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‘In Moscow everything’s fine’ In Russia’s capital, Mayor Sergey Sobyanin tries to distance himself — and his city — from the war against Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Alexander Miridonov / Kommersant

Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has precious little to say about Russia’s war against Ukraine. Over the past four months of the full-scale invasion, he has hardly made any public statements about the progress and consequences of the so-called “special operation.” Meanwhile, his counterparts in other regions (like St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, for example) have been toeing the line and parroting Kremlin propaganda narratives about “fighting Nazis” in Ukraine. As Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev learned, Sobyanin has instead “buried himself” in work in the Russian capital and is deliberately trying to distance himself from the war. Here’s why. 

Since the very start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sergey Sobyanin has tried not to associate himself with the Kremlin’s so-called “special operation,” sources close to the Putin administration and the Moscow Mayor’s Office told Meduza. Nevertheless, during the month of June, the Moscow mayor signed cooperation agreements with both of the Kremlin-backed “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine, and even paid a visit to Luhansk. 

Three sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that Sobyanin had no desire to visit the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR), but “changed his mind” after a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Allegedly, the Russian president had to “speak privately” with the mayor and “ordered” him to make the trip. (Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to Meduza’s question about the meeting. Sobyanin’s spokeswoman Gulnara Penkova also ignored Meduza’s request for comment.)

The Moscow authorities made a conscious decision to distance themselves from all things related to the war back in February, explained a Meduza source close to the Putin administration and another source close to the mayor’s office. “According to the results of private opinion polls, from the very beginning of the ‘special operation’, the population of Moscow was split almost exactly in half with regards to it,” the source close to the Kremlin told Meduza. “The mayor’s office understood this perfectly well. Why piss off the population yet again?” 

In mid-March, Sobyanin gave a speech during a rally at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Dressed in a jacket adorned with the pro-war letter “Z”, Sobyanin assured the crowd that Russia would succeed: “Half the world has taken up arms against us, but Russia is a strong country [...] As long as we are together, we are invincible.”

Meduza sources close to the Putin administration claimed that this stadium rally was aimed at loyal television viewers, not “sophisticated Muscovites” — therefore, it was unlikely to have a negative impact on Sobyanin’s image in the capital. However, hypothetically, it could have earned him points with the “patriotic strata of the population.” Regardless, the Moscow mayor hasn’t taken part in any patriotic events since. 

Sergey Sobyanin at the rally at Luzhniki Stadium
Alexander Vilf / TASS

According to a Meduza source in the mayor’s office, the Moscow authorities have tried their best to show Muscovites that in spite of the war, “normal life hasn’t left the city [and] almost nothing has changed.” Indeed, both Sobyanin and his subordinates have been busy unveiling new infrastructure (like road junctions and subway stations) and announcing large-scale development projects

Pro-Kremlin media are required to cover “positive news stories” like these — especially ones involving Sobyanin personally — in “as much detail as possible,” a member of the mayor’s PR team told Meduza. 

“In Moscow, people are used to a certain level of comfort. […] This is important for them, and the mayor’s office understood and understands this,” said a Meduza source close to the Putin administration, who is familiar with the strategy of the political bloc in the Moscow Mayor’s Office. “Residents need to be shown that little has changed for them. Yes, conditions are tougher, but in Moscow everything’s still fine.”

According to this source, officials in the mayor’s office believe that putting emphasis on the war (especially four months into the invasion) would only irritate most Muscovites: “[Including] those who support the authorities in principle, but try not to take notice of the ‘special operation’ and not to read news about it.” 

Likewise, during his visit to Luhansk, Sergey Sobyanin talked about restoring infrastructure and “normal life” — not about the “fight against Nazism.” 

‘A different work front’

“Sobyanin can behave this way. [Officials in the Kremlin] understand that he’s doing this so the capital doesn’t rise up [in protest] if real difficulties start,” said a Meduza source close to the Putin administration.

According to this person, the country’s top leadership has no complaints about Sobyanin and other officials (like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin) who prefer not to speak out about the war. “They have a different task, a different work front. Citizens must see that the professionals are busy and not distracted,” he said. 

At the same time, another Meduza source close to the Kremlin pointed out that Moscow has already pledged to help rebuild the Donbas. Indeed, as Meduza reported previously, the city announced its “patronage” over Donetsk and Luhansk as part of an initiative overseen by Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s domestic policy czar and point man in the Donbas. 

“Moscow often helps the regions with people and equipment — for example, ahead of elections there. Those who follow this kind of news are used to it,” the source close to the Putin administration explained. “This is also evidence [for residents] that everything is fine in the city — it can help out. [That is,] this isn’t a depressed region that also has to help the Donbas, but doesn’t have enough to repair its own broken roads.”

The capital has also implemented other parts of the “mandatory program” for the Russian regions during wartime. Media outlets controlled by the Mayor’s Office publish articles about “examples of courage” among Russian troops in the Donbas, buildings around the city are adorned with the pro-war letter “Z”, and Sobyanin’s office officially renamed the square outside of the U.S. Embassy after the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” 

The new street sign outside of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow
Andrey Bresonov / Kommersant

Asked about the Moscow leadership’s attitude towards the so-called “special operation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Meduza that all of Russia’s regions are “actively engaged” and “methodically working” on this topic. 

However, according to a source close to Putin’s administration, Sobyanin has “preferred to bury himself in the city” — and in solving its problems. Meduza’s sources also said that the mayor knows that the war and the ensuing sanctions against Russia have hurt his ambitions to make Moscow one of the main world capitals. 

Sobyanin’s actual stance on the war remains unknown. Meduza’s sources close to the Putin administration and the Moscow government assure that the mayor “isn’t against” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — “and certainly isn’t against it publicly.” However, sources also said that Sobyanin tries not to reveal his position on the so-called “special operation” — both publicly and in private.

“The mayor doesn’t need to ratchet up [his public statements]: he’s satisfied with the job in Moscow, there’s no need to fight for some kind of promotion. What’s next, prime minister? This isn’t the most desirable position right now,” a source close to the Putin administration told Meduza.

As Meduza reported previously, some Kremlin officials are quietly discussing Putin’s potential successors — and Sobyanin is on the list. However, according to sources in the Kremlin, the Moscow mayor hasn’t mentioned any presidential ambitions of late. 

Two sources close to the Putin administration said that Sobyanin will most likely remain mayor of Moscow in 2023. 

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Story by Andrey Pertsev

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart