‘Putin is Interested in the War Continuing Indefinitely’
February 12, 2024
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Visiting researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
  • Farida Kurbangaleeva
In an interview with Farida Kurbangaleeva, political scientist Nikolai Petrov claims that Vladimir Putin’s position in the country has strengthened significantly since the beginning of the war, while the Russian elites have definitively lost their independence and become Putin’s hostages.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.

The Duma and Federation Council quickly passed a bill on confiscating property for “fakes” about the army and calls [for action] that harm Russia’s security. It is aimed mostly at oppositionists, but theoretically can affect any Russian, including unwanted officials and businessmen, at whose expense the state can profit especially handsomely. Why did none of them speak up?
Sergey Petrov, the founder of Rolf Group, Russia’s largest car dealer. In December 2023, Rolf was taken over by a presidential decree, the first nationalization of a Russian-owned business.
Source: Yandex
It seems to me that these are, in fact, related things: if they are affected by this law, then it would be strange for them to publicly oppose it. On the other hand, if we are talking about serious owners, the Kremlin does not need special laws of this kind. It is not hard to requisition property, as was done, for example, with [founder of Rolf Group] Sergey Petrov. And we already see several dozen cases where the pretext for nationalization is either violations during privatization in the early 1990s or the combination of owning and managing property while being a Duma deputy.

In other words, no one has any illusions anymore. And this law is more likely needed by Duma deputies to demonstrate their usefulness and vigilance with regard to “foreign agents” and other undesirable people than against the owners of any real assets.

Before the war, it was often said that “Kremlin towers” were clashing, lobbying their own interests. Do these towers still exist or is there only one left?

There are towers, of course. It’s just that they have changed.
The so-called Prigozhin rebellion was precisely an illustration of towers clashing, one of the issues being who was responsible for Russia’s extremely unsuccessful start to the war: the FSB or the army.
I think that within the siloviki, when there is less money and people begin to jockey to maintain their piece of the pie, this struggle will only intensify. As for other towers, the framework that analysts habitually used to classify elites – “siloviki,” “technocrats,” “liberals” and so on – was dismantled even before the war, during Putin’s isolation during the pandemic, when physical access to him was granted basically only to representatives of one “macro-tower.”
The Yamal Region stand at the Russia Exhibition in Moscow, which was meant to show off Russia's achievements under Vladimir Putin's leadership. The exhibition opened in November 2023.
Source: Yandex
There are also nuances in “political technology.” We saw how some people [around Putin] prepared the exhibition Russia and assumed that Putin would announce his reelection bid there, while others had a different view on how he should do that. But in the end, Putin, like an arrogant governor who does not listen to political strategists and thinks he knows best, made the announcement somewhat fuzzily, not at all how [Presidential Administration head Sergey] Kiriyenko had planned.

After all, it was rather widely discussed that this would be an exhibition about Putin’s achievements as president. And against that backdrop, his announcement would sound significant and logical. Instead, it became a response to a vague appeal from some field commander (the “speaker of the DNR parliament” Artem Zhoga – Republic).
Vladimir Putin announced that he would run for reelection in March 2024 while responding to a question posed by Artem Zhoga, commander of a battalion fighting in eastern Ukraine. December 2023.
Source: Wiki Commons
Why did Putin choose this course of action?

Because Putin learns, and learns well. And often this does not necessarily play a positive role. When the package of reforms was rolled out in 2004, and went very badly for various reasons, it had to be slowed down and canceled. Putin suddenly saw that though the “liberals” had told him that the economy could not develop without these reforms, [in fact] everything was going remarkably well, because energy prices had gone up.

I think this was a very important reason why he stopped trusting his closest advisers in this area and became convinced that he himself was great enough and sensed everything to make decisions on his own. The same thing happened with his reelection announcement. Maybe it was an improvisation that turned out “lumpy.”

So, Putin does not respect his elites at all? After all, he informed only a very narrow circle of people about his plans to invade Ukraine; even key figures in the government and the presidential apparatus did not know about it.

You could say that.
In 2014, Putin saw his legitimacy as a vozhd significantly increase, meaning that he ceased to need the political elites, including for elections.
Since then, his dependence on the elites has fallen precipitously, while elites’ dependence on him, on the contrary, has risen sharply. Whereas previously it was believed that there are certain people whom Putin respects as experts on specific issues and with whom he is sometimes inclined to consult, the pandemic changed that situation.

Putin’s interactions have skewed toward officials who report to him and, due to their positions, must meet with him regularly, i.e. siloviki. And it seems to me that Putin’s behavior at the beginning of the full-scale war with Ukraine was a demonstration of this arrogance.

How have the Russian elites, who rallied around Putin at the beginning of the invasion, evolved over the two years of a major war?

I think there are two important things here. Firstly, it is impossible to live for two years as before, witnessing the leadership of your country commit bloody crimes. Everyone tries to find an explanation for this, and the elites, apparently sincerely, say that the West has always played a dirty game against Russia, that “we were forced to do it.” In my view, these statements should be taken seriously, since without such an understanding of the situation you might hang yourself.

Secondly, the time to make a decision was very short. Things were up in the air for two days after troops entered Ukraine before the decision had already been made [for them]. By announcing personal sanctions, the West fenced them in such that the elites’ dependence on Putin rose sharply. Thus, the West helped Putin to pressure the elites, and there was no going back for them.

Within the elites there was not only the fear of losing their lives and the lives of loved ones – which, of course, is effective – but also hopelessness. All options other than loyal service [to the regime] were cut off. And in this sense, they are acting rationally. They had no choice a year ago and they do not today.

Did Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina really want to resign in the first days of the war?

I think so. But I would not exaggerate the reluctance of Nabiullina and her associates to work for criminals. Firstly, from the inside it is seen differently: sure, there is a war, but the well-being of millions of Russians depends on them, and they should not take actions that could shake or destroy that well-being. Secondly, it is wrong to think that “everything had been great, but then, out of the blue, a terrible war began.” This happened step by step.

A decision for Nabiullina to serve the regime could have been made 10 years ago, when there was a real choice. But since then it’s just been a downward spiral.
There are two main reasons. The first is culling.
Those who are not ready to make moral compromises have long been removed by the system.
The second is being drawn into the game step by step. People work in a machine, are cogs in this machine; they do not assess the whole but just try to do the best they can in their specific area.

In addition, we saw in 2022 the sinister murders of top managers of large companies, which naturally made a great impression on the elite. The elites were shown that there are no boundaries, and if they do not behave as they should, they will be hunted down everywhere.

So, the elites really fear the special forces?

I think this is a very important factor. If you recall, these mysterious deaths occurred in both France and Spain, meaning you could not run away from them. It is an absolutely mafia-like blood tie. For example, the head of the Lukoil board of directors [Ravil Maganov] was thrown out of the window of a Kremlin hospital on [former Lukoil President Vagit] Alekperov’s birthday (September 1, 2022 – Republic).

There are no investigations, no explanations. People who are inside the system read all these signals very quickly.

And we see that almost none of those who left the country and stepped down from their posts spoke out against the war.

At some FSB event, Putin joked that he had infiltrated the highest echelons of government. But who really controls whom – Putin them or the other way around?

That speech was made at the very beginning [of his political career], in 1999, when he was prime minister. But it is completely obvious to me that today there are no influential siloviki as figures.

I do not see people who could “steer” Putin; he has no checks in the form of figures who could influence his decisions.
The role played today by the siloviki and special forces is enormous. But they are not independent; they carry out the political orders that the Kremlin formulates for them.
I think the security forces are headed by rather weak people, owing to age, internal conflicts and absolute dependence on the Kremlin. I do not see figures capable of playing an independent political role now.

In addition, not allowing different types of system resources to be concentrated in the same hands is a Putin principle that has been implemented for quite some time now. For example, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, previously director of the FSB, has political power, but control over security forces was taken away from him. He is an influential figure, but all his influence comes from his closeness to Putin and nothing more. Meanwhile, FSB head Alexander Bortnikov has security forces at his disposal but no political power. In all these years, he has not gained political weight comparable to Patrushev’s.

This system works when Putin as the leader regulates all this from above. And in this sense, the leading siloviki are cogs in the system.
FSB headquarters in Moscow's Lubyanka Square. Source: Wiki Commons
Can the West destroy the consolidation of the Russian elites?

CIA Director William Burns recently wrote: “the undercurrent of disaffection… gnaw[ing] away at the Russian leadership and the Russian people is creating a once-in-a-generation recruiting opportunity for the CIA. We’re not letting it go to waste.” I think this is an option that the West has now begun to use more actively.

A second way is a differentiated approach toward the elites, a change in positions on personal sanctions. This was missed at the very beginning and, I think, can hardly be corrected today. As I already said, personal sanctions are ineffective because, instead of driving a wedge between the elites and Putin, the West is pushing them toward him.
No one thought that the confrontation would last a long time – for years or decades. It seemed that if you really pressed, everything would be over in a week or a month. And if this was the case, then the faster and more radical the measures, the more effective they would be. Today, the situation has changed.

In your view, is it possible that, after Putin leaves, the Western world can make some deal with someone like [Prime Minister Mikhail] Mishustin or [Moscow Mayor Sergei] Sobyanin?

This is not Nazi Germany – you cannot imagine a capitulation in which foreign forces take control over the capital and Russia as a whole.
It will be a much softer landing for the elite. And one way or another they will negotiate with them.

If Putin’s position weakens due to, for example, a military defeat, will the elites turn their back on him?

I think that Putin, like Stalin, is a very suspicious person and very tightly controls his entourage through individual control [exercised] over each other. Thus, any joint actions can practically be excluded. Moreover, the elites are Putin’s hostages. The Russian state is a plunging submarine that you cannot escape from. All you can do is man your battle station and do your job.
Russian kamikaze drone and Ukrainian sappers. January 2024.
Source: Wiki Commons
The war has greatly strengthened Putin’s position, not weakened it. It has essentially led to martial law throughout the country, and today he has more control over the situation than before. This is why he has no interest in ending the war.

There is no hope that after the war the sanctions will change or be softened. This is another reason Putin is interested in the war continuing indefinitely.

It may not be very intense, with fewer losses, with lower costs. But the very situation of an unfinished war, when Putin is not only the president but also the supreme commander, is convenient for him. As well as the fact that there is a huge mass of armed Russians outside Russia. And having them come back, whether victorious or even worse defeated, is a nightmare for any government.

And yet Putin will pass away sooner or later. How will the elites behave after he goes?

Let’s remember 1953 (when Stalin died). I think the scenario will be similar, since power is structured in a similar way, just much less institutionalized than then. There is no influential Politburo or Central Committee today. I think no one can replace Putin in his role, at least not right away.

The elites will first decide among themselves what to do next and how. And this will be some kind of alliance, some kind of collective leadership, until the strongest in the team beats everyone else out.
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