The men — and a vanishingly small number of women — who occupy the commanding heights of Russia’s economy, bureaucracy, and security apparatus are not what they were. Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine has removed most of whatever power they once wielded. A year later, however, they stick with him out of fear that their future might be even worse. 

Strictly speaking, Russia no longer has any “oligarchs”. The war has seen to that. The tycoons who continue to cohabitate or collaborate with the Kremlin have, at best, a limited ability to shape major political decisions. More often, they appear as hostages or, at best, enablers of Putin’s autocracy. Some try to distance themselves from an increasingly toxic leader, especially after the International Criminal Court’s indictment. Very few risk showing any open dissent. 

In the new wartime Russia, the business assets that once allowed the oligarchs to dole out patronage no longer translate into political influence. If anything, assets are now liabilities, making their owners more vulnerable, as the control over the businesses in Russia is conditional on owners’ loyalty to Putin, and specifically on their support of the war. The mysterious deaths of businesspeople and state corporation officials (wryly referred to as “sudden Russian death syndrome” by the Atlantic) also discourage this part of the elite from defecting. 

As a result, despite the fact that many of Russia’s erstwhile oligarchs are relatively dovish, believing initially that the aggression against Ukraine was a mistake and opposing continuing escalation, they express no overt anti-war or anti-Putin opinions. This “realist” stance is not only common among prominent businessmen but also shared by the heads of big state corporations such as Igor Sechin (Rosneft) and Sergei Chemezov (Rostec).  

The Russian banker Oleg Tinkov, who overtly criticized Putin for the “crazy war,” was forced to give up his assets in Russia. Mikhail Fridman was more cautious but still spoke in favor of stopping the bloodshed in Ukraine from the very first days of the full-fledged invasion. Nonetheless, he is sanctioned by the UK, where he lives, and is mocked by Putin. It’s no surprise, then, that high-level defections are few and far between. 

If the war has disenfranchised Russia’s oligarchs, the country’s security elite — the so-called siloviki — might have been expected to fare better. Oddly, they have not. Indeed, Russia’s strongmen were the first to suffer from Putin’s anger after his “special military operation” did not go as planned. 

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Even PMC Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose star once appeared to be rising, is in dire straits. Prigozhin and his mercenaries — numbering around 50,000 at their peak, though many have been killed — were particularly important for Putin, as he tried to compensate for the losses of professional military forces sustained in the first months of the invasion while avoiding an unpopular coercive military call-up.  

Even so, Prigozhin’s rise threatens to destabilize the security establishment as a whole, and so now he, too, is falling out of favor. He is no longer allowed to visit prisons to recruit new gunmen and complains about being denied access to government agencies. The Wagner boss, who began his career as a Soviet-era petty criminal, admitted on March 29 that his forces have been “badly damaged” in the fight for Bakhmut, which Wagner has failed to capture for eight months. Meanwhile, Putin has put General Valery Gerasimov, who had been attacked by Prigozhin, in charge of the whole “special operation”. 

That leaves the FSB, the security agency Putin knows best and trusts most, and whose role is often critical in keeping other elites in line. And yet the FSB’s attempts to gain extra influence have similarly run aground. Putin first directed his ire toward the FSB’s Fifth Service, which incorrectly assessed Ukraine’s political landscape by promising that Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government would quickly collapse. The head of the FSB’s Fifth Service, Sergei Beseda, was secretly placed under house arrest and eventually transferred to prison.  

There have also been also rumors that several army generals may be fired or imprisoned in retribution for poor performance. Moreover, the deputy head of Rosgvardia, the National Guard, Roman Gavrilov, was forced into retirement.  

Faced with an elite whose instincts he fears and whose interests he mistrusts, Putin appears to be leaning on the familiar. Yuri Kovalchuk, one of Putin’s closest friends and a hawk who was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the leader’s decision to invade Ukraine, continues to profit handsomely from his close and long-standing personal ties. The same habits redound to the benefit of the FSB, where Beseda has been freed from prison and resumed his role in the Fifth Service. Moreover, his son Alexander Beseda was promoted to lead the department overseeing all security agencies

Another Putin characteristic, ideologically fluidity, is again apparent. While the most hawkish siloviki advocate for a “Stalinist” approach, involving total mobilization of the economy and society and the use of tactical nuclear weapons, Putin has so far opted for a halfway strategy of partial mobilization and limited escalation, leaving the total-war hardliners dissatisfied

One year into Russia’s full-fledged war — the goals of which hardly anyone in the elite genuinely shares — Putin and the factions of his elite maintain an uneasy but inescapable cohabitation. The one-time oligarchs stay for fear of what might happen if they try to leave. The siloviki fight for fear of what might happen if they lose. Putin barely hides his disappointment with both but has no other elite to which to turn. Whether there is solace in old friends, only he really knows. 

Ivan Fomin is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Previously, he was an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. He participated in projects at the Jagiellonian University, George Washington University, and Ruhr University Bochum. He holds a Candidate of Sciences degree in political science.  

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.

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