Before beginning the operation in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the Security Council’s final meeting, and one Kremlin hawk appeared to rule the room. This is the man who wants Putin’s job.
The influential Security Council secretary and close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin from their time working together at the KGB in St. Petersburg, Nikolai Patrushev, informed the Russian leader that the United States was to blame for the unrest in eastern Ukraine and was trying to engineer Russia’s demise. In aired comments, Patrushev stated that “our task is to defend the territorial integrity of our country and defend its sovereignty.”
Patrushev, whose role is comparable to that of the national security adviser in the United States, was reflecting a Cold War perspective that has motivated Putin’s war. Patrushev has evolved into a staunch advocate for a militarized Russia ever since Putin authorized the operation on February 24, surprising a large portion of the nation’s elite.
Patrushev stepped forward to defend the operation and advance Russia’s war objectives while Putin appeared to stumble in the first three months of the conflict—angry, on the defensive, and mostly invisible. He prophesied that Europe will implode under the weight of a worldwide food and refugee crises, and that Ukraine would fragment into multiple states in a series of interviews with Russian newspapers.
To produce “genuine patriots,” he urged the resurrection of “historic traditions” in Russian education. He even dabbled in economics, asking for a “structural perestroika” (a Soviet-era reform) that included, among other things, a new sovereign system for setting the exchange rate for the ruble.
Patrushev’s abrupt rise to prominence following more than two decades as a secret power broker has highlighted his function as a key player in the Kremlin. Due to continuous rumors about Putin’s health and Russia’s withdrawal from Kyiv, some people even wondered for a while if he was trying to set himself up to succeed Putin.
The allegation that Patrushev’s position had shifted was a “invention,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told The Washington Post. According to Peskov, Patrushev had always been engaged in accordance with his “broad sphere of authority.”
Peskov used the Kremlin terminology for the battle: “Of course, the president is the president, and in conditions of the special military operation, he carries out the role of commander in chief.”
Yevgeny Anoshin, the spokesperson for the Security Council, also refuted Patrushev’s claim to a more important position. 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.
Putin has regained a little of his former swagger in the last month, concentrating the military assault on seizing Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, and preparing for a protracted war of attrition against Kyiv and, economically, the West. Just last week, Putin stated that his military assault against Ukraine was “the beginning of a cardinal breakdown of the American-led world order” while claiming that Russia had not even “seriously started” its war against Ukraine.
Although Putin has given a number of speeches that have been in line with his typical attire, concerns about his health persist, and Patrushev has continued to pick up a significant amount of the slack. Putin’s health problems are not acknowledged by the Kremlin.
After playing ice hockey with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on New Year’s Eve, Putin, who turns 70 this year and is a year younger than Patrushev, has not been pictured. Putin did not participate in the annual gala game of the Russian Night Hockey League in May, breaking a streak of ten years.
Since the beginning of the war, he has only traveled abroad once, to Tajikistan and then to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, for a summit of the five Caspian Sea-adjacent states in June. There, he once more obtrusively maintained a significant distance from his counterparts who were seated around a sizable round table.
Patrushev, in contrast, has traveled extensively throughout the former Soviet Union. His most recent trip was to Yerevan, Armenia, in June for a conference of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which is led by Russia and is the antithesis of NATO. There, he denounced the United States for its “reckless expansion of NATO” and asserted that it was attempting to undermine Eurasian integration by turning states in the area into “puppet, colonial countries, just like Ukraine.”
In addition, Patrushev took the lead in defending the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad by pledging “serious” retribution in response to Lithuania’s blockage of transit supplies as a result of EU sanctions. At a security summit in July in Russia’s Far East, he delved in the traditionally Putinian realm of energy security, asking for a decrease in “foreign participation in projects significant for the Russian energy sector” and promising that Russia would succeed in “demilitarizing” Ukraine.
With liberal-leaning technocrats competing for Putin’s ear for more than 20 years, Patrushev’s rise highlights the dominance of hard-line former KGB officials. According to Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the Russian political consultancy R.Politik, “Patrushev’s moment had come” when Putin declared war. “His ideas form the foundations of decisions taken by Putin. He is one of the few figures Putin listens to.”
According to senior fellow Andrei Kolesnikov at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Patrushev has proven through his in-depth interviews and recent travels that he “is the one allowed to explain and clarify Putin’s thoughts.” “Not everyone is allowed to do this. Not everyone knows this.”
Even when Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, talks, it is unclear if he speaks on Putin’s behalf. “Diplomats often try to guess. They don’t know what Putin wants, but Patrushev does,” Kolesnikov added.
Ever since Putin was named the head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor organization, in 1998 and started his quick rise to the position of president of Russia. Patrushev has worked alongside Putin. Patrushev has long been the “devil on Putin’s shoulder whispering poison into his ear,” according to Mark Galeotti, honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Patrushev is a hard-drinking, hard-talking “silovik,” which translates to “man of force” and has been used in Russia to characterize current and former security officials in power. His worldview was shaped during the Cold War and has not changed much since the fall of the Soviet Union, particularly in his animosity toward the United States, claims a person who was once close to both men. The insider, who spoke under the condition of anonymity out of concern for their own security, said, “He is super Soviet KGB.” “He understands everything as if the Soviet Union still existed, and he sees himself in these terms.”
In the 1970s, Patrushev and Putin first worked together in the KGB’s counterintelligence branch in what is now St. Petersburg but was then Leningrad. Patrushev relocated to Moscow two years before Putin and held important roles in the 1990s at the FSB’s Lubyanka headquarters. According to a former close friend of both men, Patrushev felt envious when Putin unexpectedly overtook him to become the head of the FSB. “Putin was a nobody. Putin was a lieutenant colonel, and [Patrushev] was already a general colonel.”
An ex-senior KGB officer who had previously collaborated 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, Patrushev succeeded Putin as head of the FSB when Yeltsin selected Putin to take office as prime minister. Since then, according to a former close friend of both men, Patrushev has worked to keep Putin in power and exert control over him. The possibility that Patrushev, as head of the FSB, may have had a hand in a series of devastating apartment explosions in 1999 that killed more than 300 people and were officially attributed to Chechen terrorists has long been questioned. Putin became a national hero thanks to his quick action as prime minister, a new Russian war in Chechnya, which helped him win the presidency a few months later.
Patrushev promptly put an end to Interior Ministry inquiries linking the FSB to one attempted apartment explosion by asserting that the effort was merely a “exercise” to gauge locals’ awareness. The Kremlin has denied that the FSB played any part in the bombings.
According to sources in Moscow, Patrushev has had regular access to the president for the past two years, which has increased his influence on Putin. “Patrushev has his own relations with Putin. He was his boss. He’s older. For Putin, such things are important,” according to a prominent businessman from Moscow.
According to Stanovaya, Patrushev was one of the few security advisers who likely was aware of Putin’s choice before the operation began. And over five months later, neither men seemed to be looking for or seeing a path 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.”