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Can Putin’s Center Hold?

The elites used to need the Russian president. Now he needs them.

By , a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a rally in central Moscow on Sept. 30.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a rally in central Moscow on Sept. 30.
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses a rally in central Moscow on Sept. 30. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

The question of how Russian elites are responding to further developments in the Russia-Ukraine war has become one of the most discussed issues in Russian and Western media. That’s understandable: While ordinary Russians remain relatively conformist and show no signs of politicization—despite the unpopular mobilization—there have been some hopes that the elites could perhaps play a role in restraining Russian President Vladimir Putin from further escalation. Or, at least, that they would become a factor Putin would have to take into consideration when making his decisions. The debate over whether Russian elites are split or not has been intensifying against the backdrop of unprecedented internal conflicts questioning Russian tactics in Ukraine. So, are the elites a threat to Putin? And how might possible further military failures impact the mood among the elites?

When it comes to the war in Ukraine, what is important is whether the splits concern Putin and his decisions. Putin’s regime is well known for its inter-elite fighting; indeed, that is its natural state. Security officials, or siloviki, clash with other siloviki (the FSB vs. the Federal Protective Service, the military intelligence service vs. the FSB); some of Putin’s friends with others (businessman and mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin vs. St. Peterburg Gov. Alexander Beglov); senior officials with other officials (domestic policy overseer Sergei Kiriyenko has long been embroiled in a confrontation with his predecessor, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin); and so on.

But while the Russian elite is deeply divided, there has been no sign of any attempt to turn against Putin. The Russian elite may also be deeply divided over domestic decisions, be it social policy (the ruling United Russia party vs. the cabinet), energy topics (Rosneft vs. Gazprom), or domestic affairs (domestic policy overseers vs. the siloviki). But there have been no signs, at least publicly, of divisions over Putin’s decision to launch the war. Make no mistake, a significant part of the Russian elite considers the war a catastrophe. Some view it as a lesser evil but nonetheless an evil; some regret it, and still others have considerable doubts over the way Putin is conducting the campaign. But no one dared to act—until now.

The question of how Russian elites are responding to further developments in the Russia-Ukraine war has become one of the most discussed issues in Russian and Western media. That’s understandable: While ordinary Russians remain relatively conformist and show no signs of politicization—despite the unpopular mobilization—there have been some hopes that the elites could perhaps play a role in restraining Russian President Vladimir Putin from further escalation. Or, at least, that they would become a factor Putin would have to take into consideration when making his decisions. The debate over whether Russian elites are split or not has been intensifying against the backdrop of unprecedented internal conflicts questioning Russian tactics in Ukraine. So, are the elites a threat to Putin? And how might possible further military failures impact the mood among the elites?

When it comes to the war in Ukraine, what is important is whether the splits concern Putin and his decisions. Putin’s regime is well known for its inter-elite fighting; indeed, that is its natural state. Security officials, or siloviki, clash with other siloviki (the FSB vs. the Federal Protective Service, the military intelligence service vs. the FSB); some of Putin’s friends with others (businessman and mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin vs. St. Peterburg Gov. Alexander Beglov); senior officials with other officials (domestic policy overseer Sergei Kiriyenko has long been embroiled in a confrontation with his predecessor, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin); and so on.

But while the Russian elite is deeply divided, there has been no sign of any attempt to turn against Putin. The Russian elite may also be deeply divided over domestic decisions, be it social policy (the ruling United Russia party vs. the cabinet), energy topics (Rosneft vs. Gazprom), or domestic affairs (domestic policy overseers vs. the siloviki). But there have been no signs, at least publicly, of divisions over Putin’s decision to launch the war. Make no mistake, a significant part of the Russian elite considers the war a catastrophe. Some view it as a lesser evil but nonetheless an evil; some regret it, and still others have considerable doubts over the way Putin is conducting the campaign. But no one dared to act—until now.

Putin’s decision to launch the war came as a massive shock to the elites, who were not consulted and received no advance notice. Despite this initial shock, the elites rallied around Putin but with very different motives. Some, such as the technocrats (including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and central bank head Elvira Nabiullina), opted to submit entirely: the easiest and safest strategy to survive. Others, rather pragmatically, have reinvented themselves as members of the party of war (such as former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and United Russia head Andrey Turchak) to gain political weight and secure their political future. The third and final strategy is to genuinely back the war in its harshest and bloodiest form, to get involved in it, and bring Putin his victory. Before September, when Ukraine launched its unexpected counterattack, the nature of the elite’s support for Putin did not really matter. Whatever the grounds, the results were the same: People stood by their president because it was the safest way to survive. After September, that started to change.

Last month, the prospect of Russia losing the war began to loom, impacting every layer of the Russian elite, whatever adaptation strategy they had opted for. The mobilization and the annexation of four Ukrainian regions brought temporary relief, creating a sense that Putin had finally woken up and started listening to more sensible and sober figures in his entourage, pushing the president to act more decisively. But that relief did not last long. Ukraine’s army has continued to advance, the bridge connecting Russia and Crimea was blown up, Russian troops are exhausted and thin on the ground, the mobilization is faltering, and people are resisting. The overall situation seems, again, very bad, while Putin appears inappropriately and overly optimistic, which scares people. The massive missile strike against Ukrainian cities, positioned as a response to the Crimean bridge attack, achieved little, while concerns over a shortage of Russian missiles have been mounting.


What options does Russia have now? Can it prevent further Ukrainian counterattacks? Will it be able to secure control over the annexed regions? What is Moscow’s Plan C, since Plan A and Plan B have failed? Dishearteningly for many in the Russian leadership, Putin’s statements during his press conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Oct. 14 imply that Moscow is returning to its previous “wait and see” tactics: Moscow does not have the resources to advance, remains limited in its capability to carry out massive missile strikes, and can only count on freezing the situation, hoping to gain some time to regroup its forces. But will it have that time? And what happens if Kyiv continues to launch counterattacks? The absence of clear answers is shattering any unity among the elites and pushing them to look for better survival strategies: After all, no one wants to end up on the wrong side of history.

The lack of clear vision of how Russia can win has sparked tectonic shifts among Russian elites, who are now seeking ways to adapt to the deteriorating situation. For the first time ever, we may see an important part of the elite daring to intrude in Putin’s decision-making and imposing on the Kremlin its own vision of how the war should unfold.

Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented rise of elite indignation over how the war is progressing. Prigozhin, aligned with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and with public support from popular military bloggers on Telegram, has directed invectives at the Defense Ministry and General Staff, for the first time ever blaming Col. Gen. Aleksandr Lapin and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov for the military failures in Ukraine. Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the state-controlled media outlet RT, has become one of the most prominent hawks. She has demanded a massive strike against Ukraine’s decision-making centers and dared to criticize the Defense Ministry. TV pundits are now going against the military. Even State Duma deputies who were until recently close to the Defense Ministry—former Deputy Defense Minister Andrey Kartapolov, now the head of the lower chamber’s defense committee, and former military commander Andrey Gurulyov—have joined the efforts, demanding that the prosecutor general investigate corruption in the army. In other words, the pro-war camp has set its sights on the Defense Ministry and army leadership, relying on support from state TV. All this has happened regardless of the fact that the military has been the key institution on which Putin has relied in his war against Ukraine.

Russia’s retreat from the Kharkiv region and its extremely fragile positions in Kherson, combined with Putin’s indecisive and hesitant behavior, have created a vacuum of political leadership at a crucial moment in Russian history. Prigozhin and Kadyrov’s moves show that they believe they have the right to interfere and be listened to by the Kremlin, since they personally have sent men—Prigozhin’s mercenaries and Chechens loyal to Kadyrov—to the slaughter in Ukraine. The rebellion is a direct response by the most ambitious segment of the party of war to Putin’s apparent lack of decisiveness. In an attempt to prevent Russia from losing the war, this part of the elite has succeeded in reaching out to Putin and convincing him to shift tactics to take a more critical approach to the military top brass and even implement personnel reshuffles. (Sergei Surovikin, openly backed by Prigozhin, has been appointed commander of the “special military operation,” as Putin calls the invasion.) This time, instead of shaping the political reality, Putin must learn to listen to those proposing alternative proposals. The circumstances are starting to shape the president.

This has had the effect of a political domino. Putin’s tolerance of the camp targeting Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has opened the floodgates for TV managers in the presidential administration to become bolder. These managers have dared to take a more critical stance, raising questions of whether the army is coping; United Russia’s deputies have ventured to lash out at the Defense Ministry, followed by the in-system opposition. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the presidential administration ceding the initiative. Putin’s staff, traditionally viewed as a demiurge of Russian politics in these circumstances, has been forced to submit to trends it does not control. The presidential administration, whose influence is nothing compared with what it was in the 2000s, continues to shrink, transformed into a tool used incrementally by the hawks to meet their demands.


These days, an important part of the Russian elite—made up of Prigozhin, Simonyan and TV managers in general, Kadyrov, and, with some reservations, United Russia—has started to question the way Russia is fighting in Ukraine: Putin’s exclusive zone of responsibility. They are targeting the military leaders, and even if they are not turning against the president (and they will not yet), they want Putin to act differently in order to secure victory. This is an attempt to compensate for the absence of a discernible and convincing plan in Ukraine from Putin, as well as tangentially questioning the way Putin deals with the military threats.

So, what will happen if Putin sticks to his (at least publicly) hesitant positions? His recent statements suggest that he is still counting on Kyiv capitulating one day, believing that Russia only needs to buy more time, sporadically resorting to strikes in exceptional circumstances (like after the explosion on the Crimean bridge). His public messages suggest that he does not intend to fight the Ukrainian army but merely stop it from advancing and that he would rather opt to threaten the West with the use of nuclear weapons than try to conquer Ukraine’s territory using its own forces. The hope that this plan may all work out and bring Ukraine under Russian control seems profoundly mistaken and may lead to new retreats and losses. It may even mean a larger mobilization with severe political consequences.

If Russia loses, that will lead to a situation in which the circumstances will be stronger than Putin. These circumstances will inevitably further fuel anxiety and uncertainty among the elites. They will not, perhaps, turn against Putin but will have to either find a way to bypass him (to adapt the policy without him) or manipulate him by imposing uncontested options and defeating those on whom he relies. Putin, having failed to implement every part of his plan so far, has been becoming more dependent on those who invested in this war, who have become a part of this war, who justify it, push it, and lose their people in the fighting.

Having launched this war as a personal surprise project, Putin now finds himself in a situation in which he can no longer make decisions in isolation. It’s not so much how the elites can threaten Putin but how Putin’s own position will gradually weaken as his plans fail. Even as they remain pro-Putin, the elites are becoming bolder and more decisive.

Tatiana Stanovaya is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the founder and CEO of political analysis firm R.Politik. Twitter: @stanovaya

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