The Hard-Line Russian Advisers Who Have Putin’s Ear

MOSCOW — The West is legalizing marriage between humans and animals. Ukraine’s leaders are as bad as Hitler, and the country’s nationalists are “non-humans”.

These are the opinions expressed in President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner circle, among senior Russian security officials who are likely to be at the table as their leader decides whether or not to launch an open war against Ukraine.

In remarks published by Russian media last year, these powerful men — largely born in the 1950s Soviet Union, as Mr Putin was — took even more reactionary positions than their president, a sign of the hardline turn the Kremlin is taking as it steps up its fight with perceived enemies at home and abroad.

The rise of security officials in the president’s orbit traces Mr Putin’s evolution from a young leader who showed a friendly face to the West in the early 2000s – while surrounding himself with advisers including prominent liberals – to the man who now implicitly threatens to start a great war in Europe.

It is also the story of the Kremlin’s years-long struggle to craft an ideology to buttress Mr. Putin’s regime: an ideology that increasingly relies on an image of the West as an enemy. , of Ukraine as a threat and of Russia as a bulwark of “traditional values”. .”

“This is a collective attempt to form a counter-ideology, since Putin has no ideology,” Konstantin Remchukov, editor-in-chief of a Kremlin-linked Moscow newspaper, said of what he said. he called the “conservative-reactionary” worldview of Russia’s security elite. . “The key assumption is that everyone is against Russia.”

No one really knows how Mr. Putin makes his decisions or who he listens to most when considering his next steps. The Russian president, according to the Kremlin, is reviewing written responses the US and NATO gave Moscow last week on its security demands – including a guarantee that Ukraine will never become a member of the NATO.

On Friday, the Kremlin said the West’s responses failed to address Russia’s key security concerns. But Mr Putin himself has remained silent, avoiding public comment on Ukraine since December, despite appearing on camera almost daily.

This leaves the hawks around him to offer clues to his thinking. Some of them first met Mr. Putin while working with him in the Soviet KGB and were accused by Western officials of overseeing assassinations, influence operations, cyber espionage and brutal warfare that contributed to distance the Kremlin from Europe and the United States.

Mr Putin is notorious for indulging in deceptive anti-Western tropes, but his top national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, espouses them with even greater ardor. Mr Putin paints a picture of enemies bent on tampering with Russia’s glorious past, but his head of foreign intelligence, Sergei Naryshkin, has made tackling history a particular priority.

Mr. Putin has embraced greater state involvement in the economy, but his defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, has taken this trend to the extreme by launching a massive state-led effort to build new cities in Siberia.

“A kind of time machine takes us back to the worst years of Hitler’s occupation,” Mr Naryshkin said of Ukraine this month, describing his pro-Western government as a “real dictatorship”. . He was opening an exhibition in Moscow titled “Human Rights Abuse in Ukraine”.

Last month, Mr. Shoigu called Ukrainian nationalists “unhuman”. Mr Patrushev described “Russophobia” in Ukraine as an outgrowth of a Western propaganda campaign dating back to jealous European scribes who smeared Ivan the Terrible.

“They didn’t like that the Russian tsar didn’t recognize their political and moral leadership,” Mr Patrushev said of the 16th-century tyrant known for his fearsome secret police.

Now, as Mr Putin weighs up how far to up the ante in Ukraine, the question is how much he adopts the conspiratorial mindset of his hawks. In Moscow, some analysts still see a pragmatic streak in Mr. Putin. It weighs the grievances and paranoia promoted by confidants like Mr Patrushev, they say, against the more sober input from people like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, a technocrat charged with keeping the economy going.

“These people are conservative radicals,” said Mr. Remchukov, who led the 2018 re-election campaign for the mayor of Moscow, Mr. Putin’s former chief of staff. “It may be a conservative center, but Putin is at the center.”

There are many signs, however, that the “radicals” are gaining ground. The most obvious change has been in Russia, where the poisoning of opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in 2020 was followed by a wide-ranging crackdown last year against activists, media and even the academics. Western officials said Mr Navalny had been poisoned by the Russian government, but Mr Naryshkin, the foreign intelligence chief, described the poisoning as being engineered by Western agents looking for a ‘sacrificial victim’ to help bring down Mr. Putin.

As they work to crush dissent, hardline security officials are also at the forefront of embracing “traditional values” as Russia’s superior alternative to a morally insecure West. decomposition. A TV channel was recently fined for showing a man with long hair and painted fingernails – ‘not fitting the image of a man of traditional sexual orientation’. Two bloggers have been sentenced to 10 months in prison for a sexual photo in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.

“Father and mother are renamed parents number one and two,” Mr. Patrushev said in a September interview, describing the “alien” values ​​of the West. “They want to give children the right to determine their own sex, and in some places they have come to legalize marriage with animals.”

Mr Putin repeated the phrase about ‘parents number one and two’ in an appearance a month later, but omitted the bestiality.

As Russian troops mass near Ukraine, another element of the security officials’ ideology looms large: the glorification of the Soviet past. Mr Patrushev said the collapse of the Soviet Union “totally untied the hands of the Western neoliberal elite”, allowing them to impose their non-traditional values ​​on the world. He and his colleagues presented Russia as a nation destined to regain that status as a bulwark against the West, Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries within Moscow’s legitimate sphere of influence.

“This is one of the darkest currents of Russian nationalism, multiplied by imperialism,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. The goal for the Russian security elite, he said, is “empire restoration.”

Mr Putin himself described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe”. But he also used to seek advice from a range of officials, including those with liberal views. Now those officials have largely been driven out of government, while technocrats like Mr. Mishustin almost never talk about issues beyond their immediate area of ​​responsibility.

That leaves the class of elite security officials known collectively as the “siloviki”, many of whom – such as Mr Patrushev, Mr Naryshkin and Aleksandr Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s national spies – worked in the KGB with Mr . Putin.

Their influence extends well beyond security issues: Mr. Patrushev, an avid volleyball player, heads the Russian Volleyball Federation, and his son is Minister of Agriculture. Mr Naryshkin oversees the Russian Historical Society, helping to lead the charge in glorifying – and, critics say, whitewashing – Russia’s past. Mr. Shoigu, the defense minister, satisfies Mr. Putin’s interest in the outdoors as president of the Russian Geographical Society and takes Mr. Putin on regular vacations to the Siberian woods.

For these officials, analysts say, rising tensions with the West are a good thing, increasing their influence within the ruling elite.

“The spiral of confrontation and sanctions does not frighten the siloviki but, on the contrary, opens up more opportunities for them,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of a political analysis firm, R. Politik, recently.

Russian analysts are now wondering if Mr. Putin has enough of a pragmatic side left to avoid open war with Ukraine. Russia’s closure last month of Memorial International, the Moscow-based human rights group that has long angered Russia’s security services for uncovering the crimes of the Soviet secret police, represented a new Mr. Putin’s turn towards the views of the siloviki.

But Western sanctions against an incursion into Ukraine could have far-reaching consequences, as seen by Russia’s stock market plunge amid war fears in recent weeks. And military casualties could have unpredictable repercussions on domestic politics and taint Mr. Putin’s legacy.

“If we have war with Ukraine and fratricidal death, then that will be all he will be remembered for,” said Mr. Remchukov, the newspaper’s editor. “He cannot fail to understand what a sin that would be.”

Alina Lobzina, Khava Khasmagomadova and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.