How Russian Elites Made Peace With the War By Mikhail Zygar

How Russian Elites Made Peace With the War By Mikhail Zygar

When the war in Ukraine began, the Russian elite entered a state of shock. As the West imposed sanctions and travel bans, Russia’s rich and politically connected citizens became convinced that their previous lives were over. Battlefield losses quickly piled up, and many deemed the invasion a catastrophic mistake. “The Russia we deeply love has fallen into the hands of idiots,” Roman Trotsenko, the former head of the country’s largest shipbuilding company, told another businessperson during a phone conversation that was leaked in April 2023. “They adhere to bizarre, outdated nineteenth-century ideologies. This cannot end well. It will end in disaster.” In another leaked conversation, the famous music producer Iosif Prigozhin (not related to Yevgeny Prigozhin) called Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government “fucking criminals.” Some of the oligarchs who were abroad at the time of the invasion refused to return to Russia, including Mikhail Fridman, the owner of the country’s largest private bank.

But that was then. As 2023 wound on, elites started endorsing the war. More musicians began traveling to perform in the occupied territories. In October, Fridman returned to Moscow from London, having decided that life in the West under sanctions was unbearable and that the situation in Russia was comparatively comfortable. And there have been no new recordings of oligarchs grousing about the war. In fact, it is hard to imagine such conversations happening.

That is because Russian elites have learned to stop worrying about the conflict. They have concluded that the invasion, even if they do not support it outright, is a tolerable fact of life. As a result, the odds that they might challenge the Kremlin’s decisions—which were always slim—have gone away entirely. And instead of debating whether to support Putin, Russian elites are now discussing a different question: how the war might end.

They have different answers. Some believe that a big battlefield win would allow Putin to claim a partial victory and, therefore, pause the war. Others think that Putin will not stop until he has gone all the way to Kyiv. Some are convinced that what truly matters to Putin is confrontation with the West, not victory in Ukraine, and that he will thus attack another state in Europe irrespective of what happens with the current conflict. But a few pessimists maintain that the premise of the question itself is wrong. As they see it, the war suits Putin’s political interests, and so he will keep fighting for as long as he lives.

There are multiple reasons why Russian elites have shifted toward Putin. One is that they have become more cautious as Moscow cracks down on dissent. Another, relatedly, is that they understand it is meaningless to protest. But perhaps the biggest reason for their change is they have begun to see the invasion in a fundamentally different light. Today, they believe Russia is prevailing. Moscow, after all, is making steady, if slow, battlefield gains. Ukraine is battered and outgunned, operating with a massive artillery-shell disadvantage. And Western support for Kyiv is waning, jeopardizing Ukraine’s access to military supplies.

“It’s bad to be an outcast as a winner, but it’s worse to be an outcast as a loser,” one Russian oligarch, who had criticized the war before but now seems to understand it, told me. (He, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity, to protect his safety.) The oligarch said that everything in Russia has changed: attitudes toward Putin, views of Ukraine, and outlooks on the West. “We must win this war,” he told me. “Otherwise, they won’t allow us to live. And, of course, Russia would collapse.”

With this switch in perspective, oligarchs are now discussing what conditions in Ukraine might constitute a victory. For the relative optimists, any major successful offensive would be enough. To these elites, such a victory would satisfy Putin and break Ukraine’s will to liberate more territory, even if it doesn’t deter the country from defending what it has left. They believe the most probable target of this sort of offensive to be Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

It’s bad to be an outcast as a winner, but it’s worse to be an outcast as a loser.
An all-out assault on Kharkiv would be gruesome. The city, Ukraine’s capital from 1919 to 1934, was a vibrant hub of Ukrainian and Russian culture, science, and education before the war began. If Russia tries to take it, Kharkiv will experience the near-total destruction of its remaining infrastructure, leading to rapid depopulation as already scant essential services become impossible to maintain. The people who stick around would then have to survive under Russian occupation.

But as horrible as this outcome is, it is the least terrible vision championed by Russia’s elite. According to one businessman with close connections to the Kremlin, Putin won’t be satisfied by winning Ukraine’s northeast. The only outcome he will accept is the capture of Kyiv. Putin harbors a special, almost mystical connection with the Ukrainian capital, which he views as the cradle of Russian civilization. Putin has a particular fondness for the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, an old Orthodox monastery where he spent nearly all his time during his last official visit to the city, in 2013. The Lavra is the resting place of several venerated Russian saints and historical figures, including the imperial Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, whom Putin deeply admires. Putin even commissioned a statue of Stolypin that now stands near the Kremlin. His desire to preserve the Lavra may explain why Russia has not heavily bombed Kyiv in the way it has other Ukrainian cities. (Russia’s new defense minister, the deeply religious Andrei Belousov, also has a strong affinity for the Lavra.)

If Russia launches a second campaign to capture the Ukrainian capital, the military would likely begin its offensive in Belarus, just as it did in the winter of 2022. It would probably involve, as it did then, Russian troops driving through the radioactive wasteland surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. But many in Moscow believe that this time, with Russia’s military hardened and Ukraine’s reserves weakened, their country could win. In the view of Russian elites, Ukrainians are simply too tired to put up another tenacious defense.

For Putin, however, the war in Ukraine is not only—or even mostly—about Ukraine. Instead, people close to Russia’s president say that he sees the invasion as just one front in a conflict with the West. That means Russia’s battlefield success may not be enough to please Putin. To defeat his real foes, in Brussels and Washington, Putin may feel that he needs to attack a NATO member.

According to Russia’s elites, the most likely target would be Estonia or Latvia: the two Baltic countries with large Russian minorities. Moscow would follow a familiar playbook. First, members of the Russian Federal Security Service would get Russian speakers in one of the two countries to claim they are being oppressed by a neo-Nazi government and are in need of the Kremlin’s aid. In response, Russian troops would cross the border and take control of municipalities in an eastern part of either state, such as the predominantly Russian-speaking Estonian city of Narva. This territorial seizure would issue a momentous challenge to NATO, an alliance based on the principle that an attack on one of its members, no matter how small, is an attack on all. By taking Narva, Putin would test whether the bloc is really willing to risk a third world war over a few square miles on the Russian border.

In the past, Russian elites had little desire to chance nuclear conflict. But now many of them are persuaded that NATO would not dare to respond. They see the West as tired and divided and, therefore, far less interested in a struggle against Russia. They believe U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders are weak. In this context, they think that NATO would not unanimously rally to defend an attacked country. Instead, Russian elites believe that NATO will be overwhelmed with so much panic and chaos that it would do little at all—ruining the credibility of Western governments.

Not everyone in Russia thinks the war will end if Trump is elected.
A provocation like this could be particularly helpful to Russia in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election. The Kremlin may even believe that such a crisis would fatally undermine Biden’s odds. An emergency in the Baltics in which Biden stumbles could paint the U.S. president as weak and incompetent, and prove former U.S. President Donald Trump’s assertion that NATO is obsolete.

Putin, of course, may also try to weaken Biden without attacking the Baltics. Most of my sources believe that Putin could deal blows to the president by simply winning more battles in Ukraine—and that he will try to do just that. The Kremlin wants to weaken Biden so that Trump can win, given the latter candidate’s vocal fondness of Russia. Trump, for example, has promised to end the war in Ukraine “within 24 hours” if elected.

But not everyone in Russia thinks the war will end if Trump is elected. Some believe that the war will not end in any situation. As a businessman close to the Kremlin told me, Putin has grown too fond of the war, which has helped him mobilize society, imprison some dissidents, kill others, and force most of the rest out of the country. The war has also united the elites, who now feel unwanted in the West and see Putin as their only hope for a good life. As a result, the invasion means there is less pressure on Putin than ever before.

The notion of an endless war in Ukraine terrifies Russia’s elite, who still hope that the invasion will conclude. They dream of returning as quickly as possible to the peaceful time of February 23, 2022. But for now, they are silent. They see no way back.

How Russian Elites Made Peace With the War By Mikhail Zygar


June 29, 2024

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