Nikolai Patrushev, hawkish head of Russia’s Security Council, has Putin’s ear and knows his thoughts

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin held the final meeting of his Security Council before launching the invasion of Ukraine, a Kremlin hawk seemed to dominate the room.

Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful Secretary of the Security Council and a close ally of Putin since their days at the KGB in St. Petersburg, told the Russian president that the United States was the source of the tensions in eastern Ukraine and sought to orchestrate the collapse of Russia. “Our task is to defend the territorial integrity of our country and defend its sovereignty,” Patrushev said in broadcast remarks.

Patrushev, whose position is equivalent to that of a US national security adviser, expressed a vision of the Cold War that motivated Putin’s war. Since Putin ordered the Feb. 24 invasion, catching much of the country’s elite off guard, Patrushev has become an uncompromising avatar for a militaristic Russia.

As Putin seemed to be floundering through the first three months of the conflict – angry, defensive and almost fading away – Patrushev stepped forward to justify the invasion and promote Russia’s war aims. In a series of interviews with Russian newspapers, he predicted that Europe would crumble under the weight of a global food and refugee crisis, while Ukraine would disintegrate into several states. He called for a revival of “historical traditions” in the Russian education system to create “true patriots”. He even ventured into economic policy, calling for “structural perestroika” – a reference to Soviet-era reform – that would include in part a new sovereign system for determining the ruble’s exchange rate.

Patrushev’s sudden emergence after more than two decades as a behind-the-scenes power broker underscored his role as a driving force in the Kremlin. For a time, it even sparked questions about whether he was looking to position himself to succeed Putin, amid continued speculation over the president’s health and Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv.

Dmitry, Kremlin spokesman Peskov told The Washington Post that the suggestion that Patrushev’s role had changed was a “fabrication”. Patrushev was always active within his “broad sphere of authority”, Peskov said.

“Of course, the president is the president, and under the conditions of the special military operation he assumes the role of commander-in-chief,” Peskov said, using the Kremlin term for the invasion.

Security Council spokesman Yevgeny Anoshin also denied that Patrushev was claiming a bigger role. Patrushev “is a patriot. He is a state actor who for many years has been devoted to the Russian Federation and to Putin,” he said.

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Over the past month, Putin has regained some of his former swagger, refocusing the military campaign on capturing Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and digging into a long war of attrition against Kyiv — and, economically, against the West. . Just last week, Putin told lawmakers that Russia hadn’t even “seriously started” its war against Ukraine and claimed that its military campaign was “the beginning of a momentous collapse of the world order led by the United States”.

But although Putin has returned to form in a series of speeches, questions remain about his health – and Patrushev continues to take much of the slack. The Kremlin denies that Putin has health problems.

Putin – who turns 70 this year and is a year younger than Patrushev – has not been pictured playing ice hockey, his favorite sport, since a New Year’s game with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. In May, for the first time in 10 years, Putin missed the annual gala match of the Russian Night Hockey League.

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He has made only one trip abroad since the start of the war – to visit Tajikistan and then continue in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in June for a summit of the five Caspian-rim states, where, once again, he ostensibly kept his distance from his counterparts, seated around a huge round table.

Patrushev, by contrast, has crisscrossed the former Soviet Union, most recently visiting Yerevan, Armenia, in June for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led response to NATO. There, he lambasted the United States for its “reckless expansion of NATO” and claimed that it sought to break Eurasian integration and turn states in the region into “puppet and colonial countries, just like the ‘Ukraine”.

Patrushev also took the initiative to defend Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave, threatening “serious” retaliation for blocking transit supplies through Lithuania due to European Union sanctions. In July, at a security summit in the Russian Far East, he ventured on energy security, long the preserve of Putin, calling for the reduction of “foreign participation in projects important to the Russian energy sector”, and declaring that Russia would achieve its goal. to “demilitarize” Ukraine.

Patrushev’s ancestry underscores the influence of hard-line former KGB men, who have been battling liberal-leaning technocrats for Putin’s ear for more than two decades. When Putin launched the war, it seemed “Parushev’s time had come,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of Russian political consultancy R.Politik. “His ideas are the basis of the decisions made by Putin. He is one of the few personalities that Putin listens to.

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Patrushev’s lengthy interviews – and recent travels – demonstrate that he “is the one who is authorized to explain and clarify Putin’s thoughts”, said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Not everyone has the right to do that. Not everyone knows that.”

Even when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks, it is unclear whether he is speaking on behalf of Putin. “Diplomats often try to guess. They don’t know what Putin wants, but Patrushev does,” Kolesnikov said.

Since Putin was named head of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, in 1998 and began his rapid rise to the Russian presidency, Patrushev has served alongside him. For Mark Galeotti, honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies, Patrushev has long been the “devil on Putin’s shoulder whispering poison in his ear”.

According to a person once close to the pair, Patrushev is a talkative, alcoholic “silovik” – which translates to “man of strength” and is used in Russia to describe former security officials in power – who shaped his view of the world in the Cold War and has changed little since the fall of the Soviet Union, especially in its hostility to the United States. “It’s a super Soviet KGB,” the person said, speaking, like others, on condition of anonymity due to fears for their personal safety. “He understands everything as if the Soviet Union still existed, and he sees himself in those terms.”

Patrushev first served alongside Putin when they worked in the KGB’s counterintelligence division in what was then Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in the 1970s. Patrushev moved to Moscow two years before Putin, holding senior positions at FSB headquarters in Lubyanka in the 1990s. When Putin suddenly overtook Patrushev to become head of the FSB, Patrushev was jealous, said the person once close to the two men. “Putin was nobody. Putin was a lieutenant colonel and [Patrushev] was already Colonel General.

A former senior KGB officer who once worked with Putin agreed. “Parushev was older and higher in the ranks. But Putin took over because he was closer to [then-President Boris] Yeltsin,” the person said.

Later, when Putin was chosen by Yeltsin to become prime minister, Patrushev replaced Putin as head of the FSB. From then on, Patrushev sought both to ensure Putin remained in power and to control it, the person once close to the pair said. Questions have long swirled about whether Patrushev, as head of the FSB, could have played a role in a series of deadly apartment bombings in 1999 that killed more than 300 people and were officially blamed on terrorists. Chechens. Putin’s quick response as prime minister – another Russian war in Chechnya – elevated him from little-known bureaucrat to national hero, helping propel him to the presidency months later.

Interior Ministry investigations linking an attempted apartment bombing to the FSB were quickly shut down by Patrushev, who claimed the attempt was nothing more than an “exercise” to test the vigilance of residents. The Kremlin denied any role for the FSB in the attacks.

Over the past two years, Patrushev has been one of the few close advisers with regular access to the president, according to Moscow insiders, cementing his influence over Putin. “Parushev has his own relationship with Putin. He was her boss. He is older. For Putin, such things are important,” said a well-connected Moscow businessman.

Patrushev was among very few security advisers who were likely aware of Putin’s decision before the invasion was launched, Stanovaya said. And nearly five months later, neither man sees — or wants — a way out.

“Putin needs a continuation of the war,” said the Moscow businessman. “In the condition of war, he can control society. If there is peace, people will begin to wonder why their life is so bad.

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