March 10, 2022 - 10:01am

Sergei Naryshkin, Dmitry Kozak, and Sergey Sobyanin. These are names readers may not be familiar with, but they are some of the most important men in Russia. Respectively, they are the foreign intelligence head, the deputy Kremlin administration head and the Moscow mayor, all of whom have connections to the President himself.

Ordinarily, these men would be informed about any major decisions made by the President long before the public. But as Russian journalist Farida Rustamova notes, they were as blindsided by the decision to invade Ukraine as anyone else (their faces during Putin’s emergency Security Council reveal as much). In fact, according to Rustamova, only a handful of people are believed to have had prior knowledge of the decision: Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and the leaders of the counterintelligence service. 

In Rustamova’s portrayal of events running up to the invasion, the President cuts an isolated figure, siloed in an information bubble, and it is clear that most of his team were caught off-guard. Based on conversations with several Russian insiders, she reveals the overwhelming sense of surprise and disbelief inside elite Russian circles. Rustamova’s report has been translated into English on Ilya Lozovsky’s Substack, excerpts of which can be found below:

Did anyone expect Putin to decide to go to war? Everyone assures me they didn’t. They thought that the president was escalating the situation in order to have more trump cards in negotiations [with the West] on security guarantees, and that everything would be limited to the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” within their administrative borders. 
- Farida Rustamova

On the emergency meeting of the Security Council:

At the enlarged Security Council, which took place three days before the war began, Putin said practically nothing about his decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” a source said. The session itself was an attempt at improvisation, to present the image of a real discussion. “That’s why everyone there was fidgeting so much,” the source said. “If they had been told to firmly say ‘Yes, we support it,’ they would have done so.”
- Farida Rustamova

How Russian elites are reacting:

Many of them are discouraged, frightened, and are making apocalyptic forecasts. Andrei Kostin [head of the largely state-owned VTB Bank] is “in mourning.” Some Duma members are thinking of giving up their seats. Two days before Putin announced the start of the “special operation,” one of my most ‘in-the-know’ friends thought that it wouldn’t come to war, because war wouldn’t benefit anybody. I see that officials, deputies, and even journalists at government outlets who have left their posts are relieved that they no longer have anything to do with this, and are speaking out against the war.
- Farida Rustamova

Why Putin decided to invade:

Another source— let’s call him a good acquaintance of Putin’s — puts it this way: The Russian president has it in his head that the rules of the game were broken and destroyed not by Russia. And if this is a fight without rules, then it’s a fight without rules — the new reality in which we live.

“Here he is in a state of being offended and insulted. It’s paranoia that has reached the point of absurdity,” he says
“Putin now seriously believes what [Defense Minister] Shoigu and [General Staff chief] Gerasimov are telling him: About how quickly they’ll take Kyiv, that the Ukrainians are blowing themselves up, that Zelensky is a coke addict.”

- Farida Rustamova

A few senior figures have bravely spoken out:

Mikhail Matveev, deputy chairman of the committee on regional policy, wrote that “the war must be stopped immediately.” “When I voted for the recognition of the [self-proclaimed republics], I voted for peace, not war,” he wrote. “For Russia to be a shield so that the Donbass would not be bombed, not for Kyiv to be bombed.”

Retired colonel Vyacheslav Markhaev, who has criticized the authorities for persecuting the opposition, stated that the Duma deputies had been misled and the intention to wage war had been disguised.

- Farida Rustamova