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‘People are scared shitless around him — but it’s fear without respect’ Putin is 70. Meduza’s sources say his ‘power vertical’ is ‘collapsing.’
Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Sam Breazeale.
On October 7, Vladimir Putin turned 70. He’s been in power for almost one third of his life — and clearly has no intention of giving it up. On the other hand, the “stability” he once offered Russians in exchange for their rights and liberties is long gone. It’s Putin who decided to launch a war of aggression in Ukraine, and it’s Putin who refuses to end it — despite the fact that he’s clearly losing. With the war dragging into its eighth month, Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke to sources close to various parts of Russia's government about how the president's subordinates now view him.
On October 4, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced that Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday would be widely celebrated in Chechnya. The festivities, he said, would include:
- Horse races dedicated to Putin
- The grand opening of an Olympic judo training center named after Putin
- Motorcycle and bicycle races
- An auto racing championship
- The unveiling of plans to build a new government complex
Kadyrov's announcement ended on a sentimental note:
All of Russia’s people are very lucky to have this president. Vladimir Vladimirovich is the number one patriot in our country. And that’s no exaggeration. Nobody cares about our Motherland more than Vladimir Putin does.
In his last address, during the signing of the treaties to incorporate the LNR, the DNR, the Kherson region, and the Zaporizhzhia region into Russia, the president’s entire speech was literally permeated with love.
In most of Russia’s other regions, the celebrations will be significantly smaller. A source close to the Putin administration and three sources from the leadership of three of Russia’s regions told Meduza that the Kremlin didn’t issue any instructions for how to mark the president’s birthday.
“After the opening of the Ferris wheel [in Moscow], it quickly became clear that we’re better off not holding any celebrations right now — it’s not the time. Governors are even thinking about cutting back on this year's [winter] holiday celebrations; nobody has extra money lying around. We went without Christmas trees during COVID, and we can do it again,” said a source close to the Kremlin.
A source from the administration of one of Russia’s federal subjects called the decision to hold back on Putin's birthday festivities “a sensible idea”: “Why would we want to highlight that our president has been a pensioner for a long time now?”
‘Every 48 hours, there’s another dumpster fire’
“People are scared shitless around him. But it’s fear without respect. They haven’t had respect [for Putin] for two or three years now,” a source close to the Russian government told Meduza. Two other sources close to the government and one close to the Kremlin gave similar accounts of the mood in Moscow.
According to the sources, Russian elites’ feelings towards Putin soured after his decision to raise the country’s pension age in 2018 — a move a majority of Russians opposed. Formally, the Cabinet of Ministers was updated in 2020, when Mikhail Mishustin replaced Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister, but many mid-level government workers have held their posts since long before that. They still remember how Putin shifted the blame for the consequences of his pension reform on the ministers — ultimately accusing them of causing the entire government’s approval ratings to drop. “When people [in the government] hear the word ‘ratings,’ they still wince,” a source close to the government told Meduza.
In more recent years, the situation has only gotten worse. According to Meduza’s sources, Putin has gradually stopped warning the ministers of his plans both for the short term and the long term.
“Up until recently, the [ministers] would at least serve as a kind of Google for the president. He would voice scenarios that he thought were likely and ask, ‘What if we do this? What will the consequences be? And what if we do it this way? Then what?’ But that’s stopped,” said a source close to the government.
According to the source, after the start of the pandemic, Putin (who’s known to worry obsessively about his health) stopped consulting the ministers altogether — and limited his decision-making process to brief discussions with his “inner circle” (which, in recent years, is believed to consist primarily of the heads of Russia’s security agencies).
“[Since the start of the pandemic,] things have repeatedly gotten dumped on our heads with no warning,” one source told Meduza. One example, he said, was the early-pandemic “support measures,” which ultimately provided plenty of fodder for Russian memes. The “measures” consisted of “non-working days with the preservation of wages” and financial support for families with three or more children.
“The president is liable to declare things [like that] with no warning. Grand gestures, so to speak. And then the feverish search [for money to pay for the measures] begins,” one high-ranking source told Meduza.
According to him, until a few years ago, Putin’s process was almost the exact opposite: first he would listen to proposals from various government agencies, then he would choose the one he thought was best.
At the same time, sources close to the government said that ministers don’t dare push back even on Putin’s most “unexpected” decisions — because they’re afraid of the consequences. “When [former Economic Development Minister Alexey] Ulyukayev was arrested, everyone got the message,” said one source.
Other sources close to the government added that this fear, in combination with Putin’s aversion to hearing about problems from his subordinates, has led officials to start significantly embellishing the facts in their reports to the president. Few people, if anyone, have been willing to tell him about the true consequences of Western sanctions or the Russian economy, for example.
“Every 48 hours, there's another dumpster fire — nobody really understands what's going on. The people responsible for actually implementing decisions don’t hear about them until the last minute,” a source close to the Kremlin told Meduza.
‘He doesn’t know how to lose’
These problems have only gotten worse since the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. As Meduza has previously reported, even many high-ranking Russian officials knew nothing about Putin’s invasion plans until the last moment. In addition, according to sources, after February 24, Putin lost interest in “peaceful affairs,” while his “inner circle” became even smaller. Now, sources told Meduza, the only people even marginally capable of influencing the president’s decisions are select members of the Security Council. As of this story’s publication, Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov had not responded to Meduza’s questions.
“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,” a source close to the Kremlin described the mood among Russia’s elites in May 2022.
Months later, little has changed. At the same time, as things have gotten more dire for Russia on the battlefield, Putin’s position has increasingly drifted towards that of the hawks around him — while peace advocates in the government have become more pessimistic.
A source close to the Russian government told Meduza that the Cabinet of Ministers’ to-do list has only grown: “Mobilization was announced, and naturally, it hadn’t been budgeted for.”
The conscription effort has brought new difficulties to the presidential administration’s political bloc as well. According to a source close to the bloc, it’s clear to Kremlin officials that forcibly recruiting a hundred thousand Russians to go to war had an immediate negative impact on the president’s approval ratings (even open data show a 6 percent drop). “And [now] they’re asking us why it fell and how to increase it,” the source said.
A political consultant who works with the Putin administration and with several of Russia’s regional governments confirmed the account. According to the strategist, before the president's mobilization announcement, Russian authorities weren’t detecting a notable level of discontent in the regions. “But [now] the situation is completely different: Russia before [the start of mobilization] and Russia now are two different countries,” he emphasized.
Sources close to the Kremlin, as well as a source who knows members of Putin’s inner circle, noted that the president is “unable to give an image of the future” to even the highest-level officials and top businessmen: “These people are suffering because of sanctions; they’re losing huge amounts of money. But it’s completely unclear to them whether the Kremlin will be able to compensate for it all.”
As a result, Meduza’s sources said, Russia’s “power vertical” is starting to “collapse.” Russia’s governors, for example, have begun openly declaring that they have no money to fulfill Moscow’s promises, while Wagner PMC founder Evgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov have started publicly (and severely) criticizing the country’s security agencies.
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“Right now, for example, [Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin] is saying the city’s budget will provide support to the families of mobilized soldiers. The Putin administration gave those same instructions to other governors, too, in order to reduce social tension. But most governors don’t have money for that. And Sobyanin’s colleagues from other regions have taken a negative view of his actions: ‘Get out of here, Sergey Semyonovich, with your PR,’” said a source close to the Putin administration.
Like government employees, high-ranking officials don’t allow themselves to speak negatively about Putin, Meduza’s sources noted. “Who’s going to jail him? He’s a monument!” said one source, quoting a Soviet comedy film.
It’s unclear to Russian elites how the “monument” plans to end the war against Ukraine. Several high-ranking sources told Meduza that the combination of Putin’s recent statements about nuclear war and the Ukrainian military’s success at the front has made them nervous. “He doesn't know how to lose,” said one. “And he especially doesn’t know how to admit he’s losing.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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