Russian elites show no sign of broad challenge to Putin

Aleksandr Y. Lebedev appears to be the main target of sanctions aimed at turning Russian elites against the Kremlin. He is a billionaire and former KGB agent with deep connections to both Russia’s ruling class and the West; his son owns British newspapers and is a member of the House of Lords.

But Lebedev has a message for anyone who hopes he will now try to overthrow President Vladimir V. Putin: “It won’t work.”

In this matter, he insists, he is powerless. “What, should I now go to the Kremlin with a flag?” Mr. Lebedev said by video call from Moscow. “It’s more likely to be the opposite.”

Top Russian businessmen and intellectuals fled their country after the February 24 invasion, settling in places like Dubai, Istanbul and Berlin. But many others who were well connected at home and had close ties to the West stayed behind, struggling to redefine their lives.

In doing so, their paths diverged – illuminating the watershed of choices that war represents for wealthy and influential Russians, and the great chances that any broad coalition of Russians will emerge to challenge Putin. Some are speaking out against the war while they remain in the country, despite great personal risk. Many, like Lebedev, are keeping their heads down. And some chose to join the Kremlin.

“What we have is what we have,” said Dmitri Trenin, who until April ran the famous American-funded think tank, the Carnegie Moscow Center, which the West relied on for independent assessments of Russian politics and politics. Now he has completely switched roles, defining the West as “the enemy” and describing “strategic success in Ukraine” as Russia’s “most important task”.

“We have all crossed the line from a confrontation where dialogue was possible to a war where, in principle, there cannot be dialogue for now,” he said in an interview.

The mood of the so-called Russian elite – a kaleidoscope of senior officials, business executives, journalists and intellectuals – has been closely watched by any domestic reaction to Putin’s decision to go to war. If his dismay at the country’s sudden economic and cultural isolation crosses a threshold, some Western officials believe, Putin could be forced to change course.

However, what is actually happening, the interviews show, is that the climate spans a spectrum from despair to joy, but with a common denominator: the feeling that the country’s future is out of their hands.

“They are drinking,” said Yevgenia M. Albats, a journalist still in Moscow, trying to characterize those elites who were dismayed by the decision to go to war. “They’re drinking a lot.”

Hardly any Russian billionaires have spoken out strongly against the war, even though sanctions have frozen billions of dollars in their Western assets. A senior Putin adviser has resigned, allegedly because of the war, but has not commented on his departure; only one Russian diplomat, a mid-level official in Geneva, publicly resigned in protest.

Instead, many are choosing to cut ties with Europe and the United States and refrain from criticizing the Kremlin. This stance aligns with Putin’s constant assertions that it is better to bet on Russia than the West.

“It’s safer to stay at home,” Putin told an economic conference in St. Petersburg last week, urging Russia’s wealthy to stay away from Western summer homes and boarding schools. “Real, solid success and a sense of dignity and self-respect only come when you link your future and the future of your children to your homeland.”

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

Mrs. Albats, a liberal broadcaster and magazine editor, continues to stream from her apartment to YouTube; Moscow’s Echo radio station, which broadcast his program for nearly two decades, was closed after the war broke out. She called Putin a war criminal and already faces four misdemeanor charges under Russia’s new censorship law.

As one of the few prominent liberals who continue to loudly criticize the war while inside the country, and with nearly all of his friends gone, Albats says he faces “monstrous” loneliness.

“That youthful energy of resistance – all those who could resist are gone,” said Albats, 63. “I must resist – otherwise I will no longer respect myself. But I understand that life is over.”

However, for others, life goes on. Lebedev, the business mogul, has a minority stake in Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper whose editor Dmitri A. Muratov auctioned his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal for $103.5 million this week to support Ukrainian refugee children.

Lebedev, 62, said Russia was approaching the “Iran and North Korea” model and would be able to sustain it for years; Putin would remain in power as long as his health allowed, he predicted in a telephone interview, dismissing rumors that the president was ill as “nonsense”. It was “an absolute illusion,” he insisted, that Russia’s rich could have any influence in Putin’s inner circle.

He criticized the sanctions, saying they were only driving Russia’s rich to join Putin, forcing them to cut ties with the West and making them feel like victims. Canada has placed Lebedev on a sanctions list of oligarchs who “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine”. He rejects this characterization, noting that he has been one of the main funders of Russia’s best-known independent newspaper.

Novaya suspended publication in March, with Muratov announcing that he was doing so to ensure the safety of his journalists. Lebedev predicted that Novaya would not reopen as the war in Ukraine continued – which military analysts say could take years.

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

Life in Moscow has changed little so far, Lebedev said, although importing his collection of fine wines from Italy has been 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, no major Russian tycoon has spoken out vehemently against the war, despite the many billions they may have in Western assets.

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

This is also the logic that helped lead Trenin, former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to change course. For decades, he has accommodated himself in the dominant foreign policy discourse of both Moscow and Washington, and has employed Putin critics in his think tank. Before the war, Trenin said Putin was unlikely to invade Ukraine because doing so would entail “great human and financial losses” and “a tremendous risk to Russia itself”.

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

The Russians who have come out and are speaking out against the invasion, he said in a telephone interview, have made the choice to “stand against their country, against their people, in times of war.”

“This is a time to make a fundamental choice,” said Trenin, who served for two decades in the Soviet and Russian armed forces. “Either you stay with your people and your country, or you leave.”

In April, the Russian government closed the Carnegie Moscow Center, which was funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Trenin, 66, said he now plans to do research and teach in Moscow, and that his long-standing mission to promote understanding between Moscow and Washington is no longer relevant.

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

“My work was aimed at creating a mutual understanding between the United States and Russia,” he says. “This did not happened.”

Jennifer Schuessler contributed reporting.

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