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

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin held the last session of his Security Council before launching the invasion of Ukraine, a Kremlin hawk appeared to be dominating the room.

Nikolai Patrushev, the powerful Security Council secretary and Putin’s close ally from their time together at the KGB in St. Petersburg, told the Russian president that the United States is behind the tensions in eastern Ukraine and is trying to orchestrate Russia’s collapse. “Our task is to defend the territorial integrity of our country and defend its sovereignty,” Patrushev said in a radio address.

Patrushev, whose position is equivalent to US National Security Advisor, expressed a view of the Cold War that fueled Putin’s war. Since Putin ordered the invasion on February 24, blinding much of the country’s elite, Patrushev has become an uncompromising avatar for a militaristic Russia.

While Putin seemed to falter in the first three months of the conflict – angry, on the defensive and almost out of sight – Patrushev stepped forward to justify the invasion and further Russia’s war aims. In a series of interviews with Russian newspapers, he predicted that Europe would collapse under the weight of a global food and refugee crisis, while Ukraine would disintegrate into multiple states. He called for a revival of “historical traditions” in the Russian educational system in order to create “real patriots”. He even ventured into economic policy, calling for “structural perestroika” — a nod 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 in power behind the scenes has underscored his role as a driving force in the Kremlin. For a time, it even raised questions about whether he wanted to put himself in a position to take over from Putin amid ongoing speculation about the president’s health and Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Washington Post that the suggestion that Patrushev’s role had changed was an “invention.” Patrushev was always active within his “wide sphere of power,” Peskov said.

“Of course, the president is the president, and in the conditions of the special military operation he performs the role of the supreme commander,” Peskov said, using the Kremlin’s 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 has been committed to the Russian Federation and Putin for many years,” he said.

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Over the past month, Putin has regained some of his earlier swagger by focusing the military campaign on conquering Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region and embarking on a long war of attrition against Kyiv – and economically against the West. Just last week, Putin told lawmakers that Russia had not even “started in earnest” its war against Ukraine, claiming his campaign was “the beginning of a cardinal collapse of the American-led world order.”

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

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, Putin missed the annual gala game of the Russian Night Hockey League for the first time in a decade.

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He has made only one trip abroad since the beginning of the war – visited Tajikistan and then further to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in June for a summit meeting of the five Caspian Sea countries, where he once again kept a striking distance from his colleagues and sat at a huge round table.

By contrast, Patrushev has criss-crossed the former Soviet Union, most recently in June in Yerevan, Armenia, for a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russian-led response to NATO. There he lashed out at the United States for its “reckless expansion of NATO,” claiming that it was trying 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 Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave and threatened “serious” retaliation for blocking transit shipments via Lithuania due to European Union sanctions. In July, at a security summit in Russia’s Far East, he ventured into energy security, long Putin’s domain, calling for a reduction in “foreign participation in projects important to Russia’s energy sector,” and declaring Russia will meet its goal of “Demilitarization” of Ukraine.

Patrushev’s rise underscores the influence of former KGB men who have fought for Putin’s ear against liberal-leaning technocrats for more than two decades. When Putin started the war, “Patrushev’s hour seemed to have come,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the Russian political consultancy R.Politik. “His ideas form the basis of the decisions made by Putin. He is one of the few figures that Putin listens to.”

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

Even when Foreign Minister Sergey 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 knows,” Kolesnikov said.

Patrushev has been at his side since Putin was appointed head of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, in 1998 and began his rapid rise to the helm of Russia. For Mark Galeotti, honorary professor at 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 who was once close to both men, Patrushev is a hard-drinking, hard-headed “silovik” — which translates to “man of power” and is used in Russia to describe former security officials in power — who forged his perspective on the Cold War world and has changed little since the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly in its hostility towards the United States. “He’s a super-Soviet KGB,” the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity, like others, for personal security reasons. “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 branch in what was then Leningrad, now St Petersburg, in the 1970s. Patrushev moved to Moscow two years before Putin, where he held senior positions at the FSB’s Lubyanka headquarters in the 1990s. When Putin suddenly overtook Patrushev to become FSB chief, Patrushev was jealous, said the person who was once close to the two men. “Putin was a nobody. Putin was a lieutenant colonel and [Patrushev] was already Colonel General.”

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 [then-President Boris] Yeltsin,” said this person.

Later, when Putin was elected prime minister by Yeltsin, Patrushev replaced Putin as FSB chief. From that moment on, Patrushev has tried both to ensure Putin stays in power and to control him, said the person who was once close to both men. Questions have long swirled about whether Patrushev, as FSB chief, may have played a role in a series of deadly 1999 apartment bombings that killed more than 300 people and were officially blamed on Chechen terrorists. Putin’s quick reaction as prime minister – a new Russian war in Chechnya – transformed him from a little-known bureaucrat into a national hero and helped propel him into 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 no more than an “exercise” to test residents’ vigilance. The Kremlin has denied any FSB role in the bombings.

For the past two years, Patrushev has been one of a few close advisers with regular access to the president, Moscow insiders say, cementing his hold on Putin. “Patrushev has his own connections with Putin. He was his boss. He is older. Such things are important to Putin,” said a well-connected Moscow businessman.

Patrushev was one of the very few national security advisers who probably knew Putin’s decision before the invasion began, Stanovaya said. And almost five months later, neither sees – or wants – a way out.

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

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