They provide a dignified facade for a corrupt, authoritarian, and aggressive regime.
Some are adept at cloaking blatant lies behind a veneer of soothing diplomatic language. Others are fluent in the lexicon of international finance. Many speak foreign languages. And all are comfortable in polite global society.
They've been called regime liberals, technocrats, and reformers. Some are sincere and others are cynical; some are competent and others not so much. But they all serve the same function in Vladimir Putin's regime: giving it the gloss and veneer of reputability.
Meet Russia's Respectables, the comforting front-men of the Putin syndicate.
Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin addressed the Federation Council this week to argue that Russia was in the midst of a full-blown economic crisis and the only way out was to implement deep structural reforms.
Days earlier, Kudrin told Interfax that he would consider returning to government under the right circumstances. This all got tongues wagging and tweeters tweeting about how a government shake-up was on the way and that Kudrin might be on the way back.
This may or may not be so. But it all misses a pretty important point. Vladimir Putin's regime is incapable of implementing the kind of structural reforms Kudrin says are needed.
Doing so would threaten powerful entrenched clans in Putin's inner circle. In order to reform and modernize this economy, you would need to effectively blow up the political system.
True reform, the kind Kudrin is talking about, would effectively mean regime change. Putin knows this and he is not going to let it happen.
Kudrin, who is close to Putin personally, disagreed with his decision to return to the Kremlin for a third term. He knew what it portended in 2011 and he resigned over it.
And if Kudrin comes back now, he won't be able to reform Russia's economy. He would, in effect, be relegated to playing the role of a mafia accountant whose job is to keep the Putin syndicate's books in order.
For somebody as capable -- and, I believe, sincere -- as Kudrin to play this role now would be sad to watch.
The Mafia Lawyer
Every time I hear Sergei Lavrov speak, I wonder how this guy manages to keep a straight face.
When the Russian Foreign Minister says things like he wants there to be peace and quiet in Ukraine and that the country should remain united, I can almost detect a slight smirk.
But just a slight one. As Russia's chief diplomat, Lavrov has to be believable after all.
His role in the Putin syndicate is to obscure Moscow's real agenda and intentions behind a veil of soothing diplomatic language.
Lavrov's role is similar to that of a mafia lawyer. The buttoned-down public face of a mob family, whose role is to pretend that his clients are actually responsible businessmen.
Unlike Kudrin, it is hard to believe Lavrov is sincere. In fact, he seems about as cynical as they come. He convincingly passed himself off as a pro-Western liberal in the 1990s, when that was what was required to get ahead.
And because he is so cynical, because he can say utterly absurd things with a straight face and be taken seriously, he's very good at his job -- which explains why he's been able to stay in it for 11 years.
Lavrov is indeed a skilled diplomat, just like Frank Ragano was a skilled lawyer. You could just as easily imagine him as Vaclav Havel's foreign minister -- or Saddam Hussein's.
The Front Company CEO
Sure Dmitry Medvedev has become something of an international punchline. If Kudrin is capable and sincere, and Lavrov is just capable -- Medvedev appears to be neither.
But Russia's much-maligned prime minister has nevertheless served an important function for the Putin syndicate. Affable and nonthreatening, his role is akin to that of a bumbling CEO for a mafia front company.
His job is to keep the "legitimate" side of the operation running smoothly and to take the heat when things go wrong.
Indeed, Medvedev's odd little "presidency" from 2008-12 is best viewed as the Putin syndicate flirting with the idea of "going legit."
This may have been just a ruse. Or some of the syndicate's "made men" might have thought this was a good idea -- but lost the argument in the end. That'll be one for the historians to figure out.
But the idea is clearly off the table now and Medvedev's role is clear.
Kudrin, Lavrov, and Medvedev are just the tip of the iceberg. Russia's elite is filled with similar, lesser respectables. And as the nature of the regime becomes increasingly obvious, one has to wonder how many of the more sincere among them will jump ship -- and become truly respectable.
-- Brian Whitmore