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Can Putin keep the oligarchs and Russian elites on his side?

War with Ukraine may make that harder, my research finds.

A police car patrols near St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow on Feb. 24. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)
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With Russia deep into its invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin faces challenges beyond the military ones. Like all authoritarian leaders, Putin must be careful to keep the highest-ranking members of Russian society on his side. That will be especially difficult, given the West’s sweeping countermeasures designed to impose economic pain, such as increasing sanctions, imposing export controls and halting authorization of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe.

Scholars and analysts have stressed that Russians’ mass support for military intervention in Ukraine is precarious. Data from our Survey of Russian Elites suggest that elite backing is likely to be tepid, as well.

Every four years, the SRE interviews approximately 240 high-ranking Russians based in Moscow who work in a broad range of occupational sectors. The most recent survey was conducted in February and March 2020, with 245 respondents selected using a quota sample. Respondents are drawn from Russia’s legislative branch, executive branch, military and security forces, state-owned enterprises, private businesses, scientific and educational institutions with strong international connections, and media outlets; respondents are connected in some way with foreign policy issues.

Here are two reasons, according to the SRE, why elites will be ambivalent about a costly military campaign in Ukraine.

Russia is about to plunge into a financial crisis. How will citizens react?

Elite support for the unification of Russia and Ukraine has consistently declined since 1995

Each wave of the SRE since 1995 has asked elites to explain how Russia and Ukraine should relate to each other. Specifically, we asked respondents to choose their preferred status for the two countries, using a five-point scale, with 1 signifying that they should remain “completely independent countries” and 5 that they be “united into a single country.”

Our findings in the figure below, discussed in our 2020 policy report co-authored with Hamilton College students, show that peak support for merging Ukraine and Russia into one country came in 1995, reaching 65 percent. Since then, the desire for unification has steadily declined. In 2020, that support fell to its lowest level ever, only 5 percent — while support for maintaining Ukraine and Russia as independent countries reached an all-time high of 67 percent.

Over the three decades since the collapse of communism, Russian elites have steadily come to terms with the independence of the two countries.

Putin and the Russian elite diverge on prioritizing foreign policy

Russian elites give Putin high marks for increasing Russia’s international influence and respect for the country while in office. In 2020, the SRE asked elites to evaluate Putin’s accomplishments during his two decades in power. We presented issue areas and asked respondents to say whether they had increased, decreased or remained the same since 2000. Exactly 87 percent responded that Russia’s military readiness and strength had grown during this period. Another 80 percent stated that Russia’s world influence had increased, and 68 percent credited Putin with increasing Russia’s respect in the world.

However, Russian elites’ assessments of Putin’s domestic achievements are markedly less sanguine than those of his performance on the international stage. We queried respondents about domestic issue areas, including official corruption, income inequality, and democracy and human rights in Russia. Elites noticed marked improvement in only one of these measures: political stability. On all other domestic indicators, less than half of the sample perceived any improvement over the past two decades. On the economy, only 12 percent believed that Putin had reduced income inequality, and a sizable minority of 37 percent said the standard of living had fallen since 2000.

Ukraine invasion opens faint, but once unthinkable, fissures between Putin and Russian oligarchs

Crucially, elites have consistently been more concerned about how failing to solve domestic problems threatens Russia’s security than about threats emanating from the West. We asked respondents to rate threats to Russian security on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 corresponding to the “absence of danger” and 5 to the “utmost danger.” The figure below shows that almost three-quarters of all elites, or 70 percent, in 2020 rated Russia’s “inability to resolve its internal problems” as either a 4 or 5, compared to 62 percent who were worried about the growth of U.S. military power.

Elites also largely do not appear to share Putin’s concern about two other supposed threats from the West: an information war seeking to tarnish Russia’s reputation in the world, or a Western-backed attempt to change Russia’s regime (or a “color revolution”). Since Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, Putin has frequently warned that the West was trying to prompt regime change in Russia. But only 44 percent of all elites surveyed in 2020 assessed the threat of Western information warfare as a 4 or 5 (with 5 meaning “the utmost danger”), and only 22 percent were worried about the possibility of a color revolution in Russia.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is remaking Europe

War in Ukraine could complicate Putin’s plans to stay in office after 2024

Research has shown that Putin-era elites follow Kremlin cues, and we should expect many to echo the talking points emitted by the Kremlin. Since 1993, the SRE has tracked Russian elites’ perceptions of neighboring Georgia, where Russia intervened militarily in 2008 on the pretext of defending the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The percentage characterizing Georgia as “hostile” as opposed to “friendly” to Russia rose sharply during the hostilities leading up to the Russo-Georgian War, and with one exception, remained elevated in every survey period afterward.

But if living standards continue to decline and other domestic problems remain unresolved, those in the elite power “pyramid,” as political scientist Henry Hale describes it, that Putin carefully seeks to maintain may grow increasingly dissatisfied. If military action in Ukraine and its consequences for the Russian economy make it impossible for the Kremlin to progress on key domestic concerns such as infrastructure, health care, inflation, and climate change, Putin may lose elite support for any bid to stay in power beyond 2024.

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Sharon Werning Rivera is professor of government at Hamilton College and principal investigator of the Survey of Russian Elites.