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. [Continue reading…]