A look at the trio who convinced Putin to invade

9 January, 10:42 AM
Not the holy trinity. Businessman Yuri Kovalchuk (left), together with FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov (right), and Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, together convinced Vladimir Putin to start a war (Photo:Collage by NV)

Not the holy trinity. Businessman Yuri Kovalchuk (left), together with FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov (right), and Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, together convinced Vladimir Putin to start a war (Photo:Collage by NV)

Author: Maxim Butchenko

The circle of those around the Russian dictator played a significant role in the fact that he launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now Putin's "inner circle" continues to support the war, but not because they believe in victory, but because they see no alternative.

About a year ago, the Russian dictator made the final decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But this was preceded by long conversations between Putin and a very limited circle of his closest associates, which pushed the Kremlin leader to say "yes" to the big war.

But unlike the current frontmen of the Russian aggression in Putin's entourage — Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu or Wagner PMC head Yevgeny Prigozhin — these characters, both before and now, prefer to stay in the shade, once again not emphasizing their true role in the conflict that has affected not only Europe but the whole world.

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The New Voice of Ukraine interviewed a number of experts, analyzed Western and Russian data to name these "lurking hawks": Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov, and Putin's friend and peer, businessman Yuri Kovalchuk.

Konstantin Skorkin, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Center, told NV: "Patrushev and Bortnikov are a power party, people fully formed in the Cold War era. They believe that a bloc confrontation with the West is a reasonable and correct world order. And in order to return to a predictable and manageable confrontation, it is necessary to divide the zones of influence through war, even with the risk of a clash with NATO. According to Patrushev and Bortnikov, Ukraine should be in the Russian zone of influence, except for its western regions, which they are ready to "give" to the EU.

"And since Ukraine was actively and with the help of NATO strengthening its defenses, it was necessary to launch a preventive strike before it was too late," Skorkin says.

"That's the advice they gave Putin.”

UK newspaper the Times found out that the trio of Patrushev-Bortnikov-Kovalchuk was convinced of the need for a "preventive strike on Ukraine", and as an argument they cited the idea of saving Russia from the growing threat of the West.

Meanwhile, U.S. newspaer the Wall Street Journal wrote that after the start of the COVID pandemic, Putin settled in a remote residence near Lake Valdai, where he was visited by Kovalchuk. The two spent time talking at length about "restoring Great Russia."

CIA chief Bill Burns has also mentioned the narrowness of the circle of Putin's regular interlocutors. He believes that only a few people had access to the dictator, and none of them questioned his almost mystical belief in his destiny as the "resurrector" of Russia's influence.

These ideas were embodied in an article Putin published in July 2021, in which the dictator described Ukraine as a "non-existent state."

Hawks only

Russian opposition journalist Andrei Pertsev is sure that Bortnikov was the biggest "hawk" among the three aforementioned characters.

It was his FSB that provided Putin with information that the Russian army would be welcomed in Ukraine. Hence Bortnikov’s overly bellicose speech at a meeting of the Russian Security Council on the eve of the invasion — he sincerely believed in a quick victory. And, accordingly, he could count on awards and other incentives.

"Patrushev, on the contrary, said that it was better to try to negotiate first," Pertsev said.

"It was hardly an act (on his part), since the Russian elite has long sought to appear monolithic and Putin does not welcome contradictions in it. We can assume that Secretary Patrushev was in favor of war, but not immediate war."

Abbas Gallyamov, a former speechwriter for Putin who now lives in Israel, told NV that Patrushev and Bortnikov's motivation for war is understandable, as they are security officials who think only in terms of "we must press everyone."

Gallyamov believes that Kovalchuk is the most interesting one in this trio. He read the Russian fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin and was imbued with his ideas.

"As far as I know, Kovalchuk is an absolutely cynical person, thinking only about money,” he said.

“He saw in Ukraine a potentially infinite amount of what can be plundered, that is, military booty. In Russia, everything has long been divided by Putin's inner circle, you can no longer squeeze out large new pieces. And Ukraine in this sense is like the Klondike."

Kovalchuk allegedly realized that Bortnikov and Patrushev would persuade Putin to launch a full-scale invasion and decided to take part. At the same time, the oligarch decided that in comparison with other billionaires close to the dictator — the Rotenberg brothers and Gennady Timchenko — he, as the person who first took a patriotic position, would have the right to choose the sweetest pillage.

Sergei Smirnov, editor-in-chief of the Russian opposition newspaper Mediazona, is convinced that the entire Russian elite lives in a fictional world dating back to the 1970s. Therefore, both Putin and his associates are sure that there is a confrontation between the United States and Russia, and Ukraine is only a part of this global confrontation.

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Smirnov notes that the Russian dictator has not dismissed any of the security forces who provided him with false information about Ukraine before the war.

"Putin makes decisions based on various sources," says the editor-in-chief of Mediazona.

“And the most authoritative for him are from the FSB. It turns out that he needs to punish the FSB and Patrushev and Bortnikov for this. Of course, this is impossible, because they think alike, in the style of global war with the whole world.”

Mood in hell

"It is clear from Putin's speeches that he does not consider the outbreak of war a mistake," Pertsev says.

"And he attributes the difficulties and failure of his plans to Western interference: we are not at war with Ukraine, but with NATO. Indirectly, these sentiments are confirmed by the recent reforms of the Russian army: the formation of new districts, increasing its number, etc."

Now Putin is clearly more involved in the war than in spring and summer, the journalist believes. And these sentiments of the dictator are read by other representatives of the Russian elites. Therefore, for example, even the relatively peaceful mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin began to use militaristic rhetoric, recently dressed in khaki and went "to the trenches".

That is why Skorkin is sure that there is no "peace party" in the Russian Federation in the literal sense now. All those top officials or state managers who do not agree with the war, have quietly left or kept silent. A striking example of this is Anatoly Chubais.

Others are still too afraid of Putin and too bound by collective responsibility to openly oppose the leader, the Carnegie Center expert believes.

There is, in his opinion, only a "party of pragmatists", which sees that the war is unsuccessful, so it needs to be frozen, Russia needs to strengthen in the occupied territories, and prepare for the next round.

This conditional group includes, according to Skorkin, representatives of the economic bloc of the government, big Russian business and state capitalists such as Rosneft President Igor Sechin and Rostec Chairman Sergei Chemezov. They all advocate a realistic attitude to Russia's military capabilities.

But the ball is ruled by "hawks" like Patrushev and Shoigu, or even "ultra-hawks" like Prigozhin or Chechen quasi-dictator Kadyrov. The last two are interested not only in war, but also in internal "revolution." The founder of PMC Wagner, for example, is already clearly hinting at the need to expropriate the assets of Russian oligarchs who do not help the front.

And Putin, according to Skorkin, as always tries to be above the fray. The closest to him now are the "hawks", because they talk about victory at any cost, and the Russian president cannot afford to lose. But as an experienced dictator, the master of the Kremlin listens to the arguments of "pragmatists."

The Carnegie Center expert is sure: against the background of Russia's defeats, Putin's style of government is increasingly perceived by his environment as a weakness. Therefore, the dictator will not be able to keep the elite from splitting for a long time. Plus, Putin is used to being perceived as lucky – a person who constantly gets themselves out of any sticky situation. But now it is obvious to everyone that the dictator’s luck has left him, and he is making one strategic mistake after another.

Therefore, the Kremlin elder, says Skorkin, begins to irritate many people: some by his mediocrity and caution as a leader, others — on the contrary, by his lack of judgment and reluctance to seek compromise.

"The struggle between pragmatists and hawks will dominate the agenda of the political new year in the Kremlin," the expert is sure.

"Russia itself now also has its own political front.”

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