The term ‘grey cardinal’ referred originally to François Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. Leclerc was a Capuchin friar renowned for his beige robe attire, as beige was termed ‘grey’ in that era. The title ‘His Eminence’ is used to address or refer to a Roman Catholic cardinal. Although Leclerc never achieved the rank of cardinal, those around him addressed him as such in deference to the considerable influence this ‘grey’ friar held over ‘His Eminence the Cardinal’. Hence éminence grise (French for ‘grey eminence’). Grey cardinals are the power behind the throne who operate covertly.

There are many candidates for grey cardinal in the Kremlin, hence the asset freezes and travel bans on many of Vladimir Putin’s coterie, yet their low-profile means they were never likely to travel extensively in the West or hold capital there. The sector-wide sanctions seem to recognise the ineffectiveness of the previous policy in curtailing Russian behaviour in eastern Ukraine.  The asset freezes and travel bans were comparable to applying sanctions to Italy for conquering Abyssinia in 1935-36 but excluding the war-enabling resource of oil from that list.

Professor Richard Sakwa convincingly identified two factions within Russia, each operating their own parallel administration, making it a dual state.  There were the liberal constitutionalists who wanted to ensure Russian governance operated according to the rule of law and then there were the siloviki, members of the defence and security establishment who loathed the West, were aggressive and conservative and scoffed at compromise.

Vladimir Putin maintained his own power by playing off one side against the other, but with the denial of a second term as president for Dmitry Medvedev, the constitutionalists were routed and the siloviki were triumphant.  The latter had declared previously that ‘Putinism would continue, with or without Putin.’  Assuming the presidency from Medvedev by Putin may have seemed purely cosmetic from a Western point of view, as the former KGB man was an incredibly powerful prime minister (and Medvedev returned to a premiership much truncated), yet Putin may have been trying to guarantee his own political survival, while a prisoner of the siloviki.  Those tears in Red Square when he was ‘elected’ for a third term were probably genuine but he may have been crying for the loss of his own room for manoeuvre.  He had been captured.

It is all reminiscent of the dying days of the Eastern Han Dynasty at the end of the second century AD, China. Students from the Imperial University organized a widespread protest against the eunuchs of Emperor Huan’s court, amidst general alienation of the bureaucracy.  Palace eunuchs imprisoned the official Li Ying and his associates from the Imperial University on a dubious charge of treason. In AD 167, the Grand Commandant Dou Wu convinced his son-in-law, Emperor Huan, to release them.  However the emperor permanently barred Li Ying and his associates from serving in office, marking the beginning of the Partisan Prohibitions (where officials were imprisoned and even executed). Following Huan’s death, Grand Commandant Dou Wu and the Grand Tutor Chen Fan attempted a coup d’état against the eunuchs Hou Lan, Cao Jie and Wang Fu. When the plot was uncovered, the eunuchs arrested the Empress Dowager, Dou and Chen Fan. General Zhang Huan favoured the eunuchs.  He and his troops confronted Dou Wu and his retainers at the palace gate where each side shouted accusations of treason against the other. When the retainers gradually deserted Dou Wu, he was forced to commit suicide.  Under Emperor Ling (r. AD 168–189), the eunuchs had the partisan prohibitions renewed and expanded, while themselves auctioning off top government offices. Many affairs of state were entrusted to the eunuchs Zhao Zhong and Zhang Rang while Emperor Ling spent much of his time role-playing (with concubines) and participating in military parades.

Role-playing and participating in military parades.  Of whom does this remind us?  A corrupt clique auctioning off top government offices (and by extension state assets).  This could apply to many countries but Russia also fits the bill.  Medvedev, who was of the liberal constitutionalist faction, may be said to be like Dou Wu, politically emasculated and a busted flush.  According to Sakwa, for a long time there was uncertainty as to which faction would triumph, whether Medvedev would get a second term as president or if Putin would return as formal chief executive (rather than de facto).  As Putin was already operating many of his former presidential powers as prime minister, it is entirely conceivable that he was cajoled back into a formal position (or be deposed along with Medvedev).  The likes of Igor Sechin, former Deputy Prime Minister and now head of energy firm Rosneft, are the ones pulling the strings now.

The eunuchs, having broken the power of the bureaucracy, were themselves eliminated by the military when Emperor Ling died, 2,000 perishing when the main palaces of the capital Luoyang were stormed by the army. Imperial authority was rapidly disintegrating and by AD 220, there were three states in place of the empire. Russia is a polyglot state where many constituent parts could secede if not institutionalised or ruled by a firm hand.  As the former possibility is now unlikely in the short-to-medium term, the brutal application of Sovereign Democracy (state-choreographed ballots) will continue.

It may be nice and Hollywood to have one overarching bad guy, but it could be Putin that has to twist in the wind as the siloviki act.  Initially Putin said categorically that Russia had no ambitions in Crimea – two weeks later it was annexed.  He could have been lying, as power-grabbing dictators are known to do, but equally the siloviki could have pushed ahead, leaving Putin to make a great play about still being in charge.  Now with the war in eastern Ukraine, the siloviki have shown that they are firmly entrenched.