’s military rulers will become scapegoats.

In an ongoing power struggle, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin repeatedly attacked Shoigu and the Russian military establishment.

Shoigu oversaw the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and also played a crucial role in Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015.

Sergei Surovikin

Colonel General Sergei Surovikin, commander of Russian forces in Syria, speaks, with a map of Syria projected on the screen at the back, during a briefing at the Russian Ministry of Defense in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, June 9, 2017. Russia's Defense Ministry has announced that Air Force Chief General Sergei Surovikin will be the commander of all Russian troops fighting in Ukraine.  The statement marked the first formal appointment of a single commander for the entire Russian force in Ukraine.

Colonel-General Sergei Surovikin.AP/Pavel Golovkin, File

Sergei Surovikin was appointed to oversee the war in Ukraine in October, arriving with a reputation as a ruthless general accused of targeting civilian infrastructure in Syria.

Nicknamed “General Armageddon”, Surovikin was meant to turn the tide of the war, but only lasted three months in this role.

During his short tenure, he oversaw the aerial bombardment of critical infrastructure in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s forced withdrawal from the city of Kherson, which it had occupied in the early months of the war.

In January, he was demoted to become one of three assistants to his successor, General Valery Gerasimov.

Some experts have noted that Surovikin’s demotion was likely a political decision rather than a punishment for failure.

Putting Gerasimov in charge could have been a move by Putin to increase the authority of the Russian military amid an ongoing power struggle with Wagner chief Prigozhin.

The outspoken Wagner leader often praised Surovikin while criticizing Gerasimov and Shoigu.

General Valery Gerasimov

Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov.

Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov.Murat Kula/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Russia appointed General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s top general, to oversee the war in Ukraine in January.

He and Shoigu are widely considered to be two of Putin’s most loyal supporters.

Gerasimov replaced ruthless General Sergei Surovikin, inheriting what several experts described as a “poisoned gift” following repeated Russian humiliations on the battlefield.

Gerasimov had been a key architect of the invasion of Ukraine, along with Shoigu, but seemed to have remained at a distance during the early part of the war.

When the formidable Russian army failed to easily crush Ukraine, as expected, Gerasimov was personally blamed by many Russian nationalist war bloggers.

Now he could be first in line if Russia fails.

It was also a move that was in the Kremlin’s playbook of delegating responsibility and shielding Putin from blame, experts say.

Gerasimov, who has headed the Russian military since 2012, played a key role in Russia’s campaign in Syria and its annexation of Crimea.

Sergei Lavrov

Sergei Lavrov

Sergei Lavrov.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s top diplomat, is often described as the spokesman for the Kremlin.

He is considered an experienced and capable diplomat, having joined the Foreign Office more than 50 years ago and having worked during the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, his credibility has suffered in recent years as he has been tasked with defending some of Russia’s increasingly hawkish and controversial actions.

Despite his long tenure, Lavrov is outside Putin’s inner circle and has reportedly been largely left out of decisions regarding Ukraine – although he continues to be pressured to defend the invasion.

Ramzan Kadyrov

Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov attends a military parade in the Chechen capital Grozny, Russia, in May 2022.

Ramzan Kadyrov.REUTERS/Chingis Kondarov/File Photo

Warlord Ramzan Kadyrov is the President of the Chechen Republic and is known for his unwavering loyalty to the Russian President.

Nicknamed “Putin’s attack dog”, Kadyrov sent thousands of Chechen troops to help support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Their impact on the battlefield is unclear, with observers saying their role appears to be more of a public relations exercise befitting both Kadyrov and the Kremlin.

Kadyrov started out as a Chechen rebel, but eventually switched sides and fought with the Russians in a war that helped Putin gain the presidency.

In return, the Kremlin helped Kadyrov maintain power in Chechnya and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in the region, according to human rights groups.

Kadyrov also openly quarreled with the Wagnerian leader Prigozhin. Although the two men hold similar positions – commanding troops but having no official military position – they have disparaged each other in the continued struggle for power.

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