Polls, shaped by state propaganda and the increasingly harsh repression of opponents of the war, give the Putin regime the illusion of stability. However, recent talk in Russia about the "catastrophic consequences of the country's disintegration" (including Putin's speeches
on this topic) reflects a serious internal split in Russian society and within the elites.
One can argue about the likelihood of "disintegration" scenarios, but it is clear that the exasperation generated in society by aggressive state propaganda aimed at increasing support for the war will inevitably turn inward — increasing confrontation between different groups within the elites and society.
The accumulation of such internal tensions is fraught with the potential for a social explosion that could turn into a civil war. Given that Russia has nuclear weapons, such a development would have grave consequences at home and pose a serious threat to the rest of the world. To prevent such scenarios, it is now necessary to think about realistic models for Russia’s sociopolitical and economic order and its interaction with the world after the war and after Putin.What is preventing the emergence of a positive vision of the future?
Grigory Yudin's recent interview
is a good starting-point for developing possible models for the future. It contains a number of important ideas worthy of detailed discussion. Contrary to the dominant view that "imperial politics" is predetermined, Yudin argues that different trajectories were possible in Russia in the 1990s, given the ideological alternatives then available. While agreeing that there were good reasons for the "resentment" prevalent in mass consciousness, he offers an adequate and well-formulated assessment of the mistakes in Western policy toward Russia in the 1990s and provides an alarming but very realistic reconstruction of the ideas that were swirling around in Putin's head.
The most significant parts of this interview, in my opinion, are two theses. The first is about the need to draw a line between Putin and Russia as a whole (recognizing, of course, that Russia is far from united). If it is really impossible to come to an agreement with Putin (because for him the current war can have no end), then it is necessary to do so with the various groups within the "rest of Russia" — if the goal is for Russia not to sink into the chaos of civil war at the end of the war (and after Putin), but rather to move to some stable new state. In this context, the second thesis — the opposition between "grievance" (upon which Putin has consistently reinforced and exploited for years, driving society into a dead end) and what Yudin in his interview termed "hope" — is important. For my part, I would define this concept as "a positive vision of the future."
Developing a vision of the future for the country and for society has traditionally been one of the key functions of the national elite. At the same time, it is important to understand what kind of future the highest echelons of the Russian elite envision. For quite a long time — indeed, throughout the 1990s and 2000s — these people tried to become part of the "global elite." But the events of the Arab Spring (including the personal stories of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi) and the mass protests in Russia in 2011-2012 caused them to fear any future scenarios involving political or economic liberalization.
Against this backdrop, the only approach acceptable to the upper class was the model of the "besieged fortress," which ensured that Putin and his "inner circle" could preserve their power — albeit at the expense of virtually all other social groups. For at least ten years now, the authorities have been engaged in a consistent effort to destroy any ideas and models that could become an alternative to the "besieged fortress" and could give different social groups the very "hope" Yudin speaks of. They have done this either by discrediting them or by appropriating them and preventing them from growing.
This policy has inevitably led to the radicalization of the opposition — who have made it their main goal to "fight the regime," but without a clear, convincing, and constructive alternative proposal for society and for the elites.
A recent interview
by Yuri Dud with Alexei Navalny's comrade-in-arms Maria Pevchikh is quite revealing in this regard, providing numerous examples of the corruption of Russia's top bureaucrats and the cooperation of oligarchs with the Putin regime, but offering no answers to questions about the possible place in post-Putin Russia of current officials and big businessmen.Putin's shrinking social base among the elites — and the lack of an alternative
As a result, the current situation is somewhat paradoxical. Unlike the annexation of Crimea, which produced a broad "Crimean consensus" in Russian society, the war with Ukraine has caused a clear split in society. One can debate the proportions of outspoken opponents and active supporters of the war, respectively, but it is clear that there is no broad "consensus" in support of the war among Russian citizens. This is indirectly confirmed by the steady intensification of repressions against those who in one way or another declare an anti-war stance.
There is also an obvious tension within the elites, since for most — if not the overwhelming majority of — businesspeople and civil servants the war is associated with clear losses and costs (confirmation of this can be found in the recent comments of Alexandra Prokopenko
). Recent criminal cases against federal ministers (Alexei Ulyukaev and Mikhail Abyzov), regional governors (Nikita Belykh, Vyacheslav Geiser, etc.), billionaires (Gleb Fetisov, the Magomedov brothers, etc.), and dozens of mayors of major cities, as well as a series of sudden deaths of top managers
of state-owned companies in 2022, have created an atmosphere of fear among officials and major businessmen.
But at the same time, many of them clearly understand that there is an absolute dead end ahead for the country. Over the past year, there has been a serious narrowing of Putin's social base among the elites, making the internal political situation unstable — for all the stability the regime has demonstrated externally.
In the coming months, this situation will certainly be influenced by developments at the front. Nevertheless, there has as yet been no elite split because the only alternatives to the Putin regime that elites see are, on the one hand, the founder of the Wagner PMC, Yevgeny Prigozhin, with his undisguised use of violence,
and the further movement of the Russian Federation toward the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” model; and, on the other hand, Alexei Navalny and his supporters, whose rise to power would likely lead to extensive lustration in the state apparatus and the seizure of property from those entrepreneurs who can be considered “regime collaborators.”