The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian oligarchs don’t have the power — or inclination — to stop Putin

Business elites who pledged their loyalty to Putin have been allowed to keep their wealth (until now). But they have no political power.

The superyacht Amore Vero, owned by a company whose main shareholder is the head of Rosneft Oil Co., after being impounded by French authorities in La Ciotat, France on March 4, 2022. Rosneft Chief Executive Officer Igor Sechin’s superyacht was blocked by French customs officials on the Cote D’Azur, part of the European Union’s sanctions against wealthy Russians with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. (Theo Giacometti/Bloomberg)
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It’s time to start thinking about how President Vladimir Putin might be replaced. If his invasion of Ukraine continues to go wrong, it’s very difficult to see how he can long survive in power.

This in turn means thinking about the nature of the Russian regime as a whole and whether it has the capacity to extricate itself from the yawning pit that Putin and his closest associates have dug for Russia.

In important respects, the Kremlin’s plan has already failed. Everything depended on taking key areas of Ukraine quickly and with minimal civilian casualties. Even more importantly, Western economic retaliation has been much stronger and more united than Putin and his staff seem to have expected.

Credible estimates suggest that the Russian economy could decline by 7 percent in the coming year; if the war goes on, Russian casualties could mount into the tens of thousands. Even if, as widely expected, the government declares a state of emergency, there’s bound to be greatly increased public discontent, leading to greatly intensified state repression.

Crowds are unlikely to storm the Kremlin, but sufficient public unrest and mounting bloodshed could lead senior officials to “persuade” Putin that it’s time to go.

The West is hoping to undermine the regime through specific measures aimed at Russian “oligarchs” with wealth and property abroad. Deep anxiety in the Russian business elites is already apparent, despite being called in by Putin to be lectured — and implicitly threatened — on the need for loyalty to the state in wartime.

Lukoil, headed by Vagit Alekperov, has already called for peace. However, to use the term “oligarch” of such people demonstrates a misunderstanding of the Russian elites under Putin and of the degree to which pressure on business can directly influence the regime.

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This is no longer the 1990s, when wealthy business owners dominated the Yeltsin regime. Under Putin, those former “oligarchs” who have pledged loyalty to him have been allowed to keep their wealth (until now), but they have no political power. That is exercised by a narrow circle of top officials and former officials appointed by Putin to control key sections of the energy sector. These men are drawn mainly from the former KGB. They have great wealth, but their primary loyalty is to Putin and the state.

This circle has gotten narrower and narrower over the years and more completely dependent on access to Putin, until the men with any degree of real power may now number barely half a dozen. This tendency has been increased by Putin’s isolation as a result of the pandemic, so vividly illustrated by the bizarre pictures of him sitting at a huge table literally dozens of feet away from his ministers.

These men — like Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, domestic internal security chief Nikolai Patrushev and Igor Sechin, a former KGB officer and deputy prime minister who now heads the Rosneft oil company — are so close to Putin, and in most cases so deeply implicated in the invasion of Ukraine, that it is difficult to see how they could revolt against the president.

And unlike the Soviet Politburo that removed Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader in 1964, there is no institution in Russia today that has the power or authority to take such a collective step. Even the prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, is not part of Putin’s inner core, and nor are most of the ministers, including most notably those responsible for finance and the economy.

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This means that intense pressure would have to be brought to bear by the Russian elites in general. These are a very disparate and disunited bunch of business executives, state officials, local political bosses opportunistically grouped in the United Russia Party and even to some extent loyal media figures and intellectuals. They have no collective identity and no collective institutions. It would be very difficult for them to generate such pressure on the inner circle, unless public unrest had become very great.

The most likely scenario, it seems to me, is a sort of semi-coup, most of which will never become apparent in public, by which Putin and his immediate associates will step down “voluntarily” in return for guarantees of their personal immunity from arrest and their family’s wealth. Who would succeed as president in these circumstances is a totally open question.

This is pure speculation, but I have begun to wonder whether just possibly the invasion of Ukraine might be tied in with Putin’s own intention to resign in (or before) 2024, when his present presidential term expires.

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If the invasion of Ukraine had been a success, Putin could depart in a blaze of glory as a Russian national hero, bequeathing some of that glory to a chosen successor. If it failed, he could save his regime by resigning in favor of a successor from outside the inner circle who could shuffle off blame for the failure onto his predecessor — while of course guaranteeing his predecessor’s wealth and safety. That after all is very much how Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 1999 after the economic and military disasters of the 1990s.

Replacing Putin raises a huge question, which did not exist in 1999. Members of the elite aiming to remove Putin would need to be confident that if they did this and agreed to withdraw from Ukraine, most Western sanctions would be lifted. Otherwise they would inherit a continuing economic disaster that would cripple their rule as it had his.

Given the attitudes of the Russian elites, army and indeed public, such a promise of withdrawal is extremely unlikely to include Crimea and the separatist republics of the Donbas. Their loss would be a political blow that would also cripple any new Russian regime. Failing a compromise over these territories, therefore, it will be vastly more difficult both for Ukraine and Russia to escape this war, and for Russia to escape rule by some version of the present regime.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of “Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.”