by UnHerd Staff
Thursday, 10
March 2022
Seen Elsewhere
10:01

The inside story on Putin’s decision to invade

A Russian journalist provides key insights into events running up to the invasion
by UnHerd Staff
Putin’s cabinet present at the emergency Security Council meeting

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

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Skip Simonds
Skip Simonds
3 months ago

The most telling element of this piece is this: Rustamova describes her sources to be “in the know” and “good acquaintances” yet no one really knows what Putin is actually thinking. Everyone is blindsided. All are distancing themselves. And what is supposedly known about “The Inside Story” in this article is, on closer analysis, actually only inferred. One does not have to look at many pictures of Putin to see the social, physical, and apparently political distance he enforces between himself and everyone else. Intimacy is not shared over physical distance. It’s not just that Ms. Rustamova does not know anyone who really knows what Putin is thinking. I’m forced to conclude no one does. That’s the scary part. We are all, even these insiders, just guessing. And when you don’t actually know what your enemy is thinking, he or she is at his or her most dangerous.

James B
James B
3 months ago

Thank you for the illuminating article. My Russian friends and contacts tell me exactly the same.

Jim R
Jim R
3 months ago

One man was allowed to amass absolute power in Russia over 20 years and now has the ability to single handedly destroy all life on the planet in a matter of minutes. That was not even possible in the cold war era. And now he appears to have taken leave of his senses. Has the human race ever been in this much danger? Is it possible we need to seriously reconsider the wisdom of our righteous escalations?

R S Foster
R S Foster
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim R

…which implies a powerful enough madman must be allowed to do whatever he chooses to do? I can’t see that helping, in the longer term…

Last edited 3 months ago by R S Foster
Martin Logan
Martin Logan
3 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

But isn’t it really our fault that we let a good boy go bad?
Rather the narrative in certain quarters for the last 20 years.

R S Foster
R S Foster
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

…possibly some people’s narrative, but not mine. I’ve been banging on about the danger posed by Czar Putin of All The Russias, The Celestial Emperor Xi of the Middle Kingdom…and indeed the Black Banners of a new Caliph at the Iron Gates for years…rather unfashionably I’ve believed that Frances Fukuyamas “End of History” thesis was mostly wishful thinking pretty much since it was published…the thing we should all be reading is Samuel P. Huntingtons “Clash of Civilizations”…and the sooner the better..!

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim R

You are right. In the USSR the president was elected by the politburo. They could remove him; he did not have ultimate power.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim R

He can’t single-handedly destroy all life on the planet in a matter of minutes. Even the Russians operate checks and balances on the their nuclear triggers.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
3 months ago

This was the action of a Sambo wrestler, not a chess player.
Somehow Putin believes that always doing the unexpected will achieve great results.
The problem in this line of reasoning is that his actions are unexpected because only an idiot would choose those particular courses of action. So it’s no surprise that even influential Russians were blindsided by this.
The article is valuable in suggesting that there are still smart–and sane–people in Russia.
But just not enough of them, it seems.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago

Ok. But how far is he prepared to go? If Russia starts using poison gas or battlefield nukes to flatten the cities and eliminate the resistance quickly, taking out thousands of civilians like he did in Aleppo, which is the only way to avoid street fighting with very high losses – will we in the west be able to watch that and do nothing?

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
3 months ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

probably an earlier comment re : 5 days to get out of the ukraine or we will ALL have to squash you might motivate the rest of the russian leadership to grow some testicles…

John Hicks
John Hicks
3 months ago

“The inside story?” Humankind’s inside story is that “Bad people continue to do bad things so long as Good people do nothing.” Having murdered most intelligent Russians and a fair few of that Nation’s Goodies through the past 100 years, insight of fidgeting by members of the Russian Security Council is, sadly, the best we can hope for?” Look forward to the next “insight?”

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
3 months ago

There is interesting backstory videos here. and ‘Ukraine on Fire’ is also a must-watch.

Last edited 3 months ago by Mike Bell
David Nebeský
David Nebeský
3 months ago

No one knew about the war beforehand, but everyone has been vocally supporting it from the beginning. Some secretly reject it, but only some. Typical Russia.

Last edited 3 months ago by David Nebeský
joe hardy
joe hardy
3 months ago

Just an anecdote from U S. here, talked to my Russian coworkers today who are very adamant about being American citizens. They said Putin surprised everyone and has gone off the deep end. Left no doubt that he’s not bluffing about dropping nukes. Also made mention that he is destroying 2 countries, not just 1.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
3 months ago
Reply to  joe hardy

tis a sad day when the members of a country are so cowardly and/or stupid to allow one person to hold so much power – all it takes is one brave man to change all this just as it did with Hitler etc etc etc etc. Also sadly makes one yearn a little for the macho American world policeman scenario. John wayne would not take any s**t and everyone knew about it and tended to behave ….

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 months ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

I think it’s easy for the citizen of a country in which one can criticise the head of state, and even be congratulated if one insults him/her, to accuse the citizens of an authoritarian country of cowardice for ‘allowing’ one person so much power.
They should resist, of course, but it probably needs a catalyst, such as the repressive powers showing a reluctance to be ruthless, but such leaders sense that ruthlessness keeps them in power, whereas even a slight lack of it condemns them to being ‘retired’, thus losing enormous wealth and immunity from justice or worse.