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As Sanctions Build, Russian Elites Back Putin

The ongoing war in Ukraine has revealed a straining relationship between Russia’s elites and Vladimir Putin. Confusion over Putin’s unilateral invasion combined with economic and political trouble caused by sanctions has caused apprehension in elite ranks to build up on multiple fronts, with numerous elites in business and politics calling for an end to the war. Liberals and business oligarchs are feeling pressure as the Russian economy and foreign relations are set back decades by sanctions imposed by the west, and many have had their personal assets around the world frozen or seized. While economic controls and energy sales hold the ruble stable for now, long term economic growth has been crippled. On the other side, hardliners in the Russian government have criticized the president for not being aggressive enough in Ukraine and are frustrated by stalling progress. Operating between these groups with few advisors left who can reach his ear, Putin has done little to quell the worries of Russia’s elite, instead expecting elites to figure out solutions themselves. However, hopes that rising elite tension with the president could lead to elites forcing Putin to cease hostilities or even ousting the president from power are more or less impossible.

Sanctions against Russia’s wealthiest are intended to split the elites from Putin by causing severe financial pain. Making the costs of lost assets, trade and more outweigh the benefits of supporting Putin will presumably encourage elites to jump ship and thereby disrupt Putin’s ability to continue financing his war. Over 400 individuals and companies have been sanctioned with more than $30 billion in assets frozen, overseas properties seized, and elites denied access to global financial systems. Yet, despite headlines of oligarchs like industrialists Oleg Deripaska or Vagit Alekperov calling for an end to the war, Russia’s elite are not fracturing as hoped. While some have come forward, especially in the early days of the conflict, by now, most who have not left the country have fallen in line with the Kremlin’s narrative of a justified conflict.

Expectations that pressure on oligarchs would transfer to pressure on Putin do not match the reality of Putin’s relationship with the oligarchs. Putin’s political system has seen Russia transform into a personalist regime that caters to his desires, and Putin has made himself an indispensable part of Russian politics, capable of unilaterally guiding the Kremlin’s actions. When he first came to power in the early 2000s he enacted reforms to cut the power of oligarchs who had amassed control of the state in the ‘90s. Allowing them to keep their wealth, Putin was able to push the oligarchs out of politics by wielding the wide power of the state security services. As such, oligarchs do not have any real influence over Putin and are instead kept on a short leash. When billionaire Oleg Tinkov criticized the war on Instagram in April, within days he was forced to sell his shares of his bank, valued at over $20 billion, or face nationalization of the company. With access to foreign assets and travel closed, elites have no way to shield themselves from Putin if he turns on them. So, they remain docile to protect what resources they have left. Few other magnates have spoken out against the war, with most remaining silent or openly supporting it out of fear of similar punishment.

Like Putin, who primarily acts in his own self-interest to preserve his power, Russia’s oligarchs and political elites will look to protect their own interests first. While Putin maintains personal control over the government and retains key supporters in the military and security services, it makes no sense for Russia’s elites to challenge him, alone or united. Those who have spoken out maintain little influence. Special representative Anatoly Chubais, who reportedly quit in protest of the war, was already an outsider in the Kremlin according to experts and carried minimal influence. But for those who are still vulnerable, the west cannot expect sanctions to unite the Russian elites to challenge Putin. Notably, no members of Putin’s security council have backed down on their support, despite the slow progress of the war. While sanctions are heavily cutting into elite profits, they do not pose the same danger that Putin does, and so likely have little effect on disrupting Russian leadership. Because elites have nowhere else to turn to due to sanctions, those who have too much to lose are forced to remain quiet. Yet, their interest in self-preservation and profit-maximizing could mean an eventual change in loyalty if conditions become favorable.

While cracks are emerging in areas of Russia’s elite, they are much too few and far from the center of power to cause systematic change within Russia or have influence over the direction of the war. While Putin’s support may be weakening, he has created a political system in Russia that cannot check his power. He remains effectively uninfluenced by complaints of supply chain and economic issues or the lives lost in the war while focusing all his attention on his personal agenda, trying to capture Ukraine. As the pressure of sanctions continues to build, elites will likely be squeezed even more as Putin tolerates dissent less and continues to raise the price for those who do.