Although formal confirmation is still pending, there seems a consensus that the EU has chosen, in its usual timorous way, to sanction just 4 Russian officials in retaliation for Aleksei Navalny’s kangaroo-court conviction: Investigative Committee (SK) head Alexander Bastrykin, Alexander Kalashnikov, head of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), Prosecutor-General Igor Krasnov, and Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard. Predictably, debate swirls around who they may be, and whether targeting them will affect Putin’s future political calculi. Already, I’m seeing some claiming they are “Putin’s friends,” so let me do my best to scotch that right now. They are not his friends, they are his staff.

Bastrykin was a classmate of Putin’s reading law at Leningrad State University back in the early 1970s. That meant that when he and Igor Sechin were lobbying Putin to make the SK independent of the Prosecutor-General in 2007 (for they own reasons: Bastrykin was ambitious and didn’t get on with new Genprok Yuri Chaika, Sechin wanted to maintain influence over prosecutions now that his tame Genprok Vladimir Ustinov was gone), Putin was aware of him. These kind of weak human ties do matter, especially in such a personalised system, and meant that Putin was more favourably inclined than he might otherwise have been.

However, I have seen absolutely no evidence (readers: if you have, please let me know) that Bastrykin is a “friend”: no pictures of them sharing some social activity, no family connections, nothing. Indeed, Bastrykin, aware that he has no special dispensation from the boss, and singularly lacking in allies, actually has to work constantly to demonstrate his value and loyalty to the Kremlin. The parallel I have used in the past is that, like a shark, he has to keep swimming or he drowns.

What about Zolotov? Having been first one of Putin’s bodyguards and then head of his security detail, he undoubtedly is closest to the Body. Again, though, this is the relationship of a trusted lackey rather than a chum. He does get the occasional invite to attend Putin’s Night Hockey League – a ritual of imperial self-indulgence, in which the president inevitably scores the most goals and attracts the most fulsome praise – but as a spectator, not a player. He used to be a judo sparring partner of Putin’s, but again I think that was just when he was working his security.

Like Bastrykin, he is valuable because he is loyal – and because he has nowhere else to go, lacking friends or allies within the system with the questionable exception of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov. That what makes him so useful, hence his appointment as the head of the newly-formed National Guard in 2016, and so dangerous. He too has to keep swimming and, shark that he is, biting.

As for the lower-profile Kalashnikov, he started his career in the Ministry of Internal Affairs before switching to the KGB and thence FSB before moving upwards and across to become head of FSIN in 2019. I can see no evidence of his early career intersecting with Putin’s (he joined the KGB in 1988, by which time Putin was already in Dresden, and working in wholly different arms of that sprawling octopus), nor of any contact since.

Krasnov is in some ways even less of a Putin man. For sure, he would not have been appointed Prosecutor-General had the boss had any qualms about him, and as a former deputy of Bastrykin’s he is presumably a loyalist. In fairness, though, he also has a good reputation within law enforcement circles as an investigator who follows the evidence; it was noteworthy that he was originally leading the enquiry into the murder of Boris Nemtsov, and as soon as he uncovered the Chechen connection, it was handed to a more ‘political flexible’ case officer. Again, I can see no evidence of a personal relationship with the boss.

All four absolutely have played their parts in Navalny’s persecution. Bastrykin has been at the fore of the campaign of questionable court cases, not least pushing for the re-opening of the case on which he has now been imprisoned. Kalashnikov’s FSIN made the formal charge that he had breached the terms of his probation while recovering in Germany. Krasnov must have accepted if not initiated any investigations. And Zolotov’s goons were the front line dealing with the protests that erupted.

So it is not that I think they are innocents maligned. But the notion that these are “Putin’s friends,” whose fate will in any way affect Kremlin policy, is at best a shabby attempt to justify the EU’s lacklustre response, at worst a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on.

One of the metaphors I like to use is of a traditional country house. Putin is the master, and he and his friends – the Rotenbergs and the like – are having a ball. Then there are some who are gentry tenants and similar hangers on: socially acceptable, possibly useful allies and clients, but not social equals. These, the Patrushevs and Shoigus, are there in their Sunday best, enjoying the drink and cheering on the dances, but careful not to transgress. Maybe Prigozhin is there, but maybe not.

Then there is the huge apparatus of ‘below stairs’: the cooks and gardeners, maids and manservants, gamekeepers and stableboys who keep everything running. The prime minister, Mishustin, is the chief butler, obsequious to the master, a tyrant to the staff, and no doubt happy to divert a little of the housekeeping his way. There is an arcane hierarchy within the staff, formal and implicit. Bastrykin, Zolotov, Kalashnikov and Krasnov are all staff. Perhaps Zolotov, as the master’s chief gamekeeper, is rather better known to him than, say, Kalashnikov, but they are still all staff.

The master cares about them in a general, paternalistic way. They get an extra ruble on a feast day. But there are always more applicants for every vacant position than openings, and the master knows they are lucky to get a job at the big house. They come, they go, he doesn’t pay too much attention, because life above stairs is sweet, and there is another ball next weekend.