Putin’s Oligarchs Fall in Line

Russians in Putin’s governing class have begun to feel that, even if the initial blitzkrieg failed, things are back on track.
Russians in Putin’s governing class have begun to feel that, even if the initial blitzkrieg failed, things are back on track. Photo: Contributor/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
February 28, 2023

Friday marked a year since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine turned the Western world upside-down. Much has changed inside Russia, too. Up to one million Russians have fled the country, a wave of emigration that rivals the one that followed the Revolution of 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power. Russia has lost about a quarter million men to death and injury on the front—up from around 100,000 in October. 

The Russian budget is operating at a deficit not seen since the financial crisis of 1998, which immolated the country’s economy. This year, the Russian economy contracted by two percent, a small but not insignificant decline. Meanwhile, prices have gone up. Many of the most beloved, recognizable Western  companies—McDonald’s, Starbucks, IKEA—have expatriated and been replaced by paltry domestic impersonations or Chinese imports. Speaking out, a dangerous act before the war, has become even more hazardous. What was left of the Russian independent media is now almost entirely in exile, much like the remnants of the Russian opposition—at least those among them who aren’t serving long prison sentences. 

But a lot more hasn’t changed. The Russian economy hasn’t collapsed under the weight of unprecedented Western sanctions. It’s certainly fairing better than the Ukrainian economy, which lost anywhere from thirty to forty percent of its G.D.P. Russia may have been shut out of the Western energy market, but China and India are gobbling up the difference (albeit at a discount). Hundreds of thousands of men were called up in the fall, but the anxiety of conscription ebbed once most people realized they weren’t personally affected. 

On the whole, and especially in the big cities, life has continued on as before. The war is still somewhere far away, fought by someone else—or blaring from the television screen. It has been easy to get lulled back into the sense of not-seeing-past-your-nose complacency that is so characteristic of contemporary Russia (or of America during its decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

This has also been the case for the Russian elites. In the first days after the invasion, they were paralyzed with shock and horror, having been thoroughly confident that Vladimir Putin was bluffing all along with his troop build-up. “No one could believe their eyes, they couldn’t accept it,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, who studies the Russian elite at the Carnegie Endowment. “Then there was a period of calm and optimism. The economy didn’t crash, the ruble held, most people didn’t flee, and everyone got back to work without worrying about tomorrow.” That was in the summer, when Russia was advancing in the Donbas. By September, Putin felt confident enough to annex four Ukrainian regions and throw a big party. Russians in the governing class began to feel that, even if the initial blitzkrieg had failed, things were back on track and, at the very least, Russia wouldn’t lose. 

By fall, however, the mood had shifted again: the draft, the hundreds of thousands of fleeing men, the attack on the Kerch bridge and the loss of Kherson. A pall settled over the elite. What if Russia lost? 

And yet, somehow, it hasn’t, and the mood has whipsawed back. The Russian army, reinforced by new draftees and Wagner cannon fodder, has settled into a stalemate. The system is holding together, Putin’s grasp on power seems stronger than ever, and most everyone seems to support the war, either actively or passively. Dissenters had either left the country or didn’t dare to speak up if they stayed. “Generally, people feel optimistic, much more so than in November,” said one informed Moscow source about the city’s ruling elite. “Basically, they accept that the war is more challenging than what they were led to believe, but now they don’t think that the weapons that NATO is supplying will make a difference. It’s a very different situation than at the beginning of the war. At the beginning, the establishment was shocked at Putin’s decision. Now, the Western response is seen as a vicious attack not just on Russia or Putin, but on the Russian people, and so now they have to win. There is tremendous determination.” 

Similarly, the shock and disgust many in the elites felt at the beginning of the war has abated. “The universal position is to trust their commander in chief,” said the Moscow source, who is part of the Russian establishment. “He will be prepared to stand tall, respond to pressure, but at the same time is a prudent man who doesn’t want further escalation if it’s really his choice. He doesn’t want World War III if it’s his choice, but at the same time, he will not allow Russia to be defeated.” 

What would happen in the case that there were such a defeat, I asked? “The assumption is that he will do whatever is necessary,” said the source. “Literally, whatever is necessary.”

“The Bureaucrat Blizzard”

The numbers seem to bear this out. According to several polls, the strongest support for the war is found among older, richer men. According to opposition politician-turned-pollster Aleksei Miniailo, this group of respondents are people who identify as “not having any material hardship” and who “wouldn’t have trouble buying a house or an apartment” tomorrow if they needed to. “Think about it. Who in Russia doesn’t experience material hardship?” Miniailo explained. “It’s not entrepreneurs. It’s government servants, bureaucrats. And in Russia, they’re not used to having their own opinion.” (They are also, by and large, older men.) The party line is pro-war; they work for the state, so they support the party line. “It’s abstract for them,” Minialo said of the war. “Maybe it’ll be a little harder for them to go skiing in Austria, so they’ll have to go to Sochi.” Among them, Miniailo told me, support for the war is at 72 percent. 

Another Moscow source, who was once among the Kremlin liberals, told me, “Most people are watching [the war] from afar and are experiencing this as a fan club experience, like rooting for your hometown sports team: ‘Our guys have to win!’” This source has been squeezed out of most of their remaining positions because they took a very cautiously formulated, but still public, stance against the war. But they still keep up with their old circles. “At the top, nothing has changed,” they told me from Moscow. “It’s 70-30, for the war. Those who work on the economy, those who are liberal, yes, they exist, they didn’t go anywhere.” But, this person told me, they’re in the minority, as is their view of the war as an ultimately disastrous decision. 

These quiet dissenters don’t have much sway right now and have learned to not speak their mind especially since what Miniailo calls the “bureaucrat blizzard” of the spring and summer, referring to the alarming rate at which bureaucrats and state company managers fell out of windows or ostensibly committed suicide. As for the people who support the war, said the source, “Those are often people who earned a lot of money [through their government position] and now feel they are defending their own blood. Things are really harsh right now.”

“There is lot of apprehension under the surface,” admitted the Moscow establishment source. The problem now, as it was a year ago, is that Putin’s ruling class doesn’t fully grasp their leader’s intent. Now that the war has entered a second year and has fallen far short of Putin’s maximalist goals —the “de-Nazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, i.e. regime change—would he scale back those goals? Was the plan now just to focus on the Donbas and the land bridge to Crimea? Or was taking Kyiv still on Moscow’s to-do list? 

“Everything is in a state of suspension,” said Stanovaya. “No one understands what the plan is. Is there an offensive? Is it just about seizing the annexed territories or will it be about taking Kyiv? No one understands it. This sense of not knowing Putin’s plan is everywhere, because Putin doesn’t bring anyone into the know. In my opinion, he doesn’t deem it necessary to share his plan. This leads to maintaining a really high level of nervousness among the elites.” There was a hope that Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly last week would provide some clarity, but those hopes didn’t pan out. The speech was still more of the same jingoistic vagueness. “Now there’s a sense of dejection,” said Stanovaya. “Like it or not, we don’t decide anything. Only Putin decides.” 

It’s a whole bouquet of feelings, fifty shades of fatalism in a class of people who, on one hand, have tremendous amounts of power but, in the end, have none at all. They can spend all day making big macroeconomic decisions or collecting phantasmagorical kickbacks while doling out massive government contracts. But when it comes down to weighing in on whether they will all vanish in a blinding, nuclear flash, they have absolutely zero say. Those that don’t support the war are trapped on the ship with those that do, and have learned to make their peace with it. “They don’t have any choice,” said Stanovaya. “Where can they go? Go to the West, where they’ll be handcuffed immediately? They’re not free people. So why think about tomorrow? Why torture yourself? They didn’t use a nuclear bomb and end the world today? Great. That means today was a good day.”

Yalta 2.0

In this atmosphere, peace plans have proliferated. No one around Putin is asking for them, and one is certainly not allowed to make the case for a negotiated solution publicly. But speculating about the various ways out of the morass has become something of a Moscow parlor game. Sometimes, said the exiled Kremlin liberal, people get bold enough to pass their plans up the chain through a friendly backchannel. 

I have heard a couple plans in recent weeks that have truly blown my mind, reinforcing the sense that Russia lives in an informational vacuum and that its elites, like Putin himself, are the chief consumers of their own propaganda. The Moscow establishment source was skeptical that Washington wanted to negotiate—though, he insisted, of course Moscow did—but he told me that Russia would have to get the four Ukrainian regions it declared annexed at a bare minimum to walk away from the table satisfied. 

“But,” I protested, “you don’t even control them. You only control one of the four and in two of them you barely have any footholds.” The source was taken aback. “Julia,” they said. “I’m shocked that, for such a well-educated young woman, you are so one-sided!” The hard reality of what territory you do and do not control, apparently, has many diaphanous facets. 

Most everyone among the Moscow elite agrees that Ukraine cannot continue to exist as a fortress representing America and the West, who now openly hate Russia, and do so right under Russia’s soft belly. One source told me that Moscow still needed regime change in Ukraine. Russia just couldn’t exist with Ukraine as an armed-to-the-teeth “anti-Russia” right up against its flank, using a term favored by Putin and Kremlin propaganda to describe Ukraine. “This plan would allow Ukraine to have a minimal army, protect the rights of Russian speakers,” the source said, “and Ukraine would have to have a brotherly attitude toward Russia.” 

I almost fell out of my chair.

Another peace plan was offered to me by my friend Mikhail Zygar, author of All the Kremlin’s Men, which was a runaway best seller in Russia. According to Zygar, the theory that has become fashionable in oligarchic circles is that this war ends with a Yalta 2.0. Yalta, the beta version, was held in February, 1945, when it was already clear that Nazi Germany was losing the war. With the question of war largely settled, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Josef Stalin, and Winston Churchill negotiated the nature of the peace that would follow. It was at Yalta that post-War Europe was carved up into Soviet and American spheres of influence. (Putin said he wanted something similar before he sent in the tanks last February.) 

What would Yalta 2.0 look like? And where would it be held? Luckily, the proponents of this peace plan have a location all picked out: Fiji, basically equidistant between the U.S. and China, the world’s contemporary analogues of World War II-era America and the U.S.S.R. And who would play the role of Churchill, the representative of a once mighty, now faded—though still important!—empire? Why, Putin, of course!

When Zygar asked his interlocutors if they were sure that Putin wouldn’t end up playing the role of Adolf Hitler in this future fantasy, they laughed him off. Putin, after all, was a master strategist and a respected statesman.

Little Brother

All the exit strategies, however, featured two themes. One was that, actually, we only knew who would be sitting on the Russian end of the table: Vladimir Putin. The others—Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden—were up for re-election in 2024. Would they make it through? Turkey’s Reçep Tayyip Erdogan was up for re-election even sooner, in 2023, and after the Biblical earthquake that had just torn his country apart, who knew if he would make it. The U.S. Congress wasn’t looking too good either, if you’re Ukrainian. “If you listen to your new Speaker, who’s saying, Hey, let’s start counting our money [before sending it to Ukraine]—it makes sense,” said the exiled Kremliner. “Do you have any guarantee that Republicans will not give up an inch of Ukrainian territory? I don’t.”

The second was the inescapable role of China, to whom Moscow was now clearly looking not just for military and economic assistance, but for its role as a potential mediator. Politburo member Wang Yi made a trip to Moscow last week ahead of Beijing’s delineation of a proposed peace plan, which looks suspiciously like Putin’s ultimatum-style pre-war demands. In March, Chinese premier Xi Jinping will visit the Russian capital for a meeting with Putin. There was a sense in Moscow, the exiled Kremliner told me, that Putin’s speech last week was so thin because he was waiting for Xi to weigh in. “The fact that he’s the big brother is indisputable now,” the source said. 

“What did that make Russia, then?” I asked. 

“We’re the little brother,” the source said. “It’s humiliating, but it’s a fact of life. The Europeans allowed us a measure of equality, but these guys won’t. But only a few people understand that and it will take a while [for the others] to realize that.”

“How do you think Russians feel about that, given their views of Chinese people?” I wondered.

“On the whole, we’re not them,” the source said. “Even among those [in the Russian elite] who are reactionary”—that is, they hate the “collective West,” in the Kremlin parlance—“if you ask them if they’re European or Asian, they’ll say they’re European, of course. But there are nuances: everyone respects power.”