Three reactionary security officials dedicated to “traditional values” and restoring Soviet glory will figure prominently in the decision whether to invade Ukraine.
MOSCOW — The West is legalizing marriage between people and animals. Ukraine’s leaders are as bad as Hitler, and the country’s nationalists are “nonhumans.”
These are the views found in President Vladimir V. 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 last year, these powerful men — largely born in the 1950s Soviet Union, as Mr. 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 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 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 Mr. 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 counter-ideology, 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Putin working with him in the Soviet K.G.B., and have been accused by Western officials of overseeing the assassinations, influence operations, cyber espionage and brutal warfare that have helped estrange the Kremlin from Europe and the United States.
Mr. Putin is known for indulging misleading, anti-Western tropes, but his main national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, espouses them with even greater ardor. Mr. 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.
Understand Russia’s Relationship With the West
The tension between the regions is growing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
- Competing for Influence: For months, the threat of confrontation has been growing in a stretch of Europe from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
- Threat of Invasion: As the Russian military builds its presence near Ukraine, Western nations are seeking to avert a worsening of the situation.
- Energy Politics: Europe is a huge customer of Russia’s fossil fuels. The rising tensions in Ukraine are driving fears of a midwinter cutoff.
- Migrant Crisis: As people gathered on the eastern border of the European Union, Russia’s uneasy alliance with Belarus triggered additional friction.
- Militarizing Society: With a “youth army” and initiatives promoting patriotism, the Russian government is pushing the idea that a fight might be coming.
Mr. Putin has embraced more state involvement in the economy, but his defense 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,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. Shoigu last month called Ukrainian nationalists “nonhumans.” Mr. 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 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 how far to raise the stakes in Ukraine, the question is how much he adopts the conspiratorial mind-set of his hawks. In Moscow, some analysts still see a pragmatic streak in Mr. Putin. He weighs the grievances and paranoia promoted by confidants like Mr. 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 Mr. Remchukov, who ran the 2018 re-election campaign of the mayor of Moscow, Mr. Putin’s former chief of staff. “It may be a conservative center, but Putin is in the center.”
Many signs, however, point to the “radicals” gaining sway. The most obvious change has been inside Russia, where the poisoning of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in 2020 was followed by a far-reaching crackdown last year on activists, the news media and even academics. Western officials said Mr. Navalny was poisoned by the Russian government, but Mr. Naryshkin, the foreign intelligence chief, has described the poisoning as engineered by Western agents seeking a “sacrificial victim” to help bring down Mr. Putin.
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,” Mr. 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 legalizing marriage with animals.”
Understand the Escalating Tensions Over Ukraine
Mr. 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. Mr. 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.”
Mr. Putin has himself 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 Mr. Mishustin almost never speak out on matters beyond their immediate area of responsibility.
That leaves the class of elite security officials known collectively as the “siloviki,” many of whom — like Mr. Patrushev, Mr. Naryshkin and Aleksandr Bortnikov, Russia’s domestic spy chief — worked in the K.G.B. along with Mr. Putin.
Their sway extends well beyond security matters: Mr. Patrushev, an avid volleyball player, heads Russia’s Volleyball Federation, and his son is the 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, indulges Mr. Putin’s interest in the outdoors as president of the Russian Geographical Society and takes Mr. 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, the founder of a political analysis firm, R. Politik, wrote recently.
Russian analysts are now left wondering whether Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Putin’s legacy.
“If we have war with Ukraine and fratricidal death, then that will be all that he will be remembered for,” Mr. Remchukov, the newspaper editor, said. “He can’t not understand what a sin that would be.”
Alina Lobzina, Khava Khasmagomadova and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.