After Vladimir Putin, Yuri Kovalchuk is the second most powerful man in Russia, says Mikhail Zygar in The New York Times. The 70-year-old oligarch – who is the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank – has been a trusted adviser of the president for decades. But in the spring and summer of 2020, Kovalchuk joined Putin quarantining at his luxurious dacha in Valdai and ever since, the pair have been “inseparable”. According to people once close to the president, Putin “no longer meets with his buddies for drinks and barbecues”. He’s terrified of covid and has cut off most communication with advisers and friends since the pandemic. Kovalchuk is his only real contact.
He is a worrying influence. Kovalchuk’s an ideologue, obsessed with Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism. He’s also, like Putin, totally uninterested in the present. The pair first met in the 1990s; “they were both struggling to find their footing after the fall of the Soviet Union, and so was the country”. Now they “obsess over the past” together – stewing with resentment over how Russia was treated and forging plans to restore its greatness. And, as far as Putin and Kovalchuk were concerned, the West has become weaker than ever. After the departure of Angela Merkel, “the only Western leader that Mr Putin took seriously”, Putin and Kovalchuk saw a chance to “avenge the humiliations of the 1990s” by seizing Ukraine. Given they were so isolated, no one warned them against it.