“Now we're going to f*ck them all.” What's happening in Russia's elites after a month of war
Sanctions and propaganda have rallied even those who were against the invasion around Putin
Disclaimer: This article could have come out earlier, but I wanted to gather as much information as possible to make sure I wasn't being manipulated. I didn't want to use yet another profane headline, but after talking to many people, I realized that this quote really says a lot. Again, I will say that I am not evaluating the words of my sources from a moral point of view, but only recording what’s happening.
“Since they adopted sanctions against us, we’re going to f*ck them. Now they’ll have to buy rubles on the Moscow Exchange to buy gas from us. But that's just the beginning. Now we're going to f*ck them all.”
So tells me, with enthusiasm, a high-ranking Russian official. He has long been a member of Putin's team, but has been considered a liberal thinker. A month ago he had a different attitude, saying with some chagrin that the most important thing was to stop the bloodshed in Ukraine, and then to figure out how to live in the new reality.
He wasn’t the only one. There are no “disloyal” people left in power in Russia. But civil servants, employees and heads of state companies, legislators, business elites close to the government — all were expressing, in private conversations, at least bewilderment at the invasion of Ukraine.
However, during the past month, there has been no mass exodus of officials or state managers. Big business is either staying silent or limiting itself to neutral phrases in favor of peace.
Over the past week, I’ve spoken with several people close to Putin, as well as with about a dozen civil servants of various levels and state company employees. I had two goals. First of all, to understand the mood among the Russian elites and people close to them after the imposition of unprecedented sanctions on Russia. Secondly, to find out whether anyone is trying to convince President Putin to stop the bloodshed — and why Roman Abramovich ended up playing the role of mediator/diplomat.
In short, it can be said that, over the past month, Putin’s dream of a consolidation among the Russian elite has come true. These people understand that their lives are now tied only to Russia, and that that’s where they’ll need to build them. The differences and the influence of various circles and clans have been erased by the fact that, for the most part, people have lost their past positions and resources. The possible conclusion of a peace treaty is unlikely to change the mood of the Russian elites. "We’ve passed the point of no return,” says a source close to the Kremlin. “Everyone understands that there will be peace, but that this peace won't return the life we had before.”
Russian society, my sources tell me, has also rallied in support of Putin's actions under the pressure of propaganda and under the consequences of sanctions. In a situation where, as it seems to them, the whole world is against Russia, its citizens "will hate the West and consolidate.”
Under Martial Law
Though officially Russia is conducting not a war but a "special operation," Russian state propaganda is working at full capacity. State channels are airing almost exclusively news programs based on defense ministry briefings and other official information, as well as propaganda talk shows. The population is being brainwashed into believing that Russia is fighting Nazis who themselves had prepared an attack on the Donbass. To cause even more fear, stories are being told about Ukrainian biolaboratories, where biological weapons against the Slavs were allegedly being created with the support of the United States.
Putin himself has made clear that he considers opponents of the war to be enemies of Russia who are acting in the interests of Western countries. “They [Western countries] will try to bet on a so-called fifth column, on traitors, on those who make money here, in our country, but live there," Putin said on March 16. In his opinion, the collective West is trying to split Russian society. In order to convince everyone that Russians support his decisions, Putin holds meetings and rallies with citizens who are dependent on the state.
All this followed a wave of public discontent with the war. In the first days people took to the streets and signed open letters and petitions, while nationally renowned artists, directors, writers, and public figures spoke out against the war on social networks. This didn’t last long. Within a week, the authorities had blocked and shut down almost all independent media outlets, intimidated citizens with new laws on military censorship, and didn’t give street protests the slightest chance to grow into mass protests, packing people into police vans. In the first two weeks, according to OVD-Info, the police detained 15,000 people.
“In the early days, we were losing the information war,” says a high-ranking source within a regional government. “The people had negative feelings [about the war]. There was a sharp 50/50 split in society. But then all the [state media] got together and started releasing decent content. And then, when they [in the West] began to say that all Russians are bad, to boycott artists and athletes, everything changed. Now about 75 percent support the military operation. That is, there’s a social consolidation happening. Calls against the war are not at all popular, it’s more of a marginal story now.”
Gubernatorial elections are to be held in that region this year, which means that the authorities are constantly measuring public sentiment. According to this source, the position of “let’s end this” no longer exists — people want to end it, “but on our terms.”
The people I interviewed said in one voice that, for many ordinary citizens — at least until there is a big increase in unemployment — the sanctions and other economic and political consequences of the war have had the opposite effect from what Western countries may have intended. The mass withdrawal of Western brands (IKEA, Apple, Zara, McDonald's, Carlsberg, etc.), the suspension of businesses, the flight ban, the devaluation of the ruble, the difficulty of buying dollars and euros — all of this has made many Russians think that the whole world is against them, and this makes them behave in a certain way.
“After the Great Patriotic War [World War 2], our country immediately began to dust itself off and rebuild. And after 30 years, the country was back to normal. These people [in the West] don't understand who they’re messed with. This causes a sharp reaction even among those who thought differently and asked questions [of the authorities]. Now they won’t ask questions for a long time. They will hate the West and consolidate in order to live their lives, especially middle-aged people. This is a very subtle thing that the West does not understand at all,” said one of my high-ranking acquaintances excitedly, adding that he felt a couple of decades younger. (To be honest, it's hard for me to know whether he really experiences such feelings or if this is a temporary defensive reaction.)
According to the pro-Kremlin All-Russian Center for Public Opinion, 74% of Russians support the "special military operation" in Ukraine, while the level of trust in Putin has increased from 67.2% to a multi-year high of 80.6% since the operation began.
I use the official wording "special military operation" for a reason. Trusting Kremlin sociologists was difficult even during peacetime, and during war it’s impossible. Everything in Russia today is completely subordinated to military propaganda. Independent sociologists believe that if Russians were asked about their support for “war,” there would be fewer supporters.
Even before the war, the director of the independent Levada Center said that respondents who were critical of Russia's policy toward Ukraine avoided answering questions, in part because they feared persecution by the authorities. However, in its latest poll, conducted at the end of March, the Levada Center reported this: “In March, there was a significant increase in approval of the main state institutions: 83% approve of the President, 71% of the Prime Minister, 70% of the government, and 59% of the State Duma. The share of those who believe that things are going in the right direction in the country has increased sharply”.
Putin’s Dream is Coming True
But what do Russia's elites think of themselves, as the top of them fall under unprecedented international sanctions and lose their apartments, mansions, and yachts abroad, as well as the ability to visit many countries? The sanctions lists now include not only officials, lawmakers, and security officials but also businessmen and top managers who had been trying to distance themselves from politics until February 24. Among these are Roman Abramovich, Oleg Tinkov, Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, Alexei Mordashov, Herman Gref and several of his deputies, and Igor Shuvalov.
"When I saw what they were doing to those poor Paralympians, that was it for me... I don't care about iPhones, I can use a Chinese phone. I have a German car — let me drive a Chinese or Russian one instead. Now I understand that the boss is right, that this whole thing had to happen one way or another. They would have imposed these sanctions anyway," says a high-ranking civil servant, who a month ago was saying that Russia’s imperial ambitions should be manifested in other ways, such as by growing a strong economy.
According to several people on different levels of power, the personal sanctions have done Putin a big favor, having helped him accomplish what he had failed to do for many years: to turn the Russian elites into a near monolith.
“All these personal sanctions cement the elites. Everyone who was thinking about a new life understands that, for the next 10-15 years at least, their lives are concentrated in Russia, their children will study in Russia, their families will live in Russia. These people feel offended. They will not overthrow anyone, but will build their lives here," says a high-ranking source in one of the sanctioned state companies.
Paradoxically, society and the elites — previously quite distant from each other — are now, if not united, at least feeling like they’re in the same boat. From the statements of my sources, I concluded that three groups can be identified among the state apparatus and state business.
Many older people are enthusiastic and feel an opportunity to make money and to start over, just like in the 90s. “They think we're dumb? We're not dumb. We're Russians. It’s nothing. Now we'll mobilize, we'll work. Wait until the chickens are counted in the fall, as they say,” says one of these people in the management of a sanctioned state company.
Middle-aged people of about 45-50 years old, who caught the end of the Soviet era in their youth, are also continuing their affairs — without any special enthusiasm, but with understanding and acceptance of the situation. “Now it’s much more important to come to understand how we will live in these conditions,” says a source in this age category, who holds a high position in the power hierarchy and is considered a technocrat. “Yes, we’ll have to eat roots and give birth in the fields,” sadly ironizes another source in this age category. “But what are the other options?”
The most frustrated are the 35-40-year-olds who have lost most of their recent accomplishments. Some feel abandoned and feel resentful of their fellow citizens who have left the country and who, in their opinion, are trying to teach them from abroad how to live and how to overthrow the regime. “I want to tell them: just shut up,” says one of my youngest sources, who is on the front lines of the state's struggle with the consequences of Western sanctions. Another young civil servant who does not support the war says that he feels trapped: It’s unbearable to stay, but it’s impossible to quit and leave, because no one will let him out of the country.
The imposition of personal sanctions and the severing of ties with the outside world have led to another consequence for Russian elites. Because of the loss of their financial position and the enormous political consequences, different interest groups and clans have, as one of my sources put it, “squeezed together.”
“There are no groups, no circles, everything is ruined. Everyone is financially insecure, politically insecure, they've lost their positions. Those who were able to take part [in attempts to influence Putin] from different sides, on different occasions, have done so. Everything is nullified, everyone has become an actor in his own story. There are only individual sporadic actions," says a high-ranking source.
Those who manage to talk to Putin complain that he himself speaks earnestly, but does not particularly listen to what he is told, says a person who has spoken to the President within the past month. They speculate that Putin needs the peace talks in order to stall, since he still believes in the military, which says he can tear the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Azov Sea coast from Ukraine.
Who could change Putin's mind?
It's useless and pointless – roughly is the answer of all the people I spoke to, when asked if the part of the Russian elite that disagrees with Putin's actions against Ukraine is trying to unite and influence him.
“No one can demand anything. They can have a chat, but it's no use. He has a clear picture in his head that he is rubbing in everyone’s head. “We wanted to be friends, they declared us their enemies, they surrounded us from all sides, they were ready to accept Ukraine into NATO and deploy missiles. They provoked us and there was no other way out,” explains a person familiar with the details of the negotiation process between Russia and Ukraine, adding that there is became objectively problematic to reach out to Putin. His circle of contacts is as narrow as possible, even Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the General Staff, Valeriy Gerasimov, aren’t let get close to him. And Putin has long had no desire to actively listen to anyone else’s views.
Over the past month, there has been no publicly reported one-on-one meeting between Putin and anyone in the Russian elite who might, for ideological reasons, say anything against the war. In Putin’s inner circle there are several people sharing liberal views. Among them, the closest to the President are the head of the Accounts Chamber, Alexei Kudrin, and the president of Sberbank, Herman Gref. They have lost much of their influence, as has the whole so-called “liberal tower” of the Kremlin, whose very existence is doubtful now, but they do have access to the First person.
Putin, Kudrin and Gref worked together in the St Petersburg city hall in the 1990s. It was Kudrin who helped Putin move to Moscow in 1996 and find a job in the President’s Administration, while Gref supervised the development of the economic program for Putin's first two terms. Kudrin and Gref, as ministers, implemented several crucial reforms that, together with high oil prices, enabled Russia’s economic growth in 2000-2008. Under Kudrin and Gref, Russia ahead of schedule paid its debts to the Paris Club countries, which allowed Putin to pursue an independent international policy.
During his long career, Kudrin has been twice named as the world’s best finance minister – by The Banker magazine in 2003 and by Euromoney magazine in 2010. “I am proud to have such a person in my government,” Putin said in 2013. At the time, Kudrin held no position in the government after a row with Dmitry Medvedev. But despite this Putin said that Kudrin was his friend and had not left the team.
Kudrin spoke to Putin in the first days after the war began, although the conversation had been planned before the war, my sources say. A person close to him says that Kudrin warned Putin about the consequences of the war: that the economy would slide back to the early 1990s, and that this could lead to social upheaval. But there was no reaction from the President. Another of Kudrin’s acquaintances says that the head of the Accounts Chamber looked stunned for days after his conversation with Putin, as he let him know that this war would last. Kudrin himself wrote on his Facebook page on March 16: “In recent weeks, the world in which we live has changed dramatically. Most likely, these changes are with us for a long time.”
Since the military operation began, Gref himself and Sberbank, which he has run since 2007, have been put under heavy US and EU sanctions. However, according to my sources, this has not prompted Gref to talk to Putin about the need to stop the bloodshed. Moreover, Sberbank has taken a tough stance on its employees who left the country when the war started and wanted to work remotely. They are being asked to return to Russia or resign.
Neither Kudrin, nor Gref, nor anyone else will persuade Putin to stop the war now, they will not even be listened to, a senior Russian official is confident. “How can you imagine that? It is useless. There is a military operation going on and this is not the time to go with such advice,” he says. According to him, all talk is possible only when the hot phase of the conflict is over. To say anything to Putin against the war now would be a kind of suicide, Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman, who has been sanctioned, told Bloomberg. My sources agree with him.
Another person who could influence the President is Central Bank Chairperson Elvira Nabiullina. She is not from St Petersburg, but has worked for Putin for more than 20 years. In 1999-2000 she was one of the authors of Strategy-2010, a programme of economic reforms for Putin. She has been in charge of the Central Bank since 2013 and her contract expired this summer. According to Bloomberg, Nabiullina wanted to leave her post after the war in Ukraine started, but Putin would not let her go. However, two sources familiar with Nabiullina and at the same time close to Putin doubt this version of events, as do two sources close to the government.
“People who describe the situation this way don’t understand how things work inside and are wishful thinking,” one of my sources says adamantly. According to him, Nabiullina understands the rules of the game and at most she could say to the President: since the situation is so tough and there are doubts about my professionalism, I understand if you don't keep me in the team.
Nabiullina’s acquaintances say she is very worried about what is happening. One of them, a source close to the government, makes another point. “Last autumn they [Nabiullina’s detractors] showed a video of her husband with another woman. It's unbelievably disgusting and filthy, and it’s most likely that [Prime Minister] Mishustin's PR people had a hand in it. She works hard and they humiliate her. But even after that, she did not resign.” He adds that any disputes with Putin or resignations would be perceived as betrayal, for which, as we know, there is a high price to pay.
Individual dissenters’ march
Former Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich voiced his opposition to the war in mid-March. This came as his position as president of the International Chess Federation became shaky as the federation unanimously decided to ban Russian athletes from competing under its flag. Following this statement, Dvorkovich was also ostracized at home: Council of Federation deputy speaker Andrei Turchak called his statement a “national betrayal” and called for his resignation as chairman of the Skolkovo government fund. Dvorkovich was also criticised in a boorish manner by his former colleague in Medvedev's government, Dmitry Rogozin.
Dvorkovich resigned as a result. But it appears the move was more a response to the criticism than a resignation in protest. Dvorkovich, who has long since lost his former influence, is in Moscow, where he celebrated his 50th birthday last week, according to two acquaintances.
So far, only one member of Putin's elite appears to have resigned precisely because he disagreed with the decision to invade Ukraine. Anatoly Chubais, presidential adviser on sustainable development and one of the architects of market reforms in Russia, has gone to Turkey and decided not to return for the time being. The decision of the head of the Presidential Administration under Boris Yeltsin and the former First Deputy Prime Minister’s became known on March 23, while the decree on his dismissal is dated March 25.
Chubais’ acquaintances say his move was unexpected and he did not warn anyone about his plans. They say he and his wife were supposed to have gone to Turkey on vacation at least a week and a half before the news of his dismissal became known.
What exactly Chubais said to Putin and whether he said anything at all is unknown. It’s worth noting that there is probably no more unpopular statesman in Russia than Chubais. Officials and propagandists have greeted his departure with schadenfreude, so Chubais’ stunt is unlikely to inspire anyone to do the same again.
Chubais hasn't been a member of Putin's inner circle or had any real influence for at least a decade. His last position was an honorary pension - but he was under the President's protection from the siloviki, despite their repeated attempts to get rid of him. It was Chubais who advised Putin to join the Presidential Administration in 1997, after which the KGB graduate’s career took off rapidly. Although Boris Nemtsov later recounted that Chubais had opposed Putin’s appointment as Prime Minister and dissuaded Yeltsin from doing so.
The incomparably more powerful billionaire Roman Abramovich suddenly expressed his supposedly anti-war stance by serving as people’s diplomat without making any public statements. From the first days of the military conflict, Abramovich, who usually keeps a very low profile, participated in the organisation of peace negotations at the Ukrainian side’s request. For Putin, Abramovich is not a close friend, but an oligarch who had helped him seriously in the past. For example, in the early 2000s to regain control of the Channel One, one of the mouthpieces of Russian propaganda, which Abramovich owned until very recently. Abramovich’s sale of Sibneft to the state was a milestone in returning state control over the oil and gas sector. Abramovich was also a member of the “Family,” the inner circle of Russia's first President, Boris Yeltsin, who chose Putin to be his successor. According to the sanctions lists, Abramovich was placed under British and European sanctions for maintaining a close relationship with Putin for decades and "obtaining financial benefits” from Putin and the Russian government.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with Russian reporters, without naming Abramovich, that those businessmen who try to help negotiate are doing so in order to avoid sanctions, and “there is no great patriotism in this.” However, according to the Wall Street Journal, Zelensky non-publicly asked US President Joe Biden not to impose sanctions against Abramovich. And Mykhaylo Podolyak, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, called Abramovich “an extremely effective mediator” after the March 29 talks: “He partly moderates the process and hepls avoid misunderstandings. He steps in when, for instance, one side is stating something and the other is interpreting it in the wrong way, in terms of logistics of the negotiation process.”
Since it is no longer useful to have fundamental conversations with Putin about who is right and who is wrong, as my sources say, Abramovich focuses on simply offering various options for resolving the conflict. His position differs from that of the President’s subordinate civil servants and dependent businessmen, and allows him to be a compromise unofficial truce envoy.
The businessman had all the resources necessary for a mediator, my sources knowing him noted: access to the Russian and Ukrainian leaders, their approval of his mediation, the means and ability to travel between Moscow and Kyiv (he flew back and forth via Poland twice), acquaintance through mutual friends with members of the Ukrainian delegation David Arahamia and Rustem Umerov, not to mention his own experience as a businessman building his empire in the 1990s.
It was this experience that came to mind for many observers when it was revealed that Abramovich and several other members of the Ukrainian delegation were experiencing symptoms of poisoning after one of their first meetings. My source, who is familiar with the details of the negotiation process, said that Abramovich did experience symptoms of poisoning after his first trip to Kyiv. The billionaire lost his eyesight for several hours and his skin was peeling. Together with Rustem Umerov, they were treated in an Istanbul clinic afterwards.
What was the source of the poisoning is unknown. There is speculation that it might have been some kind of a toxic gas, not a Novichok as many have thought, says my source. Who was responsible for the incident is also not yet known. Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, said the information about Abramovich’s poisoning was untrue and called it an information sabotage. He said this as, in such a strange way, the Kremlin decided to deflect suspicions that Russian special services were involved in the poisoning, a source knows. However, U.S. intelligence agencies also have doubts about the poisoning.
Since the incident, Abramovich has visited Kyiv for another round of talks at least once more. He also took part in a new round of talks that was held on March 29.
Faridaily published Ukraine’s proposals to Russia, which presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky brought to Moscow. While the Ukrainian negotiators have direct communication with their President, the Russian delegates communicate during the talks only with the head of the Presidential Administration, Anton Vaino. The Ukrainians’ proposals were agreed on a working level with the Russian side, a source familiar with the details of the negotiations says, but Moscow might well make harsh counter-proposals. He notes that there was an opportunity to completely stop the fighting and declare a temporary ceasefire at Tuesday’s talks, but both sides avoided it, hoping for new military successes.