Russian Elites Show No Signs of Widespread Challenge to Putin

Alexander Yu. Lebedev appears to be a prime target for sanctions designed to encourage the Russian elite to rise up against the Kremlin. He is a former billionaire and ex-KGB agent with deep connections to both the Russian ruling class and the West; his son owns British newspapers and is a member of the House of Lords.

But Mr. Lebedev has a message for those who expect him to now try to overthrow President Vladimir Putin: “It won’t work.”

In this matter, he insists, he is powerless. “What, should I go to the Kremlin with a banner now?” This was announced by Mr. Lebedev via video link from Moscow. – Quite the contrary.

Leading Russian businessmen and intellectuals fled their country after the February 24 invasion, settling in places like Dubai, Istanbul and Berlin. But many others who had good connections at home and close ties to the West stayed behind, trying to change their lives.

In doing so, they parted ways, highlighting the watershed of choice the war presents for wealthy and powerful Russians, and the greater chance that any broad coalition of Russians will challenge Mr. Putin. A handful speak out against the war, remaining in the country despite great personal risk. Many, like Mr. Lebedev, do not raise their heads. And some decided to link their fate with the Kremlin.

“We have what we have,” said Dmitri Trenin, who until April ran the country’s leading American-funded think tank, the Carnegie Moscow Center, on which the West relied for independent assessments of Russian policy and politics. Now he’s completely reversed the roles definition the West as an “enemy” and describing “strategic success in Ukraine” as Russia’s “most important task”.

“We have all crossed the line from confrontation, in which dialogue was possible, to war, in which dialogue, in principle, cannot yet be,” he said in an interview.

The mood of the so-called Russian elite – a kaleidoscope of high-ranking officials, business leaders, journalists and intellectuals – is closely monitored for any internal reaction to Mr. Putin’s decision to go to war. Some Western officials believe that if their worries about the country’s sudden economic and cultural isolation cross the threshold, Putin may have to change course.

In reality, however, as the interviews show, moods range from desperation to elation, but with one common denominator: the feeling that the future of the country is not in their hands.

“They drink,” said Yevgenia M. Albats, a journalist still in Moscow, in an attempt to characterize those elites who were dismayed by the decision to go to war. “They drink very heavily.”

Almost none of the Russian billionaires spoke out strongly against the war, despite the fact that sanctions froze billions of dollars in their Western assets. One senior adviser to Mr. Putin resigned, reportedly because of the war, but did not comment on his departure; only one Russian diplomat, a mid-level official in Geneva, publicly resigned in protest.

Instead, many prefer to sever ties with Europe and the US and refrain from criticizing the Kremlin. This position is consistent with Mr. Putin’s constant assertion that it is better to cast one’s fate with Russia than with the West.

“Home is safer,” Putin told an economic conference in St. Petersburg last week, demanding that wealthy Russians move away from Western country houses and boarding schools. “Real, lasting success, self-esteem and self-respect happen only when you link your future and the future of your children with the Motherland.”

As a result, even the tightly controlled politics of pre-war Russia now look bright in retrospect.

Ms. Albatz, a liberal radio host and magazine editor, continues to broadcast from her apartment on YouTube; The Ekho Moskvy radio station, which had broadcast her show for almost two decades, closed after the outbreak of war. She has called Mr. Putin a war criminal and has already been charged with four administrative offenses under Russia’s new censorship law.

As one of the few prominent liberals who continues to vocally criticize the war while at home, and nearly all of her friends have left, Ms Albatz says she faces “monstrous” loneliness.

“That youthful energy of resistance – everyone who could resist is gone,” said Ms Albats, 63. “I have to resist, otherwise I will lose my self-respect. But I understand that life is over.

For others, life goes on. Business magnate Lebedev owns a minority stake in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitry Muratov auctioned his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal for $103.5 million this week to support Ukrainian refugee children.

Lebedev, 62, said Russia is moving closer to the “Iran and North Korea” model and will be able to maintain it for many years; Mr. Putin will remain in power as long as his health allows, he predicted in a telephone interview, dismissing rumors of the president’s illness as “nonsense.” It was “an absolute illusion,” he insisted, that Russia’s wealthy could have any influence over Mr. Putin’s insular inner circle.

He opposed the sanctions, saying they only encourage wealthy Russians to rally around Putin, making them cut ties with the West and making them feel like victims. Canada has placed Mr. Lebedev on a sanctions list of oligarchs who “directly contributed to Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine.” He dismisses this characterization, noting that he was one of the main financial backers of Russia’s most famous independent newspaper.

Novaya suspended publication in March, and Mr. Muratov said he was doing so to ensure the safety of his journalists. Mr. Lebedev predicted that Novaya would not reopen as long as the war in Ukraine continues, which military analysts say could take years.

“I live here, I need to feed my family, so I will continue to do those things in which I understand something,” he said. But it won’t be journalism.

According to Mr. Lebedev, life in Moscow has changed little so far, although importing your collection of fine wines from Italy has proved difficult. He pointed out that apart from Oleg Tinkov, the founder of a Russian bank, who said he was forced to sell his stake this spring, not a single major Russian business tycoon has strongly spoken out against the war, despite the many billions they may hold in Western assets. .

“Even if you say it was a mistake,” Mr. Lebedev said of the invasion, “we still have what we have.”

The same logic helped Mr. Trenin, the former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, change course. For decades, he has been at the center of foreign policy discourse in both Moscow and Washington, and has attracted critics of Mr. Putin to his think tank. Before the war, Mr. Trenin said Mr. Putin was unlikely to invade Ukraine because it would entail “great human and financial losses” and “an enormous risk to Russia itself.”

But after the war broke out on February 24, when some of his colleagues fled, Mr. Trenin decided to stay where he was. He said that in hindsight it no longer mattered whether the invasion was the right decision and that now he needed to support his country in what he called the war between Russia and the West.

The Russians who have left and oppose the invasion, he said in a telephone interview, have made the choice to “stand against their country, against their people in a time of war.”

“The time has come to make a fundamental choice,” said Mr. Trenin, who served two decades in the Soviet and Russian military. “Either you stay with your people and in your country, or you leave.”

The Russian government in April closed the Carnegie Moscow Center, which was funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Trenin, 66, said he now plans to conduct research and teach in Moscow, and that his longtime mission of promoting understanding between Moscow and Washington is no longer relevant.

If Washington had acceded to Mr. Putin’s demands and promised that Ukraine would never join NATO, Mr. Trenin argues, the war could have been averted. Now the conflict between Russia and the West “is likely to continue for the rest of my life.”

“My work was about building understanding between America and Russia,” he says. “That did not happen”.

Jennifer Schussler contributed reporting.

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