From the Russian elite, no sign of a broad challenge to Putin

Alexander Y. Lebedev appears to be the main target of sanctions aimed at turning Russian elites against the Kremlin. A former billionaire and former KGB operative, he has deep ties in the Russian ruling class and in the West; his son owns a British newspaper and is a member of the House of Lords.

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

In the matter, he insists, there is nothing he can do. “What, should I go to the Kremlin with a banner now?” Lebedev said by video call from Moscow. “The opposite is more likely.”

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Major Russian business owners and intellectuals fled their country after the February 24 invasion, settling in places such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Istanbul and Berlin. But many well-connected at home and close to the West have stayed behind, trying to redefine their lives.

As they did, their paths parted ways — revealing the watershed moment in the choices the war represents for wealthy and influential Russians, and the high likelihood that any broad coalition of Russians will emerge to challenge Putin. Despite the personal risk, there are a few who speak out against the war while remaining in the country. Many, like Lebedev, had their heads bowed. Some chose to go to the Kremlin.

“What we have is what we have,” said Dmitri Trenin, who until April ran the Carnegie Moscow Center, a large U.S.-funded think tank in the country that the West relies on The center conducts independent assessments of Russian politics and policy. Now he has completely switched roles, defining the West as an “enemy” and describing “strategic success in Ukraine” as Russia’s “most important task.”

“We’ve all gone beyond a confrontation where we can talk to a war where we can’t talk in principle until now,” he said in an interview.

The mood of the so-called Russian elite — a kaleidoscope of senior officials, business executives, journalists and intellectuals — has been closely watched for any domestic backlash against Putin’s decision to go to war. Some Western officials believe Putin could be forced to change course if their frustration with the country’s sudden economic and cultural isolation crosses a threshold.

What happened in reality, however, was that people’s emotions ranged from despair to excitement, but had one thing in common: a feeling that the future of the country was not in their hands, the interviews showed.

“They were drinking,” said Yevgenia M. Albats, a journalist still in Moscow, who tried to describe the elites frustrated by the decision to go to war. “They drink a lot.”

Despite sanctions freezing billions of dollars in Western assets, few Russian billionaires are vehemently opposed to war. One of Putin’s top advisers reportedly resigned because of the war, but did not comment on his departure; only one Russian diplomat, a mid-level official in Geneva, resigned publicly in protest.

Instead, many chose to cut ties with Europe and the United States, avoiding criticism of the Kremlin. This position is in line with Putin’s consistent claim that it is better to work with Russia than with the West.

“It’s safer at home,” Putin told an economic conference in St. Petersburg last week, asking wealthy Russians to stay away from Western holiday homes and boarding schools. “True, solid success and a sense of dignity and self-esteem come only when you tie your future and your children’s future to your home country.”

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

Albats, a liberal radio host and magazine editor, continued to broadcast to YouTube from her apartment; the Echo Moscow radio station, which aired her shows for nearly 20 years, shut down when the war began. She has called Putin a war criminal and has already faced four misdemeanor charges under Russia’s new censorship law.

As one of the few prominent liberals at home to continue to speak out against the war, and with nearly all of her friends gone, Arbat said she faced a “terrible” sense of loneliness.

“This youthful energy of resistance—everyone who could have resisted left,” said Arbats, 63. “I have to resist – otherwise I will no longer respect myself. But I understand that life is over.”

For others, however, life goes on. Business magnate Lebedev owns a minority stake in independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitry A. Muratov auctioned his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize this week for $103.5 million in support of Ukrainian children refugee.

Lebedev, 62, said Russia was approaching an “Iran and North Korea” model that could last for years; he predicted in a phone interview that Putin would remain in power as long as his health allowed, and denied the president was ill. Rumors are “nonsense”. He insisted it was “an absolute fantasy” that Russia’s wealthy could have any influence over Putin’s isolated inner circle.

He slammed the sanctions, which he said only helped the wealthy in Russia to rally around Putin, forcing them to cut ties with the West and making them feel like victims. Canada added Lebedev to oligarch sanctions list that “directly contributed to Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine”. He disputed that claim, noting that he has been one of the main financial backers of Russia’s most prominent independent newspaper.

Novaya suspended publication in March, which Muratov announced was to ensure the safety of his journalists. Lebedev predicts Novaya will not reopen as long as the war in Ukraine continues – which military analysts say could take years.

“I live here and I have a family to support, so I’m going to continue to do things in areas that I know,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be journalism.”

So far, life in Moscow has barely changed, Lebedev said, although importing his fine wines from Italy has proved difficult. He noted that, with the exception of Oleg Tinkov, the founder of a Russian bank, who said he was forced to sell his stake this spring, no major Russian business magnate was strongly opposed to the war, even though they may have billions of dollars of Western assets.

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

It was also the logic that prompted Treining, the former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to change course. For decades, he has straddled mainstream foreign policy discourse in Moscow and Washington, and has hired Putin critics in his think tank. Before the war, Treynin said Putin was unlikely to invade Ukraine because doing so would cause “huge human and economic losses” and “pose a huge risk to Russia itself.”

But when some of his colleagues fled after the war began on February 24, Treining decided to stay put. In hindsight, he said, it no longer mattered whether the invasion was the right decision, and he now needs to support his country in what he calls a war between Russia and the West.

The Russians who left and spoke out against the invasion chose to “against their country in times of war, against their people,” he said in a phone interview.

“This is a time to make fundamental choices,” said Treynin, who served in the Soviet and Russian armies for 20 years. “Either you stay with your people and your country, or you leave.”

The Russian government closed the Carnegie Moscow Center, which was funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, in April. Treining, 66, said he now plans to conduct research and teaching in Moscow, and his long-standing mission to promote understanding between Moscow and Washington is no longer relevant.

Tranin believes the war could have been avoided had Washington agreed to Putin’s demands that Ukraine would never join NATO. Now, the conflict between Russia and the West “may last for the rest of my life”.

“My work is aimed at building mutual understanding between the United States and Russia,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”

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