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'Putin's brain' says he doesn't have Putin's ear. Do we know who does?

As fighting in Ukraine flares up again, one influential voice says that Putin has sidelined him. And Putin's oligarch allies, smarting from Western sanctions, have reportedly lost influence as well.

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    Russian President Vladimir Putin (c.) chairs a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday.
    Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters
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Vladimir Putin's Kremlin office reportedly has two completely separate entrances so that visitors may come and go without the slightest awareness of who else may be waiting to see the president. Tight-lipped secretaries administer the traffic by signal from Mr. Putin.

Indeed, experts say, it's almost impossible to find out who is getting face time with Russia's leader these days. The Kremlin publishes a partial record on its official website, but it's comprised mostly of finished statements that offer little insight into the vital process by which Putin's mind is shaped.

"In Russia, decision-making is the most obscure realm of all. This system is top secret. Nobody, not even top officials, know for sure who or what Putin is listening to," says Alexander Dugin, a prominent right-wing scholar and founder of the anti-Western "Eurasian" school of political philosophy.

But recently, several voices, including Mr. Dugin's, indicate that Putin has indeed changed his inner circle away from the oligarchs and philosophers who once held his attention. Instead, it appears that Russia's military and security wonks have the president's ear, reflecting a shift in priorities that could impact key elements of Western policy towards Russia.

Dugin's insistence that he has no direct knowledge of Kremlin inner-workings seems particularly poignant, since he is named most frequently by Western Kremlin-watchers as the key influence on Putin's geopolitical views over the past decade. After Russia annexed Crimea and supported pro-Russian rebellions in eastern Ukraine last year, Foreign Affairs magazine went so far as to label the charismatic ultranationalist as "Putin's Brain."

Dugin says he never enjoyed special access to the corridors of power, and whatever input he had was shut down last summer when he and other "patriots" were forcibly sidelined by the Kremlin.  Furthermore, he has no idea who may be helping Putin come up with his "incoherent" and "contradictory" Ukraine policies these days. "Anything anyone tells you about how Putin decides things is either disinformation, or error," he adds.

Kremlinology

But that leaves analysts with few tools to peer beneath those polished statements on the Kremlin website, discern patterns, and try to guess what's coming next. No wonder some are reverting to the pseudo-science of Kremlinology, whose main method was to examine photos of Soviet officials lined up on the tribunal at Red Square parades, looking at the pecking-order and even measuring the physical distances between them to deduce who was in and who might be on the way out.

Today's Kremlin may be even more opaque, some experts say, since the collective Soviet Politiburo, which ran on consensus, used to provide at least some measure of predictability. Putin's system more closely resembles czarism, where most important decisions are made between the ears of a single person, and most information about the inputs reaching him are sternly-guarded state secrets.

Sergei Markov, a political scientist and a past adviser to Putin, recently created a stir by claiming that the composition of Putin's inner circle has shifted sharply over the past year, with the wealthy pro-Kremlin "oligarchs" who formerly provided him with most of his economic advice being shunted aside and replaced by siloviki, or military-security types.

If true, that could have major implications for Western sanctions policy. The original strategy formulated in Washington following Russia's annexation of Crimea envisaged forcing Putin to change his mind about Ukraine by inflicting economic pain on his wealthy cronies – people who, it was assumed, have the president's ear. That may never have been the soundest approach, but it continues to inform the logic of Western sanctions.

'The jobs they do'

Mr. Markov says he's not spilling any secrets, but the altered flow of personnel into Putin's office reflects changing priorities. "Putin meets with people based on the importance of the jobs they do," he says.

"The Putin-era oligarchs had the mission to develop Russian business at home and abroad, with the purpose of strengthening Russia's integration with the global economy. That hasn't worked out at all, and as a result the relevance of those billionaires for Putin has fallen sharply. On the other hand, the importance of siloviki – security people – has grown amid the current challenges. So, he spends more time with them. It's a fact that the siloviki tend to be more anti-Western, and obviously this will influence his views," he says.

Markov adds that the role of personal friendships has always been greatly overestimated – in his opinion – and that has led some Western observers to misread Putin's behavior.

Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, argues otherwise. He says the role of the oligarchs in Putin's system has grown, as they will now be tasked with reshaping Russia's economy to sidestep sanctions and tap new sources of investment and growth.

"Of course we have no solid information about who Putin meets with and listens to," he says. "But Putin is known to be a good manager. He will move to restore the balance between the different groups that are close to him. He needs them to help formulate new policies to minimize the economic losses and neutralize the political trends that could threaten his power. He's a rational player, and he's very interested in his own political survival."

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