Putin’s grip on Russia’s elite weakens

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed military and political infighting that the president skillfully exploited before it was publicly aired

Vladimir Putin presides over a ceremony at Moscow’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Vladimir Putin presides over a ceremony at Moscow’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.Getty

Russia’s war in Ukraine is disrupting the status quo of Russian elites. Some of Russia’s most severe military setbacks in Ukraine have triggered an unprecedented wave of recrimination against the leaders of the country’s armed forces. Critical outbursts by state-controlled media outlets were quickly followed by pro-war pundits taking sharp jabs at Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. This finger-pointing, absolutely unthinkable a year ago, has exposed the infighting and divisiveness spreading throughout power structures that are increasingly uneasy about the future in Putin’s Russia. Cowed by a security apparatus that tolerates little dissension, most of the country has watched impassively while its leader switches tactics and objectives in a bloody invasion that has left him vulnerable at home and isolated internationally.

It used to be that no one dared criticize Putin’s favorite minister and popular chief of the armed forces. After all, it was always Shoigu pictured in the Russian leader’s staged photo shoots in Siberia: Putin, the strongman; the bare-chested horseman; the grandfatherly gentleman sipping tea at a picnic.

Behind-the-scenes turf battles, brawls and bitter rivalries have long been a hallmark of the lower echelons of Russian power. But now the curtain has been drawn, and hostilities are loudly and publicly aired on Telegram channels and even in the traditional, pro-government media. Putin has often exploited the legendary antagonism between the GRU (military intelligence agency) and the FSB (federal security service), Russia’s main intelligence agencies. The Russian leader has proven to be adept at calming the waters in the upper echelons of power, and among the economic and political elites woven into the fabric of Putinism. In turn, they have kept their part of the bargain – don’t criticize the Kremlin and toe the line if you want a slice of the very large pie in a country with huge inequalities.

But when the Russian president decreed his massive activation of reservists, he broke a social contract with a citizenry to whom he promised stability and peace of mind. Similarly, the war in Ukraine has blown up the status quo enjoyed by the political-military elites, resulting in some very public critiques of strategic military decisions.

But Putin’s hold on power doesn’t seem to be in jeopardy. “There is no challenge to Putin,” notes a Western intelligence analyst and veteran observer of the Russian leader’s power circles. “Putin’s inner circle is made up of men just like him – old KGB types whose power is based on a system that would collapse without its leader. They are afraid of what would happen if it does collapse, of how much they would lose, and of the consequences they might face… There is a great deal of anxiety, and we’re seeing some signs that if Russia keeps suffering these defeats in Ukraine without any kind of game changer in sight, the backstage infighting could spill over into the public arena.”

The recent criticism and internal friction don’t seem to be a coordinated campaign against the Kremlin. Rather, they appear to be visible displays of discontent by an elite that’s highly upset at Putin because he’s not doing what’s expected – the man who settles all the internal disputes – says Mark Galeotti, a London-based political scientist and writer on Russian security affairs (A Short History of Russia and We Need to Talk About Putin). In a phone interview with EL PAÍS, Galeotti said that Russian power circles are “worried” about the loss of control and widening cracks in a system that has revolved around a single person for two decades. “This means that Putin will have less leverage in an external crisis like a serious illness, a popular protest, a frontline defeat in Ukraine, or a Ukrainian attack in Crimea,” said Galeotti. “There is no direct threat against Putin right now, but when one does come up, he will be much more vulnerable [than before].”

The successful Ukrainian counteroffensive and embarrassing defeats of Russian forces unleashed clamor and pressure for the Kremlin to escalate the invasion. Putin gave the ultranationalists some of what they wanted when he activated reservists, but this stoked widespread discontent and prompted tens of thousands of men to flee the country. Putin also ordered an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, an alleged retaliation for the sabotage of the bridge linking Russia to Crimea.

Tatiana Stanovaya, who founded the R.Politik political consulting firm, describes Putinism as a game. “Each player has their own sandbox to play in. The sandboxes are of all sizes and shapes. You have nearly absolute power in your own sandbox, but don’t stray beyond,” she said. But with the war in Ukraine, some marginal players who were left out in the cold or who were even treated as pariahs by the elites, have now ventured into other players’ sandboxes and are starting to gain traction.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a celebration of Russia Day in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a celebration of Russia Day in 2017. Sergei Karpukhin (REUTERS)

Yevgeny Prigozhin is one of those formerly marginal players. For years, the controversial and mysterious Prigozhin denied any connection to the Wagner Group, a Russian state-backed mercenary group. The man known as Putin’s chef because his restaurants and catering businesses often hosted dinners for Putin, has become the chief recruiter of private mercenaries to fight on Russia’s side in Ukraine. Prigozhin has even gone into Russian prisons to recruit inmates. Now he’s grabbing for a bigger slice of pie and has harshly criticized Russian military leadership through his propaganda machines and media outlets. Like Prigozhin, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has also railed against top army commanders, most recently when Russian forces were driven out of Lyman. Nevertheless, Putin promoted Kadyrov to the rank of colonel general in early October, just six months after his last promotion to lieutenant general.

Russian military analyst Pavel Luzin says that these attacks on the country’s military leaders have exposed a power struggle within an exhausted and weakened army. Officers and others like Kadyrov and Prigozhin who are not directly involved in the war effort are seeking to gain advantage by blaming the armed forces for the defeats in Ukraine.

Prigozhin, who became a mortal enemy of Defense Minister Shoigu after blaming him for lost defense contracts, seems to be much better positioned with the Wagner Group paramilitary forces he controls. Meanwhile, Kadyrov wants to secure more funding for Chechnya, which receives more than 80% of its budget directly from Moscow. Galeotti said, “He’s telling everyone, ‘I can be a real pain in the neck unless you pay me.’ Moscow is terrified that Kadyrov will allow Chechnya to explode again.”

Nikolaus von Twickel, a political editor with Germany’s Zentrum Liberale Moderne daily newspaper, was a security advisor to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) during the 2014 Donbas war. Von Twickel believes that the recent appointment of Sergey Surovikin (known for his devastating bombing of civilian infrastructure in Syria) to lead the war in Ukraine is not the outcome of a power struggle, but rather a “desperate” attempt by the military-political leadership (Putin and Shoigu) to conduct the war more effectively. “I don’t think the elites are going to try to move against Putin right now. Putin’s system is built on factional tension, which ensures that these factions won’t unite against the president himself,” said von Twickel. He points to Kadyrov and Prigozhin, leaders who “owe everything to Putin” and who “can be openly critical because other factions keep them in check.”

Russian infighting has led to the arrests of several bosses and employees at Prigozhin’s social media propaganda channels for alleged fraud, although the real motive could be their criticism of Russian authorities. Prigozhin was also responsible for the armies of bots that interfered with elections in Europe and the United States.

Putin’s strikes against his critics haven’t spared ultranationalists like Igor Girkin, also known as Commander Strelkov, and others who have been highly critical of the direction of the war. They are currently under investigation for their scathing outbursts against the Russian high command, according to Mash, a Kremlin-linked news outlet. Girkin even accused Shoigu of “criminal negligence” in conducting the war. “I don’t have the evidence to accuse him of treason, but I suspect it,” said Girkin back in May when Russia controlled much more Ukrainian territory than it does now. Experts agree that the increasing number of arrests is a sign that the Kremlin’s tight grip may be weakening.

Mysterious deaths and complicit silence

Amid all this instability and unrest, there have been several mysterious deaths of business leaders and high-ranking regional government officials. Ravil Maganov, a Lukoil executive, and Alexander Tiuliakov, director of corporate security at Gazprom, both died under strange circumstances. “I wouldn’t call them [assassinations] ordered by the Kremlin – they could just be violent rivalries. But some people are feeling like they’re back in the 1990s again,” said Galeotti, referring to the turbulent years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While military and political backstabbing is intensifying, urban elites and Western-educated technocrats are mostly keeping a low profile. People like former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, Sberbank CEO German Gref, Central Bank chief Elvira Nabiullina, and all the other apolitical technocrats “… are refraining from public criticism or denouncing the war so they can hold on to their positions,” said Carnegie Center expert Alexandra Prokorenko.

On February 21, when Putin convened the Security Council of Russia in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine, the collegial and consultative approach of old-style Putinism seemed to have given way to one man making all the decisions. Prokorenko predicts that Putin’s system will soon be overcome by crisis. “The problem for the technocrats is that it will be impossible to operate efficiently in the moral and institutional ruins left by the war.”

The public infighting has raised fears of what a Russia without Putin would look like. It will be difficult to restore the social fabric in a country where Putin and his security apparatus have completely cowed the opposition and civil society, and where most prominent dissidents are in prison or in exile. Some pundits have offered their predictions about a post-Putin Russia. An official connected to a Western intelligence agency believes another Putin-like leader will emerge from his inner circle, probably one of his former KGB cronies. But von Twickel thinks that current Security Council secretary and former FSB director (after Putin) Nikolai Patrushev would only succeed Putin “in case of incapacitation. But I don’t think it’s likely. That would be a reminiscent of the last days of the Soviet Union when Andropov handed the reins to Chernenko. It would be a sign that the elite does not want change… The point is – it’s extremely difficult to make any predictions because there are no institutions to guide the transition… With Putin, everything is about personal relationships, and everyone ultimately depends on Putin.”

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS