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Russian elites show no signs of major challenge to Putin

by YAR

Aleksandr Y. Lebedev appears to be a prime target for sanctions aimed at inciting Russian elites to turn against the Kremlin. He is a former billionaire and former KGB agent with deep connections to both the Russian ruling class and the West; His son owns British newspapers and is a member of the House of Lords.

But Lebedev has a message for anyone who expects him to now try to topple President Vladimir V. Putin: “It’s not going to work.”

In that matter, he insists, he is powerless. “What, am I supposed to go to the Kremlin with a banner now?” Mr. Lebedev said by video call from Moscow. “It’s more likely the opposite.”

Leading Russian businessmen and intellectuals fled their country after the February 24 invasion, settling in places like Dubai, Istanbul and Berlin. But many others who were well connected at home and had close ties to the West were left behind, struggling to redefine their lives.

As they did so, their paths parted, illuminating the tipping point in the choices that war represents for wealthy and influential Russians, and the high odds of a broad coalition of Russians emerging to challenge Putin. A handful speak out against the war while in the country, despite great personal risk. Many, like Lebedev, keep their heads down. And some have chosen to join the Kremlin.

“What we have is what we have,” said Dmitri Trenin, who until April headed the country’s main US-funded think tank, the Carnegie Moscow Center, which is relied on by the West for independent assessments of politics and policies. russians He has now completely switched roles, defining the West as “the enemy” and describing “strategic success in Ukraine” as Russia’s “most important task”.

“We have all crossed the line from a confrontation in which dialogue was possible to a war in which in principle there can be no dialogue for now,” he said in an interview.

The mood of Russia’s so-called elite, a kaleidoscope of top officials, business executives, journalists and intellectuals, has been closely watched for any internal reaction to Putin’s decision to go to war. If his dismay at the country’s sudden economic and cultural isolation were to cross a threshold, some Western officials believe, Putin might be forced to change course.

However, what is actually happening, as the interviews show, is that the mood runs a spectrum from despair to euphoria, but with one common denominator: the feeling that the future of the country is out of the question. her hands.

“They are drinking,” said Yevgenia M. Albats, a journalist still in Moscow, trying to characterize those elites who were dismayed by the decision to go to war. “They are drinking a lot.”

Hardly any Russian billionaires have spoken out strongly against the war, even though sanctions have frozen billions of dollars in their Western assets. A top Putin aide has resigned, allegedly over the war, but has not commented on his departure; only one Russian diplomat, a mid-level official in Geneva, publicly resigned in protest.

Instead, many choose to cut ties with Europe and the United States and refrain from criticizing the Kremlin. That stance aligns with Putin’s constant assertions that it is better to play Russia than the West.

“It’s safer to be at home,” Putin said at an economic conference in St. Petersburg last week, demanding that Russia’s wealthy stay away from Western vacation homes and boarding schools. “Real and solid success and a feeling of dignity and self-respect only come when you link your future and the future of your children to your Homeland.”

As a result, even the tightly controlled politics of prewar Russia now look vibrant in retrospect.

Ms. Albats, a liberal radio host and magazine editor, continues to stream from her apartment to YouTube; the Echo of Moscow radio station, which broadcast her program for nearly two decades, closed after the war began. She has called Putin a war criminal and already faces four misdemeanor charges under Russia’s new censorship law.

As one of the few prominent liberals who continue to strongly criticize the war while inside the country, with nearly all of her friends gone, Ms Albats says she faces “monstrous” loneliness.

“This youthful energy of resistance – everyone who could have resisted is gone,” said Ms Albats, 63. “I must resist, otherwise I will stop respecting myself. But I understand that life is over.”

However, for others, life goes on. Lebedev, the business tycoon, owns a minority stake in Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper whose publisher Dmitri A. Muratov auctioned off his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal for $103.5 million this week to support Ukrainian refugee children.

Mr. Lebedev, 62, said Russia was moving closer to the “Iran and North Korea” model and could sustain it for years; Putin would remain in power as long as his health allowed, he predicted in a telephone interview, dismissing rumors that the president is ill as “nonsense.” It was “absolute illusion,” he insisted, that Russia’s wealthy could have any influence in Putin’s insular inner circle.

He criticized the sanctions, saying they were only inciting Russia’s wealthy to join Putin by forcing them to cut ties with the West and make them feel like victims. Canada placed Mr. Lebedev on a sanctions list of oligarchs who “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine.” He rejects that characterization, pointing out that he has been a major financial backer of Russia’s best-known independent newspaper.

Novaya suspended publication in March, and Muratov announced that he was doing so to ensure the safety of his journalists. Mr. Lebedev predicted that Novaya would not reopen as long as the war in Ukraine continued, which military analysts say could take years.

“I live here, I have to feed my family, so I will continue to do things in the fields that I understand something about,” he said. “But it won’t be journalism.”

Life in Moscow has changed little so far, Lebedev said, though it was proving difficult to import his collection of fine wines from Italy. He noted that apart from Oleg Tinkov, the founder of a Russian bank who said he was forced to sell his stake this spring, no major Russian business tycoon has spoken out strongly against the war, despite the many billions they may own. in western assets.

“Even if you say this was a mistake,” Lebedev said of the invasion, “we still have what we have.”

That is also the logic that helped prompt Trenin, a former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to change course. For decades, he was the top foreign policy speaker in both Moscow and Washington, employing Putin’s critics in his think tank. Before the war, Trenin said Putin was unlikely to invade Ukraine because doing so would entail “huge human and financial losses” and “a tremendous risk to Russia itself.”

But after the war started on February 24, when some of his colleagues fled, Trenin decided to stay. He said it no longer mattered whether the invasion was the right decision in hindsight, and now he needed to support his country in what he portrayed as a war between Russia and the West.

The Russians who left and speak out against the invasion, he said in a telephone interview, made a decision to “oppose their country, their people, in times of war.”

“This is the time to make a fundamental decision,” said Trenin, who served for two decades in the Soviet and Russian armed forces. “Either you stay with your people and in your country, or you leave.”

The Russian government in April closed the Carnegie Moscow Center, which was funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Mr. Trenin, 66, said that he now plans to do research and teach in Moscow, and that his former mission of promoting understanding between Moscow and Washington is no longer relevant.

If Washington had agreed to Putin’s demands to promise that Ukraine would never join NATO, Trenin argues, the war could have been avoided. Now, the conflict between Russia and the West “will probably continue for the rest of my life.”

“My work was aimed at creating a mutual understanding between the United States and Russia,” he says. “This has not happened.”

Jennifer Schuessler contributed to this report.

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