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"They’re carefully enunciating the word clusterf*ck"
How Russian officials and members of parliament really feel about Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine
Conducting sudden, top-secret special operations is the main pattern of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior. As a former chekist [security official], he always wants to catch everyone off-guard, in order to frighten them and to impress on them that he can do whatever he wants. We witnessed this once again during the emergency meeting of the Security Council three days before the war. The stammering of foreign intelligence head Sergei Naryshkin, the confusion of deputy Kremlin administration head Dmitry Kozak, and the worried face of Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin were evidence enough. The most influential people in Russia sat before Putin like schoolchildren before a teacher who had suddenly announced an exam. And this meeting wasn’t even about a war — they were only discussing the recognition of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.”
By the outbreak of the war, the Russian political space had been wiped clean to the extent that is possible. In the depths of their souls, officials and legilsators may disagree with the decisions of their leaders — but only in the depths of their souls. There are very few left who can contradict him out loud, directly to his face.
The official comments high-ranking officials are making during the war are uniform and echo what President Putin said when the war was declared: "Russia was left with no other choice," "our army is liberating the Ukrainian people from the oppression of nationalists," and so on.
In reality, the attitude toward the war within the corridors of power is ambiguous. I came to this conclusion after speaking with several members of parliament and officials at various levels. Many of them are discouraged, frightened, and are making apocalyptic forecasts. Andrei Kostin, [head of the largely state-owned VTB Bank], is "in mourning." Some Duma members are thinking of giving up their seats. Two days before Putin announced the start of the "special operation," one of my most ‘in-the-know’ friends thought that it wouldn’t come to war, because war wouldn't benefit anybody. I see that officials, deputies, and even journalists at government outlets who have left their posts are relieved that they no longer have anything to do with this, and are speaking out against the war.
Without any moral judgment of what my interlocutors are saying, I’ve decided to share what I’ve observed as an impartial journalist.
"They’re carefully enunciating the word cluster*ck.” That’s how one person I spoke to describes officials’ reactions to the war. In his words, the mood in the corridors of power is not at all happy. Many are in a state of near-paralysis.
"No one is rejoicing. Many understand that this is a mistake, but in the course of doing their duty they come up with explanations in order to somehow come to terms with it," says another source close to the Kremlin. Some officials aren’t associating themselves with what’s happening at all, viewing Putin's decision as a historical choice over which they have no influence, and the meaning of which no one will understand for a some time to come.
Did anyone expect Putin to decide to go to war? Everyone assures me they didn't. They thought that the president was escalating the situation in order to have more trump cards in negotiations [with the West] on security guarantees, and that everything would be limited to the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” within their administrative borders.
“Everyone had some scattered information that did not provide an answer to the main question: will we start bombing or not?’ said one source close to the government. “Though some acquaintances in the presidential administration were sure that he had already made all the decisions. But everything is happening within one person's head.”
Most likely, my sources say, only the narrowest circle had been informed: Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and the leaders of the counterintelligence service. For example, the head of the presidential administration Anton Vaino, whose role, unlike his more influential predecessors, is more akin to a private secretary, is not informed about such decisions, my sources say. In addition, Vaino has been suffering from a prolonged severe case of COVID-19 for several weeks.
At the enlarged Security Council, which took place three days before the war began, Putin said practically nothing about his decision to recognize the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” a source said. The session itself was an attempt at improvisation, to present the image of a real discussion.
"That's why everyone there was fidgeting so much,” the source said. “If they had been told to firmly say ‘Yes, we support it,’ they would have done so.”
A brief digression: Communication with the members of the Security Council — mostly with the "small Council", that is, with the permanent members of the Council, which is about a dozen people — is what democracy in Russia has shrunk to. In my view, for at least the last ten years, this is how Putin has understood democracy: He talked once a week to the leadership of the security agencies, the speakers of the State Duma, the Federation Council, and the prime minister. And that's it — democracy has been performed — the people have been consulted. The security council session before the war an example of this Putin-style democracy.
The government and the Central Bank have been preparing for sanctions, and for some time the financial infrastructure will withstand the pressure. The Bell has reported that, shortly before the war, First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov had held several meetings to prepare for possible challenges, including disconnection from SWIFT and a ban on high-tech imports. And Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin let slip at the Security Council meeting that the government had been preparing for sanctions for the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk for several months.
However, the Russian economy is unlikely to quickly recover from the severe sanctions that were actually imposed — and no one was prepared for this, my interlocutors say. Moreover, the U.S., EU and UK authorities have begun to partially limit the Central Bank's access to international reserves. According to data from mid-2021, gold in the Central Bank vault accounts for only 21.7 percent of its reserves. Most of them, 63.6 percent, are invested in foreign bonds and deposits. Head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell said that about half of the Central Bank's financial reserves that are held in G7 countries will be blocked. As of February 18, the reserves reached a record $643 billion.
"If Russia considers itself an empire, why not become attractive to its neighbors by developing the country instead of by forcing their loyalty? Let's build good roads, quality health care and education, and eventually come up with the kind of technology that would allow us to be the first to colonize Mars. That would be quite empire-like," a high-ranking official said brokenly when I asked him what he thought of Putin's motives for starting the war.
Another source— let's call him a good acquaintance of Putin's — puts it this way: The Russian president has it in his head that the rules of the game were broken and destroyed not by Russia. And if this is a fight without rules, then it’s a fight without rules — the new reality in which we live.
“Here he is in a state of being offended and insulted. It's paranoia that has reached the point of absurdity," he says. According to him, Putin sincerely believes that, at least in the first years of his rule, he tried his best to improve relations with the West.
"On the one hand, there’s a really unfair state of affairs, where we are constantly being harmed year after year on various scales, and declared as enemies long before Ukraine,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s our inability to build and execute our policies intelligently, including publicly. And the third thing is Putin’s degradation from being in power for too long.”
“Putin now seriously believes what [Defense Minister] Shoigu and [General Staff chief] Gerasimov are telling him: About how quickly they’ll take Kyiv, that the Ukrainians are blowing themselves up, that Zelensky is a coke addict.”
So far, none of the officials have dared to object to what’s happening in the slightest public way, much less to resign. Among the richest Russian businessmen, only Mikhail Fridman, the founder of Alfa Group, who is now threatened with sanctions, has spoken out in a critical manner. His non-public letter to employees of his London-based company LetterOne was obtained by the Financial Times — but I think it’s more likely that he shared it with journalists himself. Peter Aven, chairman of Alfa Bank's board of directors, was at Putin's meeting with businessmen after the war was declared, and he looked quite unhappy. I was told that Yandex managing director Tigran Khudaverdyan did not want to go to the meeting at all, but in the end he went because of his responsibility for the company's employees, while Yandex's management did not express any position on what was happening even internally.
The president of state bank VTB, Andrey Kostin, is also rumored to be extremely disapproving of military action in Ukraine because of the heavy sanctions. “He is in mourning,” says an acquaintance of his. “He says he's been building the bank for 20 years, and now it's all down the drain because of some stupidity.”
Billionaire Oleg Tinkov spoke out against the war on the fourth day. “Innocent people are dying in Ukraine, every day, it is unthinkable and unacceptable! States should spend money on curing people, on research to defeat cancer, not on war. We are against this war!" - he wrote on Instagram.
Of the Duma deputies, the vast majority of whom have been sanctioned, only three dared to speak out, criticizing Putin's decision on their social media accounts. All three of them represent the second largest faction in parliament, the KPRF [Communist party], which for the past eight years has been insisting on recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Oleg Smolin, first deputy chairman of the Duma committee on science and education and a member of the KPRF, published a post saying that he had been wrong in his predictions and was shocked when he learned of the invasion. Smolin believed that Russia would not start large-scale hostilities and that the situation would develop according to a much milder scenario of 2008, when Russia, he said, had only helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia defend their independence.
Another Communist, Mikhail Matveev, deputy chairman of the committee on regional policy, wrote that "the war must be stopped immediately.”
“When I voted for the recognition of the [self-proclaimed republics], I voted for peace, not war,” he wrote. “For Russia to be a shield so that the Donbass would not be bombed, not for Kyiv to be bombed.”
Retired colonel Vyacheslav Markhaev, who has criticized the authorities for persecuting the opposition, stated that the Duma deputies had been misled and the intention to wage war had been disguised. "I also condemn the Russian leadership, which began to use the same methods of double standards. Under the auspices of recognizing the [self-proclaimed republics], we concealed plans to unleash a full-scale war with our closest neighbor," he wrote.
Smolin, Matveev, and Markhaev are not among those deputies who have assets or property abroad — at least, the media have not reported this, and their fellow party members with whom I have spoken are not aware of this. In other words, with their statements what they’re trying to protect is their reputation. At the same time, the KPRF’s general line on the war with Ukraine is that the party shares Putin's concerns and understands the decision to launch a military operation.
The point of view of the three brave Communists is shared by other deputies of so-called opposition factions that I interviewed. They blame the Federation Council [upper house of parliament], saying that it was the senators who authorized the deployment of troops, while the [lower house] deputies only wanted to recognize the [self-proclaimed republics] and assist them in self-defense with a limited contingent. One of the Communists says that they really didn't expect anything like a full-scale war.
"No one thought that we would be right by Kyiv," another Duma deputy said. “At first you think it's all a crazy fake, but then it turns out to be real.” According to him, he’s thinking of giving up his mandate, so as no longer to have any connection to the actions of the Russian authorities.
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