‘He doesn’t speak out, even behind closed doors’ How Russia’s war against Ukraine forced Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to shift gears
Mikhail Mishustin has been Russia’s prime minister for more than two and half years — despite constant rumors about his impending resignation. Moreover, throughout his career, Mishustin has cultivated a public image as an effective manager. Nevertheless, on February 24, he was caught flat footed. According to Meduza’s sources, Vladimir Putin neglected to tell his prime minister that he was planning to wage a full-scale war against Ukraine. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev explains how the past five months of war have changed Mikhail Mishustin’s role and his public image.
Mikhail Mishustin has had very little to say about the Kremlin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. “He doesn’t speak out about the ‘special [military] operation,’ even behind closed doors,” a source familiar with the Russian prime minister told Meduza. “‘External challenges’ — that’s what he calls it now. He has no part in the war agenda and I think that’s quite deliberate.”
Indeed, a source close to the Putin administration described Mishustin as the “faction leader” among Russian officials who prefer to either say nothing about the war or talk about cryptically — by referring to “new challenges” or the “current political climate,” for example.
According to two sources, Mishustin “was lost” at the start of the full-scale invasion. During a National Security Council session just days earlier, on February 21, the prime minister was one of just three top officials who had spoken in favor of continuing security talks with the West. Interestingly, Vladimir Putin didn’t react negatively to Mishustin’s stance — although he publicly humiliated Sergey Naryshkin, his foreign intelligence chief, for expressing a similar opinion during the same meeting.
Two sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that at the time of the National Security Council session, Mishustin was unaware of the Russian president’s plans to launch a full-scale war. This was corroborated by a source close to the Cabinet of Ministers.
According to these sources, the Kremlin had informed the prime minister and his Cabinet that a “limited contingent of Russian troops” would enter eastern Ukraine “to maintain order on the territory” of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” At that point, there was no talk of an all-out war. Mishustin found out about Putin’s real plans on February 23 — the eve of the invasion.
As a result, the Cabinet failed to adequately prepare for the stringent sanctions imposed on Russia in the invasion’s immediate aftermath. According to Meduza’s sources close to the Putin administration, the government was only expecting sanctions targeting specific high-level officials and enterprises, mainly in the defense sector.
“Before the operation no one believed that everything could go this way. Otherwise, they would have made at least some stockpiles — spare parts for mining equipment, machinery, and airplanes. But this didn’t happen,” a source close to the Cabinet said.
Instead, Mishustin’s government was left scrambling to try and protect the Russian economy from sanctions without incurring Putin’s wrath. “He [Putin] doesn’t want to hear about the difficulties. He believes that the country can live for a long time apart from the rest of the world, which sooner or later will come to bow to [Russia],” a Meduza source close to the Putin administration explained.
Meduza’s sources underscored that Mishustin quickly decided that “he wanted to keep working,” but to publicly distance himself from the so-called “special military operation.”
A Meduza source close to the Kremlin stressed that Putin now has an “economic politburo” that’s responsible for the country’s wartime economy. Sources told Meduza that this particular war room includes Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, presidential aide Maxim Oreshkin, VTB Bank CEO Andrey Kostin, and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin. Mishustin, Meduza’s sources emphasized, is not included in this circle.
None of the “politburo” members responded to Meduza’s questions prior to publication — nor did Mikhail Mishustin.
‘He’s still on the job’
A Meduza source close to the Cabinet’s leadership said the prime minister is now focused on a “fairly narrow” agenda. However, this person also said that Mishustin has become “more open with industry.” “He [Mishustin] helps out, gets involved in solving problems. If asked, he helps with loan restructuring,” he said.
According to this same source, the prime minister also has the chance to talk to the president about “who should be given what [and] what support to provide” during their regular phone calls on “tactical issues.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed to Meduza that Putin and Mishustin “communicate daily.” “And they discuss measures to support the economy daily. This is an ongoing process,” he added.
The source also said that while Putin has “partially forgotten” about Russia’s regional governors, Mishustin has begun actively working with the heads of regions. “[Officials and businessmen] have started to really respect him,” the source assured.
Sources close to Mishustin and the Putin administration told Meduza that the prime minister (in contrast to when he first took office) has eschewed publicity since February 24, because he doesn’t want to be associated with the war and the deteriorating economic situation. Mishustin now “avoids interviews” and press conferences, despite his love of PR. According to Meduza’s sources, when the Kremlin offered Mishustin “help with PR” after the start of the invasion, he reportedly replied: “I don’t need broad exposure right now.”
Two sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that Mishustin has also “established contacts” with another key official who has preferred to distance himself from the war — Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. “They can even relax together. Hang out in a pub, for example,” one source said. Sergey Sobyanin’s press service did not respond to Meduza’s questions.
Mishustin does not enjoy a close or trusting relationship with Vladimir Putin. But there’s no “tension or hostility” between them, Meduza’s sources explained. According to these sources, the prime minister understands what he can lobby for in his conversations with Putin, and what it’s better to distance himself from. For example, Meduza’s two sources close to the Putin administration said that Mishustin wasn’t actually involved in promoting Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov to the post of deputy prime minister.
“At the start of his career as head of government, Mishustin was a technical prime minister, then a transitional one. But he’s still on the job,” one of Meduza’s source pointed out.
Both this person and a source close to the Cabinet underscored that despite the constant rumors about Mishustin imminent ouster, the prime minister has so far managed to hang on to his position. According to one source: “Everything will be decided in the fall. Mishustin has a fair chance of keeping his post if there’s some kind of truce with [Ukraine], some kind of peace scenario. Because all the others have proven to be hawks.”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart