The “rise of the siloviki” has become a standard framework for analyzing Russian politics under President Vladimir Putin. According to this view, the main difference between Putin’s rule and that of former president Boris Yeltsin is the triumph of guns (the siloviki) over money (the oligarchs).
This approach has a lot to recommend it, but it also raises several important questions. One is the ambiguity embedded in the term siloviki itself. Taken from the Russian phrase for the power ministries (silovie ministerstva) or power structures (silovie strukturi), the word is sometimes used to refer to those ministries and agencies; sometimes to personnel from those structures; and sometimes to a specific “clan” in Russian politics centered around the deputy head of the presidential administration, former KGB official Igor Sechin. A second issue, often glossed over in the “rise of the siloviki” story, is whether the increase in political power of men with guns has necessarily led to the strengthening of the state, Putin’s central policy goal. Finally, as many observers have pointed out, treating the siloviki as a unit – particularly when the term is used to apply to all power ministries or power ministry personnel – seriously overstates the coherence of this group. […]