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The man who has Putin’s ear — and may want his job

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/13/2022 Catherine Belton
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev during an interview on May 6 in Moscow. (Dmitry Dukhanin/Sipa USA/AP) © Dmitry Dukhanin/Sipa USA via AP Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev during an interview on May 6 in Moscow. (Dmitry Dukhanin/Sipa USA/AP)

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

Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful Security Council secretary and close Putin ally from their days together at the KGB in St. Petersburg, told the Russian president that the United States was behind tensions in eastern Ukraine and seeking to orchestrate Russia’s collapse. “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 the U.S. national security adviser, was expressing a Cold War view that has driven Putin’s war. Ever since Putin ordered the Feb. 24 invasion, blindsiding much of the country’s elite, Patrushev has become a hard-line avatar for a militaristic Russia.

While Putin seemed to flounder in the first three months of the conflict — angry, on the defensive and almost disappearing from view — Patrushev stepped forward to justify the invasion and promote Russia’s war aims. In a series of interviews with Russian newspapers, he predicted Europe would collapse under the weight of a global food and refugee crisis, while Ukraine would disintegrate into several states. He called for a revival of “historic traditions” in Russia’s education system to create “genuine patriots.” He even ventured into economic policy, calling for a “structural perestroika” — a reference to Soviet-era reform — that in part would include 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 has underlined his role as a driving force in the Kremlin. For a while, it even prompted questions about whether he was seeking to position himself to take over from Putin, amid persistent speculation about the president’s health and Russia’s retreat from Kyiv.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Washington Post that the suggestion that Patrushev’s role had changed was an “invention.” Patrushev had always been active in line with his “broad sphere of authority,” Peskov said.

“Of course, the president is the president, and in conditions of the special military operation, he carries out the role of commander in chief,” Peskov said using the Kremlin’s term for the invasion.

The Security Council spokesman, Yevgeny Anoshin, also denied that Patrushev was laying claim to any greater 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 recovered some of his former swagger, refocusing the military campaign on capturing Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and digging in for a long war of attrition against Kyiv — and, economically, against the West. Just last week, Putin told lawmakers that Russia had not even “seriously started” its war against Ukraine and claimed that his military campaign was “the beginning of a cardinal breakdown of the American-led world order.”

But although Putin has returned to form in a series of speeches, questions remain over his health — and Patrushev continues to pick up a great deal of the slack. The Kremlin denies that Putin has any health issues.

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

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He has made only one foreign trip since the start of the war — visiting Tajikistan and then going on to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in June for a summit of the five states bordering the Caspian sea, where, once again, he conspicuously kept a great distance from his counterparts, seated around an enormous round table.

Patrushev, in contrast, has crisscrossed the former Soviet Union, most recently visiting Yerevan, Armenia, in June for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led answer to NATO. There, he lashed out at the United States for its “reckless expansion of NATO” and claimed that it was seeking to break up Eurasian integration and turn states in the region into “puppet, colonial countries, just like Ukraine.”

Patrushev also took the lead in defending Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave, threatening “serious” retaliation over the blocking of transit supplies via Lithuania due to sanctions imposed by the European Union. In July, at a security summit in Russia’s Far East, he ventured into energy security, long Putin’s preserve, calling for the reduction of “foreign participation in projects significant for the Russian energy sector,” as well as declaring that Russia would achieve its goal of “demilitarizing” Ukraine.

Patrushev’s ascendance underlines 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 “Patrushev’s moment had come,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the Russian political consultancy R.Politik. “His ideas form the foundations of decisions taken by Putin. He is one of the few figures Putin listens to.”

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Patrushev’s lengthy interviews — and his recent trips — demonstrate that he “is the one allowed to explain and clarify Putin’s thoughts,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Not everyone is allowed to do this. Not everyone knows this.”

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

Ever since Putin was anointed head of the FSB, the KGB successor agency, in 1998 and began his rapid ascent to the Russian presidency, Patrushev has served by his side. 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 into his ear.”

According to a person once close to both men, Patrushev is a hard-drinking, hard-talking “silovik” — which translates as “man of force” and is used in Russia to describe current and former security officials in power — who forged his view of the world in the Cold War and has changed little since the fall of the Soviet Union, especially in his hostility to the United States. “He is super Soviet KGB,” the person said, speaking, like others, on the condition of anonymity because of personal security fears. “He understands everything as if the Soviet Union still existed, and he sees himself in these 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 ahead of Putin, serving in senior positions in the FSB’s Lubyanka headquarters in the 1990s. When Putin suddenly leapfrogged Patrushev to become FSB chief, Patrushev was jealous, the person once close to both men said. “Putin was a nobody. Putin was a lieutenant colonel, and [Patrushev] was already a general colonel.”

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

Later, when Putin was chosen by Yeltsin to become prime minister, Patrushev replaced Putin as FSB chief. From that moment, Patrushev has sought both to make sure Putin stayed in power and to control him, the person once close to both men said. Questions have long swirled over whether Patrushev, as FSB chief, may have played a role in a spate of deadly apartment bombings in 1999, which killed more than 300 people and were officially blamed on Chechen terrorists. Putin’s swift response as prime minister — a new 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 one attempted apartment bombing to the FSB were quickly shut down by Patrushev, who claimed that the attempt was no more than an “exercise” to test the vigilance of residents. The Kremlin has denied any FSB role in the bombings.

In the past two years, Patrushev has been one of a handful of close advisers with regular access to the president, Moscow insiders say, cementing his influence over Putin. “Patrushev has his own relations with Putin. He was his boss. He’s older. For Putin, such things are important,” said one well-connected Moscow businessman.

Patrushev was among the very few security advisers who probably knew of Putin’s decision before the invasion was launched, Stanovaya said. And nearly five months later, neither man may see — or want — a way out.

“Putin needs a continuation of the war,” said the Moscow businessman. “In condition of war, he can control society. If there is peace, people will start asking questions about why their lives are so bad.”


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