‘In public there are only jingoistic voices’ How Russia’s war against Ukraine continues to divide Putin’s elites
Nearly four months into Moscow’s all-out war against Ukraine, Russian troops are making relative gains in the Donbas. By all appearances, however, the Kremlin has failed to realize the invasion’s original goals. And peace talks with Kyiv have ground to a halt. Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Russian elites have splintered into three camps — a “peace party,” a “war party,” and a “silent party” that somehow includes heavyweights like Moscow’s mayor and the prime minister. Meduza’s special correspondent Andrey Pertsev reports.
There are still a fair number of people among the Russian elite who support ending the war against Ukraine. According to three sources close to the Putin administration and one source close to the Cabinet, this “peace party” is currently hoping for Moscow and Kyiv to return to the negotiating table — despite the fact that talks have been virtually frozen since early April.
Prominent members of the “peace party” include VTB Bank CEO Andrey Kostin, Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov, and Sberbank CEO Herman Gref, Meduza’s sources said. Two sources also noted that this group’s position aligns with that of brothers Mikhail and Yury Kovalchuk, who are said to be members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
These five members of the “peace party” have all come under a variety of international sanctions following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But their hope is that some sanctions would be lifted if peace talks resumed, allowing Russia to re-enter international finance and tech markets.
That said, the two sources close to the Putin administration stressed that the “peace party” is in no way a united front, and that its members aren’t making any joint efforts to lobby for diplomatic negotiations: “All they have is a common understanding that the ‘special operation’ needs to end as soon as possible and [that they need] to look for some common ground in the West.”
Sergey Chemezov, Andrey Kostin, Herman Gref, and the Kovalchuk brothers did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries prior to publication. However, some of them have made public statements in recent weeks cautiously criticizing certain steps taken by the Russian leadership. For example, in a recent column for RBC, Sergey Chemezov deemed Moscow’s policy of total import substitution ineffective:
“Replacing everything is senseless, economically impractical, and simply impossible. Not a single developed country in the world does this. Isolation, including technological isolation, and attempting to do everything on your own is a road to nowhere. Russia should remain part of the globalized world, where development is impossible without international partnerships. The West’s betrayal is no reason to close windows and doors.”
Andrey Kostin also penned a column for RBC. “The sanctions are permanent. Globalization in its previous form is over. The world is likely to once again rigidly divide between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This is the Cold War 2.0,” he declared. At the same time, Kostin acknowledged that globalization brought Russia “significant economic benefits,” including “a modern financial sector, which was created in just a few years practically from scratch on the basis of American and European [...] technological platforms, tools, and business practices.”
According to one Meduza source, these op-eds were no coincidence. The members of the “peace party” have long understood that continuing the war would lead to a serious economic crisis, the source explained. However, many of them refrained from speaking out publicly until now, because “no one talks about the difficulties; in public there are only jingoistic voices.”
Indeed, until recently, the most outspoken voices have been from the “war party.” The National Security Council’s deputy chairman, ex-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, publishes regular tirades against the West on his Telegram channel; Putin’s first deputy chief of staff Sergey Kiriyenko has taken to giving public speeches about the “fight against Nazism”; and Security Council Secretary Nikolai Petrushev recently declared that Russia isn’t “chasing deadlines” in its war against Ukraine.
According to Meduza’s sources, the “war party” also includes State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, United Russia General Secretary Andrey Turchak, and the leadership of the security agencies, such as the FSB. (This is corroborated by public statements from these officials.)
At the same time, Meduza’s sources described the “war party” as an “amorphous structure without a single coordination center.” Not to mention the fact that some of its members are not on good terms. Vyacheslav Volodin and Andrey Turchak, for example, are critical of each other even in public. Two sources in the Putin administration also told Meduza that Volodin and Kiriyenko’s relationship also leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, this rift dates back to 2016, when Kiriyenko succeeded Volodin as Putin’s first deputy chief of staff.
At the end of the day, however, representatives of the different camps can only demonstrate their position by attempting to influence Putin’s stance on the war. “Kiriyenko brings [Putin] papers on the Donbas [and] on the country’s economy as a whole. The security officials [siloviki] discuss the front,” one Meduza source explained. In turn, members of the “peace party” have allegedly presented Putin with a proposal plan for Western countries on the partial lifting of sanctions.
Two of Meduza’s sources underscored that at the moment, Putin is more sympathetic to the “war party” than the “peace party” — since he himself is “enthusiastic about the war and the annexation of territories.” “Taking the Donbas is important to the president, even if it takes a few more months. Then you can negotiate to stop the advance of troops,” one source explained. “Especially since Putin understands that it would be very difficult or even impossible to go further. But a captured Donbas is a negotiating advantage.”
There’s also a third camp that might be able to influence Putin’s stance — the so-called “silent party.” This party is made up of officials and businessmen who prefer not to speak out about the war, if at all possible. According to Meduza’s sources, the most prominent members of the “silent party” are Primer Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. A Meduza source close to the Putin administration and a source close to Mishutin’s Cabinet said that ever since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the prime minister, who was once known for carefully crafting his public image, has been trying to “stand out” less and to comment only on the government’s economic decisions. “The presidential administration offered him additional PR support, but he refused — he doesn’t need it now,” a source said.
In early June, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin visited Luhansk and held talks with Leonid Pasechnik, the head of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (Moscow announced its “patronage” over both Luhansk and Donetsk at the end of May). However, according to two sources close to the Putin administration, the Moscow mayor “didn’t have a burning desire” to visit the LNR: “Sobyanin doesn’t want to associate himself with this, he tries to act like ‘I handle Moscow — the rest is none of my business.’ He had to be forced [to go] to Luhansk. Putin advised him to go, after that Sobyanin gave in.” Sergey Sobyanin and Mikhail Mishustin did not respond to Meduza’s questions prior to publication.
For the time being, the president's support has the “war party” advocating for a push to seize as much Ukrainian territory as possible. While the “peace party” has faith in the “pragmatic attitude” of Western countries and the Ukrainian authorities, who, Kremlin officials believe, may sacrifice the Donbas for the sake of peace. Kyiv officially rejects the possibility of any such agreement with Russia.
Translation by Eilish Hart