Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced he’ll run again in the fall. It looks like one of the top political actors in Russia is still around — a sign that Russia is not only about one man. Can Moscow provide an alternative to Putin, as some secretly hoped?

Since 1991, Moscow has had a reputation as the most advanced, globalized, and the most liberal city in Russia. Dozens of high-class theaters, fancy restaurants, and large parks filled with good-looking hipsters and their kids made Moscow appear like a normal European capital. Gay people, artists, and everyone else who wanted to escape the burdens and restrictions of the Russian provinces poured into the capital.

And that atmosphere of modernism was reflected in the city’s politics. Moscow also has been a leader of liberal thinking and political dissent. It was Muscovites who thwarted the KGB-led coup d’état in August 1991, and this tradition has never ceased. In the 2000s and early 2010s, the city did not vote for Putin, and indeed, the biggest anti-Putin rallies in the country took place in Moscow in 2011-12, and later in 2017-2018. (Of course, the size of the city, populated by at least 13 million people, contributed to that.)

Moscow is also the richest and biggest Russian region. In a country where traditional political groups like parties and trade unions were under the state’s absolute control, it was up to the regions and the Kremlin to play the real political game. Thus, the Moscow mayor was foreordained to play a political role in Russia.

Sergei Sobyanin has been Moscow’s mayor since 2010, and more to the point – he is not from the siloviki crowd of security insiders: he never served in the KGB or the army. His ancestors suffered from Stalinist repression. He also has extensive experience working at the Kremlin – before being made Moscow mayor he was the president’s head of administration.

Not surprisingly perhaps, when the full-scale invasion began some émigré circles entertained the idea of secretly approaching Sobyanin as someone who might replace Putin, should political turmoil be triggered by the war. And it looked for a while that Sobyanin was indeed not very enthusiastic about the war.

A year and a half after, the political reality couldn’t be more different. While thousands of Muscovites protested the war, the city authorities became one of the main driving forces helping the Kremlin to wage war.

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Since the start of the invasion, Moscow has contributed both to the occupation effort and the war itself. The Moscow construction complex is rebuilding Luhansk, erecting apartment buildings, and supplying buses for the city’s transport system. Moscow also helped build the defense line in the occupied territories, the Russian Maginot Line.

And it is the essential Moscow’s telecoms and consumer conglomerate AFK Sistema, that has just developed a Russian version of the Reaper drone — the Sirius unmanned aerial vehicle.

Sobyanin’s Moscow administration directly aids the war effort; the city government has already formed three “volunteer battalions,” fully funded and equipped at its own expense. Moscow also pays bonuses to Muscovites serving in other military units. In the winter, Sobyanin took the trouble to visit Russian army positions in person and was photographed in military fatigue, in the trenches.

Why has this supposedly liberal figure chosen to dress himself in the fatigues of Vladimir Putin’s conflict? The reason is the business model he has built. He arranged for a massive non-stop flow of Moscow government funding on city projects – ranging from building up apartment blocks, to infamous never-ending roads and sidewalk repairs, to expanding Moscow’s metro network.

Sobyanin’s focus has been on digital technologies – from cutting-edge video surveillance city systems to very advanced online services — apparently believing, like Chinese officials, that digital technology can compensate for the inefficiency of traditional bureaucracy.

For businesses, it means that if you come up with an idea, you pitch it first to the Moscow government, so that it can be trailed and funded on a massive scale. It is as if Moscow has built its own version of a Silicon Valley, but where venture capital is provided by the city government, and there is almost no competition because the funding requirements are so huge. This strategy has helped cement a powerful alliance of the most capable bureaucracy in the country, and businesses that are now addicted to the almost unlimited government funding. 

It resulted in all sorts of corruption (perfectly usable Moscow roads are repaired annually, to cite the most visible example), but also in the emergence of a technological hub on a national scale. Just before the war, during the Covid pandemic, Moscow’s surveillance technologies were exported to other regions to keep tabs on the population. When Putin started his mobilization campaign, it was Moscow-funded technology that was used to build a national facial recognition database to catch men hiding from the draft.

Nowadays, Moscow’s business and bureaucracy have no hesitation to work on war-connected projects, as long as plentiful funding is provided to help kill Ukrainians.

So be it. So much for Sobyanin. So little hope for Russian liberalism.

Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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