As of today, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been underway for exactly three months. Throughout Moscow’s “special military operation,” representatives of the Russian elite have repeatedly changed their positions on the war in Ukraine and the crisis at home. Moderate optimism replaced what was initially extreme pessimism, only to be ousted by a wave of moderate pessimism. Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that these moods have shifted again, as more elites express dissatisfaction with Vladimir Putin directly. Frustration with the president, moreover, is rising among both supporters and opponents of the invasion.
In the three months since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the general mood among the elites in Moscow has flipped more than once. In early March, insiders told Meduza that President Putin’s decision to go to war horrified most Kremlin and ministerial officials, who feared that Western sanctions would ruin their careers and maybe even their lives. Shortly thereafter, however, a “patriotic surge” took hold. By April, several prominent figures were calling publicly to fight “to the bitter end.”
Now, three months into the war, pessimism is staging a comeback. “It won’t be possible to live like before. Any talk of development is out the window. But life goes on. There are gray imports. There’s trade with China and India,” said a source close to the prime minister’s cabinet.
At the same time, officials in the Kremlin still see no realistic scenario in which President Putin could end the hostilities in Ukraine and retain his high approval rating in Russia. As Meduza reported previously, the administration’s domestic policy team has been brainstorming strategies to “withdraw with dignity” since just a few weeks into the invasion, but officials have yet to come up with anything.
Unhappiness on all sides
“There’s probably almost nobody who’s happy with Putin. Businesspeople and many cabinet members are unhappy that the president started this war without thinking through the scale of the sanctions. Normal life under these sanctions is impossible. The ‘hawks’ are mad about the pace of the ‘special operation’; they think more decisive action is possible.”
This is how a source close to the Kremlin described the mood among Russian elites. Another two sources with knowledge of the Putin administration’s operations confirmed this analysis, as did two more individuals with ties to the prime minister’s cabinet.
Sources close to the Kremlin said the “hawkish” position (most popular among Russia’s security elites) is simple: “They figure, since we’re entangled there already, there’s no going soft now. We need to go even harder.” This would entail a broad mobilization of reservists, and “playing to win,” ideally by capturing Kyiv itself.
The Kremlin, however, isn’t ready to declare a full mobilization. In early April, citing the results of closed sociological studies, sources with knowledge of the Putin administration’s domestic policy work told Meduza that even the Russians who say they support the “special operation” in Ukraine are reluctant either to volunteer for the fight or to send their own relatives to the frontlines.
At the same time, Russia’s major businesspeople and most of the “civilian” state officials are also unhappy with the president’s actions and criticize him for failing to take real steps toward peace with Ukraine. Meanwhile, economic difficulties mount by the day.
“The problems are already visible, and they’ll be raining down from all sides by the middle of the summer: transportation, medicine, even agriculture. There was just nobody thinking about the scale [of the sanctions],” a source close to the government told Meduza, adding that no one in the Kremlin calculated the consequences of European countries completely boycotting Russian oil and gas. While such a boycott is still being discussed in the EU, Meduza’s sources say the president and his more “militant” advisers nevertheless dismiss the prospect as an empty threat by the West.
Vladimir Putin simply doesn’t want to think about the economic difficulties that are obvious to most officials, and he’s especially unwilling to link these problems to the war in Ukraine, two sources with ties to the Kremlin told Meduza.
The president has expressed this perspective publicly, as well. For example, when Anton Alikhanov met with Putin on May 20, the Kaliningrad governor described the decline in the region’s construction industry, saying, “After the start of the special military operation, our logistics links were temporarily disrupted. We still managed to buy a lot abroad, and we’ve been focused on transit through neighboring states’ territories. It took us some time to adapt the supply chain to the new realities, but it’s done now.”
In response, Putin repeatedly told the governor not to blame the region’s supply problems on the war: “There’s no need in this case to link this to our special military operation. You had a recession back in 2020 and 2021, too, and there was a noticeable decline in construction. So, the military operation in the Donbas has absolutely nothing to do with this.”
Meduza’s sources with ties to the Kremlin and the federal government say talk about “the future after Putin” is increasingly common among Russia’s elites. “It’s not that they want to overthrow Putin right now, or that they’re plotting a conspiracy, but there’s an understanding (or a wish) that he won’t be governing the state maybe in the foreseeable future,” explained one individual. “The president screwed up, but he might still fix everything later, coming to some agreement [with Ukraine and the West],” added another source, admitting that some Kremlin officials are quietly discussing Putin’s potential successors. (The list supposedly includes Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, National Security Council Deputy Chairman and former President Dmitry Medvedev, and First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko.)
Kiriyenko is reportedly in regular contact with Putin about the economy and the Donbas (where the president recently made him the administration’s point man). Meduza’s sources offer conflicting information, however, about Kiriyenko’s own plans: some say he aspires at least to the office of prime minister, while others guess that his current activity is intended to demonstrate his effectiveness inside the Kremlin.
Among Meduza’s sources, the consensus view is that Kiriyenko, like National Guard director Viktor Zolotov, for example, belongs to Putin’s “inner circle.” “[This group] now includes those participating in the operation — the ones leading the troops and dealing with the Donbas. The president is at war. These are the people who can cross the ‘red line,’ meaning they can wake the president with a phone call,” said one source.
Even when discussing Kiriyenko and Putin’s other hypothetical successors, Meduza’s sources said Russia’s elites recognize that only a major health issue could drive the president from office. As a result, dissatisfaction among senior officials amounts to little but idle conversations in private. As one source with ties to the government put it: “People are disgusted, but they’re still at their jobs, helping to put the country on a war footing.”
For instance, the Kremlin hasn’t abandoned the idea of annexing more of Ukraine by staging referendums in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” and in the Kherson region, which Russian troops currently occupy. The situation at the frontlines will determine when these plebiscites can go ahead. Currently, the soonest voting could realistically take place is on September 11, when Russia holds its own local and regional elections. Meduza’s sources say Georgia’s breakaway Republic of South Ossetia might synchronize its own referendum on joining Russia for September, as well. Also, South Ossetian officials have announced a vote on July 17, but two sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that the plebiscite’s date might be moved. (Anatoly Bibilov, South Ossetia’s former president who recently lost a reelection bid, is the one who set the July 17 date.)
The same sources didn’t rule out that Belarus might also hold a September plebiscite on the long-discussed question of “merging” with Russia. “But that depends on steamrolling [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko, who resists this scenario in every way possible,” explained one individual.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to Meduza’s questions for this article.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock