When Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine back in February, many believed a Rubicon had been crossed after which the Russian president’s relationship with his elites would never be the same. It was then that Putin began to be seen as a desperate leader, no longer capable of normal interaction with the outside world.
Nonetheless, the feelings of despondency and doom that prevailed among the elites didn’t stop them from continuing to demonstrate loyalty to the president or from feeling collective anger at the West. It helped Putin’s case that many senior officials sincerely held Washington and Brussels responsible for the conflict, blaming them for pushing Russia so far that it had no choice but to take action.
In recent weeks, however, this fragile faith has been rocked by the humiliating Russian retreat from Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, the announcement of a partial mobilization that looks likely to become a full mobilization, and growing doubts over whether Russia can actually win this war. This raises the question of whether the Russian elites are prepared to stick with Putin until the bitter end, particularly amid growing threats to use nuclear weapons.
Until recently, it looked like despite their informal mutterings and grim expectations, the elites would not desert their president, no matter what the price of victory. The inter-elite consensus was based upon a well-established set of beliefs subscribed to not just by the siloviki, or security service officials, but by the pragmatist technocrats too: that the West will do everything it can to bring Russia to its knees; that since Russia has begun this war, it must win it; and that any compromises Russia makes will be used against it, and are therefore not an option.
But now, with the chaotic implementation of the mobilization and the sorry state of affairs on the front, the idea that Russia will inevitably prevail has started to be overshadowed by doubt over what price Russia is prepared to pay in order to bring Ukraine to heel. The longer the conflict rages and the more resources the Russian regime throws into the furnace of war, the more divided Russia’s elites may become, and the more serious those divides.
For a start, there are no signs that the Russian elite sees Ukraine as an existential problem for Russia. For Putin, it is an extremely emotional and personal topic. He is fixated on ideas of historical justice, Russian ancestral lands, and the desire to “liberate” the fraternal Ukrainian people from anti-Russian “occupiers” sponsored by the West. But this viewpoint is not shared even by many hawks, never mind the technocrats, for whom it is incomparably more important to end this war without being defeated, which would cover a far broader spectrum of outcomes than outright “victory.”
Another divisive issue among the elites is the prospect of nuclear weapons being used. Many of those currently calling on the West to take Putin’s nuclear threats seriously hope that it will not come to that. But as the president’s threats begin to look more realistic, the elites’ support for Putin and his actions will be put under some serious strain, and that applies even to the president’s closest associates.
There is also a profound lack of understanding of Russia’s end goal in this war. For Putin, judging by his public statements, that goal is not limited to annexing certain regions, but also includes establishing a pro-Russian regime in the rest of Ukraine, with the understanding that the western part of the country may break away. For now, Putin continues to hope that time is on Russia’s side, and that Kyiv will fall sooner or later. But many more pragmatic representatives of the elites would be satisfied with far more modest “achievements,” such as the annexation only of southeastern Ukraine.
Right now, following the annexation of four more Ukrainian regions, there is informal talk among parts of the Russian leadership of there being “light at the end of the tunnel,” reflecting hopes for the post-annexation freezing of the conflict and de-escalation. But Putin’s penchant for keeping his plans to himself only exacerbates the lack of understanding and gulf in expectations. There is no official position or inter-elite unanimity on what can be considered a definitive victory.
Peace talks are another divisive issue. The Russian elites followed talks with the Ukrainian side in Istanbul back in the spring very closely, suggesting plenty of support for negotiations. Indeed, for an influential part of the establishment, entering into talks now with the gains Russia has already made under its belt would be an entirely reasonable course of action that would not necessarily mean defeat.
But even if Kyiv were willing to sit down at the negotiating table (which seems impossible after the latest annexations), the reality is that Putin flatly refuses to have anything to do with the current Ukrainian leadership. Make no mistake: Putin’s appeal to Ukraine on September 30 to discuss a peace deal was nothing short of a demand for capitulation. Anyone pinning their hopes on peace talks, therefore, is bound to be disappointed.
The final issue that could tear apart any unity among the Russian elites is the price their country is willing to pay for a victory over Ukraine. A full-scale mobilization fraught with the risk of internal instability and a new wave of repression, an endless spiral of sanctions and growing isolation, and falling income from exports all beg the question of how far Russia is prepared to go. Is there any price at all that the Kremlin won’t pay for Ukraine? It seems that Putin and the Russian elites have very different answers to these questions.
Putin is prepared to keep going until the bitter end and turn everyone into radioactive dust unless Russia is allowed to win in a way it deems satisfactory. The elites are, for now, still prepared to support Putin against Ukraine, but their belief that victory is inevitable is fading. And if there is to be no victory, that leaves two options: defeat, which would mean the collapse of the Putin regime and all the associated risks for the ruling elite, or the nuclear argument, which would mean a universal threat to physical survival.
Until September, the Russian elites had made the pragmatic choice to support Putin as a guarantor against defeat. But matters have progressed so far that they may now have to choose among various losing scenarios. That makes Putin far more vulnerable, for he may just find that he and the elites settle on different scenarios.
- Tatiana Stanovaya