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The hard-line Russian advisers who have Putin’s ear

These are the views
found in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, among the top Russian
security officials who are likely to be at the table as their leader decides
whether to launch an open war against Ukraine.

In remarks published
by the Russian news media in the past year, these powerful men — largely born
in the 1950s Soviet Union, as Putin was — have staked out even more reactionary
positions than their president has, a sign of the harder-line turn that the
Kremlin is taking as it escalates its fight with perceived enemies at home and
abroad.

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

It is also a story of
the Kremlin’s yearslong struggle to craft an ideology to underpin Putin’s rule:
one that increasingly relies on a picture of the West as an enemy, of Ukraine
as a threat and of Russia as a bulwark of “traditional values.”

“This is an attempt
collectively to form a counterideology, since Putin doesn’t have an ideology,”
Konstantin Remchukov, a Moscow newspaper editor with Kremlin ties, said of what
he called the “conservative-reactionary” worldview of Russia’s security elite.
“The key postulate is that everyone is against Russia.”

No one really knows
how Putin makes his decisions or whom he listens to most as he considers his
next steps. The Russian president, the Kremlin says, is reviewing written
responses the United States and NATO delivered this past week to Moscow on its
security demands — including a guarantee that Ukraine never become a member of
NATO.

On Friday, the
Kremlin said the West’s responses did not address Russia’s biggest security
concerns. But Putin himself has kept silent, avoiding public comment on Ukraine
since December, despite on-camera appearances nearly every day.

That leaves the hawks
around him to offer clues to his thinking. Some of them first met Putin working
with him in the Soviet KGB and have been accused by Western officials of
overseeing the assassinations, influence operations, cyberespionage and brutal
warfare that have helped estrange the Kremlin from Europe and the United
States.

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Putin is known for
indulging misleading, anti-Western tropes, but his main national security
adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, espouses them with even greater ardor. Putin paints
a picture of enemies bent on falsifying Russia’s glorious past, but his foreign
intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, has taken on the fight over history as a
special priority.

Putin has embraced
more state involvement in the economy, but his defence minister, Sergei K.
Shoigu, has taken that trend to an extreme by pitching a huge state-led effort
to build new cities in Siberia.

“Some kind of time
machine is taking us back into the worst years of Hitler’s occupation,”
Naryshkin said of Ukraine this month, describing its pro-Western government as
a “true dictatorship.” He was opening an exhibit in Moscow titled “Human Rights
Abuses in Ukraine.”

Shoigu last month
called Ukrainian nationalists “nonhumans.” Patrushev has described the
“Russophobia” in Ukraine as the outgrowth of a Western propaganda campaign
dating to jealous European scribes who besmirched Ivan the Terrible.

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

Now, as Putin weighs
how far to raise the stakes 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 Putin. He weighs the grievances and paranoia promoted by
confidants like Patrushev, they say, against the more sober input of people
like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, a technocrat charged with keeping the
economy running.

“These people are
conservative radicals,” said Remchukov, who ran the 2018 reelection campaign of
the mayor of Moscow, Putin’s former chief of staff. “It may be a conservative
centre, but Putin is in the centre.”

Many signs, however,
point to the “radicals” gaining sway. The most obvious change has been inside
Russia, where the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in 2020 was
followed by a far-reaching crackdown last year on activists, the news media and
even academics. Western officials said Navalny was poisoned by the Russian
government, but Naryshkin, the foreign intelligence chief, has described the
poisoning as engineered by Western agents seeking a “sacrificial victim” to
help bring down Putin.

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As they work to crush
dissent, the hard-line security officials are also at the forefront of
espousing “traditional values” as Russia’s superior alternative to a morally
decaying West. A television channel was recently fined for showing a man with
long hair and painted nails — “not corresponding to the image of a man of a
traditional sexual orientation.” Two bloggers were sentenced to 10 months in
prison for a sexually suggestive photo in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

“Father and mother
are being renamed parent number one and two,” Patrushev said in a September
interview, describing the West’s “foreign” values. “They want to give children
the right to determine their own sex, and in some places they’ve gotten to the
point of legalising marriage with animals.”

Putin repeated the
line about “parent number one and two” in an appearance a month later but left
out the zoophilia.

As Russian troops
mass near Ukraine, another element of the security officials’ ideology looms
large: the glorification of the Soviet past. Patrushev said the collapse of the
Soviet Union “totally untied the hands of the Western neoliberal elite,”
allowing it to impose its nontraditional values upon the world. He and his
colleagues cast Russia as a nation destined to regain that status as a bulwark
against the West, with Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries belonging to
Moscow’s rightful sphere of influence.

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

Putin has described
the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe.” But he also
used to seek out the advice of a range of officials, including those with
liberal points of view. Now, those officials have largely been pushed out of
government, while the technocrats like Mishustin almost never speak out on
matters beyond their immediate area of responsibility.

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That leaves the class
of elite security officials known collectively as the “siloviki,” many of whom
— like Patrushev, Naryshkin and Alexander Bortnikov, Russia’s domestic spy
chief — worked in the KGB along with Putin.

Their sway extends
well beyond security matters: Patrushev, an avid volleyball player, heads
Russia’s Volleyball Federation, and his son is the minister of agriculture.
Naryshkin oversees the Russian Historical Society, helping to lead the charge
in glorifying — and, critics say, whitewashing — Russia’s past. Shoigu, the
defense minister, indulges Putin’s interest in the outdoors as president of the
Russian Geographical Society and takes Putin on regular vacations into 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 spiraling
confrontation and sanctions do not scare the siloviki but, on the contrary,
open up more opportunities for them,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of a political
analysis firm, R. Politik, wrote recently.

Russian analysts are
now left wondering whether Putin has enough of a pragmatic streak remaining to
avoid an open war with Ukraine. Russia’s closure last month of Memorial International,
the Moscow human-rights group that long angered Russia’s security establishment
for uncovering the crimes of the Soviet secret police, represented a further
swing by Putin toward the views of the siloviki.

But Western sanctions
over a Ukraine incursion could have wide-ranging consequences, as shown by the
plunge in the Russian stock market amid war fears in recent weeks. And military
casualties could bring unpredictable aftereffects in domestic politics and
stain Putin’s legacy.

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

© 2022 The New York
Times Company

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