Rosneft's President Igor Sechin  and Vladimir Putin Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The Last Silovik?

Igor Sechin, the head of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft and Russian President Vladimir Putin's long-time "number two," is now embroiled in a very public legal squabble. Putin seems to be using the courtroom, yet again, as a platform for clarifying the positions of the Kremlin elite in advance of the 2018 presidential election.

MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin’s regime is as sphinxlike as any that has ever ruled Russia, and now there is a new mystery afoot. Is Igor Sechin – perhaps the most powerful of the St. Petersburg siloviki who helped establish Putin’s regime 18 years ago – about to fall?

The siloviki, the grey men who emerged from the security and military apparatus, have ruled the roost in Russia for the last generation. Sechin had a more substantial KGB career than Putin himself, and has held many of the key posts in his patron’s administration. Since 2012, he has been CEO of the state-owned oil giant Rosneft, Russia’s third-largest company (after Gazprom and Lukoil), whose board chairman since September is former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Under Sechin’s leadership, Rosneft has become a state within a state, with a quarter-million employees, $65 billion in revenue, and 50 subsidiaries at home and abroad – as many as Gazprom. And Rosneft, even more than Gazprom, has pioneered the modus operandi of the Putin system since 2004, when it took over the assets of Yukos, following the imprisonment of the company’s head, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Putin opponent, on fraud and embezzlement charges.