‘The only person who isn’t fed up is Putin’ In 2022, the Russian political establishment ‘donned the camo’ — and found itself at odds with what ordinary Russians really want
2022 saw Russia’s emergence as one of the world’s most dangerous authoritarian regimes. This outward transformation reflects an internal political shift, whose main symptom in the course of the year has been the increasing concentration of power in the hands of Vladimir Putin. That is, Putin and no one else. Russia, as a result, is at the mercy of a president who refuses to be hampered either by formal “checks and balances” or by differences of opinion within his inner circle. Instead, the Kremlin has presented ordinary Russians and the elites alike with the same choice: they can consolidate around Putin and his “ideas,” prepare to land in prison, or leave the country entirely. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev looks back at 2022 — a year that opened up a chasm between the country’s political course and what its people really want and hope for.
Putin’s ‘New Deal’
Three days before launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin summoned a public meeting of the federal Security Council, broadcast “live” from the Kremlin to the rest of the country. (Later, it turned out that the video had been pre-recorded and edited.) The participants, members of Russia’s political establishment and security apparatus, were invited to share their “opinions” about recognizing the independence of the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” in eastern Ukraine. Within minutes, it became clear that the only welcome and acceptable “opinion” would be to agree with the plan already settled in Putin’s own mind.
Almost a year later, one moment of that meeting remains strikingly memorable. It was the moment when the Security Council chair Nikolay Patrushev attempted to suggest that talking to the U.S. prior to recognizing the “DNR” and “LNR” might be a good idea. Foreign Intelligence Service director Sergey Naryshkin then seconded the suggestion. This incensed Putin, who then put Naryshkin on the spot, demanding that he clarify his position. Flummoxed and intimidated, Naryshkin finally said that he supported the recognition of the two “republics.” Meanwhile, those who witnessed that scene drew a lesson. From now on, there would be no deviating from any course indicated personally by Putin.
The February 21 Security Council meeting marked the end of an epoch known as the reign of the “collective Putin.” That ironic phrase had long stood for the “inner circle” of associates installed by Putin in key government positions when he first came to power. (That “inner circle” is typically thought to include Mikhail and Yury Kovalchuk, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko, and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, as well as Nikolay Patrushev and former President Dmitry Medvedev.) What became clear on February 21 was that Putin wasn’t listening to any of these people any longer. He would instead make decisions entirely on his own, without waiting for advice from cabinet technocrats or even from his old chums in the KGB and FSB.
As a result, Russia’s former political “elites” found themselves abruptly demoted to a staff of convenient servants. They could make themselves useful to the president. They could vie for his attention and favor. They could embellish the reality to make it appeal to him. But they would not be contributing to key decisions.
The President’s Office had long been busy in its service role of entertaining Putin by building various “stage sets” for his pleasure. By his orders, they’ve organized contests and incubators for young bureaucrats, PR events with “war correspondents,” and even a revival of the Young Pioneers organization, which the administration attempted to make young again by rebranding it as “The Movement of the First.” In 2022, other government segments had to join the same game of entertaining Putin. The Defense Ministry, for instance, let him get personally involved in commanding the Russian army, at the level of a brigadier (with predictable results).
Servants don’t need to know their master’s plans. Many of Russia’s high-ranking officials were caught off guard by the news that Russia would be sending its troops into Ukraine. The government was unprepared for the war and the sanctions that followed. Everyone scrambled. The Kremlin’s political bloc repeatedly postponed annexation “referendums” in Ukrainian territories and tried to suspend them altogether. Voting finally took place on the eve of Russia’s retreat from the newly annexed territories. After all the assurances that only contract servicemen and “volunteer conscripts” would fight in Ukraine, Putin announced a mobilization.
For now, Putin’s servants are doing their best to keep up with his orders and to correct his mistakes, though the president’s blunders are accumulating at an alarming rate.
The ‘viceroy of Donbas’
The invasion blindsided Kremlin functionaries and people in Russia’s government, leading many to wonder if they still had a place in this new reality. Among them, Deputy Chief of Staff Sergey Kiriyenko had good reasons to fear for his position. With the start of the invasion, high-ranking members of the security apparatus began to lobby for the cancelation of gubernatorial elections, claiming that this was a luxury in a country at war. Their efforts were fairly effective. On April 26, the RBC reported that elections would be officially canceled the next day.
If the elections were canceled, much of Kiriyenko’s team would probably have been fired, or at the least diverted from their traditional tasks of managing election campaigns and working with political consultants (who also would have found themselves out of work). Putin’s military campaign had clearly robbed him of all remaining interest in domestic politics. The situation needed to be saved.
Until then, Kiriyenko had maintained a very low profile. Uncertainty, however, forced him to start making regular patriotic speeches, which came out sounding disingenuous, to say the least, but finally got him the president’s ear. As a result, Kiriyenko’s office was not only able to insist on running the gubernatorial elections but also got a coveted new assignment to conduct the sham “referendums on joining Russia” in several occupied Ukrainian regions.
Kiriyenko established new channels for sending Russian bureaucrats to administer the occupied areas of Ukraine. In the process, he himself emerged as a key manager of the occupied Donbas. His shrewd moves increased his political weight, in spite of turbulence. When the Russian army floundered at the front, however, the “referendums” had to be postponed. And then they were postponed again. And again.
In early September, the President’s Office suggested suspending the “referendums” until the combat situation became more stable. But Putin insisted, and the “referendums” were held, without even the veneer of legitimacy. Ballots and ballot boxes were brought door-to-door by “officials” guarded by armed gunmen; people were made to vote on the spot. The results must have pleased Putin: more than 90 percent of voters “supported” annexation. The propagandists rejoiced: after annexation, Ukraine’s efforts to regain annexed territories would be a carte blanche for Russia.
Less than two months later, after countless claims that Russia had arrived “forever,” Moscow’s troops retreated from Kherson. And no “carte blanche” could help Putin maintain a foothold in the one Ukrainian regional center he’d managed to capture since February 24.
Kiriyenko, too, had to step back. No one calls him “the viceroy of Donbas” anymore. Not one of the four “annexed” Ukrainian regions is fully under Russia’s control, and this makes Russian political managers (who had been so eager to come and run the “new territories”) utterly irrelevant.
Nevertheless, Kiriyenko is continuing to scale the greasy pole of Russian power. Recently, he masterminded a curriculum segment on “the foundations of Russian statehood,” now required for graduation at state-run colleges. He is also the man behind “The Movement of the First,” a refurbished version of the Soviet-era Young Pioneers organization.
The deputy chief of staff’s precarious journey suggests that other civil servants should also worry about their jobs, making fear itself very much a feature of the new system.
Trying on the camo
The abrupt demotion of the “elites” from advisors to service staff gave rise to an unexpected new genre of publicity. In competing for the attention of a president who is himself completely engrossed by the war, his courtiers are desperate to outdo one another in hawkish rhetoric and “patriotism.” The results are often grotesque, if not downright mad.
The most striking metamorphosis occurred with Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and now deputy chair of the Security Council. Until 2020, Medvedev seemed to be firmly in favor of staying on good terms with the West, his liberal reputation trailing him until it suddenly became a liability in 2022. But come February, he suddenly took off as one of the most vehement “hawks” in Russian politics. He now regularly uses his Telegram channel to insult Western leaders, threatren the U.S., and announce eccentric opinions, like explaining the war as Russia’s struggle against “the supreme ruler of hell, no matter what name he goes by — Satan, Lucifer, or Iblis.” Medvedev is very convincing in one respect: in proving that rhetoric that used to be the privilege of fringe demagogues has moved into the very center of Russian political life.
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One possible explanation for this behavior is fear. Until 2022, Medvedev’s reputation as the main “Westernizer” in Russian politics made him a natural political alternative to Putin. Against the backdrop of the war, it suddenly became a real disadvantage. To keep his place in the notorious “power vertical,” Medvedev needed an ultrapatriotic makeover. An alternative explanation is that, by amplifying his loyalty to Putin, Medvedev is edging towards successorship. (This, of course, begs the question about Putin, and whether he has any plans to ever leave.)
Most of the Russian political establishment has done the same and assumed “patriotic” poses — simply to be safe. At the outset, the invasion was couched in such rhetoric as if there were no war at all (there was only a “special operation,” conducted far away, by a professional army). Many believed in instant victory and tried to look like “patriots” ahead of anticipated staff changes. When the blitzkrieg failed and Putin’s lust for a fight did not abate, Russia went on embroiling itself deeper in the catastrophe.
The “elites,” meanwhile, all draped themselves in camo. Even the so-called “Party of the Silent,” which had earlier buried itself in management while distancing from the war, was ultimately forced to “don the fatigues.” Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin dressed up in a military uniform and toured the trenches, having apparently realized that not to do so could be dangerous to his career.
Similarly, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who took pains never to let the words “special operation” fall from his lips, finally bucked up in October and took charge of army supply coordination. By the year’s end, he even managed to utter the dreaded words.
If there’s one person in this system whose role is both unique and mysterious (at least for the time being), it is the Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin, a guarded player who suddenly burst into the limelight in 2022. Posing as a thorn in the flesh of the elites, Prigozhin used sharp criticism to undermine the Defense Ministry and his longtime opponent, St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. Appealing to Russia’s “regular plowmen” (as he likes to call ordinary people), Prigozhin encouraged their resentment of the ruling class: “We haven’t had a mobilization of the elites,” he said;
In order to keep his seat, Beglov was forced to become Russia’s most pro-war governor. Other officials, too, followed Beglov’s and Sobyanin’s lead. They began to recruit volunteers for regional battalions and to travel to the Donbas.
Their calculations are transparent: public servants have all realized that Putin is planning a long war and isn’t concerned about consequences. The economy will have to switch to the mobilization model, propaganda will grow more virulent, and the “elites” will have to prove greater and greater loyalty to the regime.
Parting ways with voters
In spite of resentment among the “elites” (whose demoted status now makes it impossible to use the word without quotation marks), there has been no mutiny, no protest, no coup d’état. Instead, pragmatic civil servants, security officers, and oligarchs all keep quiet about Putin’s failures, presenting him with information that makes the situation look tolerable when it isn’t. But no one in this system bothers with the voters or what they might think about the war.
Meanwhile, more than half of Russians think that Moscow should begin peace talks with Ukraine. Propaganda shows are losing their audiences. Thirty-eight percent of Russians are concerned about rising utility prices. Focus groups commissioned by the Kremlin itself reveal that even former supporters of the war are fed up and want it to end.
The only person who isn’t fed up is Putin.
Though no one can foresee the exact outcome of this disparity, it seems unlikely that the government’s investment in militarist ultra-patriotism will pay off as its members might hope.
Besides, Russia is not entirely devoid of people who speak their minds. People with a conscience speak in the name of Russia’s future, and they are far more convincing than any establishment politician. No wonder the system tries to grind them down. Ilya Yashin was recently sentenced to 8.5 years in a penal colony. Evgeny Roizman is facing criminal charges and cannot use the Internet. But Yashin doesn’t regret staying in Russia to condemn and protest the war, and he’s made up his mind to go through prison without losing his dignity. And Roizman, too, is determined “not to move from Russia by a millimeter.”
Finally, we still have Alexey Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt, returned to Russia, and continues to advance a consistent anti-war position from behind bars, teaching the rest of us lessons of wisdom and endurance. We see their ripples as they reach different regions of Russia, when local politicians suddenly refuse to toe the line, keeping hope alive even after 2022.