By Jamie Dettmer
With Russia’s ground invasion largely stalled and stuttering, a minority view is emerging among some Kremlin watchers that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s days are numbered.
“Whatever Putin does, he does not look as if he can survive for long,” tweeted Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and former economic adviser to the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Ukraine.
Aslund believes a major power struggle is already evident inside the Kremlin. Others who hazard that Putin’s position is becoming precarious point to the public opposition to Russia’s war on Ukraine by Arkady Dvorkovich, a veteran Russian government official and a former Russian deputy prime minister.
Dvorkovich last week told the American magazine Mother Jones, “My thoughts are with Ukrainian civilians,” he said, adding, “Wars are the worst things one might face in life… including this war.”
“Wars do not just kill priceless lives,” Dvorkovich was quoted as saying. “Wars kill hopes and aspirations, freeze or destroy relationships and connections,” he explained.
Other seasoned Kremlin watchers are not yet persuaded Putin is at any immediate risk, saying the opposition is mainly coming from Yeltsin-era oligarchs who have little political sway and are intimidated by the security strongmen around Putin. The strongmen are nicknamed “siloviki” and, like Putin, came into politics from the security, intelligence or military services.
They share Putin’s revanchist aim of reversing the territorial losses suffered when the Soviet Union splintered apart.
“There is a general feeling that, objectively, a split is already happening among the elites: former Yeltsin oligarchs versus Putin’s conservative elites. This isn’t a confrontation or a political struggle; it is simply a case of two camps exhibiting opposing views about how to proceed in the current situation,” according to Tatiana Stanovaya, an independent analyst and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.
“The former has the economy in their hands and the latter control politics. The oligarchs are intimidated and under pressure, while the conservative elites are on horseback with drawn swords.”
Dvorkovich’s voice has been a very rare one from within Russia’s political upper echelons to express criticism of Putin’s war on Ukraine. And he appears already to have been punished for the dissent. He was immediately labeled a traitor for his remarks by Russian lawmakers. And a few days after he expressed his opposition, he stepped down as chair of the Skolkovo Foundation, a high-tech fund set up to help diversify Russia’s economy and to build a Russian rival to Silicon Valley outside Moscow.
The Skolkovo Foundation also published a recanting statement from Dvorkovich, in which he condemned Western sanctions on Russia and derided a world order in which “Nazism and the domination of one nation over others is possible,” a reference to the United States.
Aside from Dvorkovich, no senior Kremlin-associated figure has stepped out of line. On Monday Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia, who served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012 and as Putin’s prime minister from 2012 to 2020, became noticeably more bellicose.
Medvedev has presented himself at various times as a modernizer and technocrat and might have been regarded as someone likely to harbor reservations about the invasion. But he has ratcheted up his support for the war and Monday launched veiled threats against Poland in an essay that dubbed “imbecilic” Polish leaders as “vassals” of the United States. He described Poland as the “most evil, vulgar and shrill critic of Russia.”
And he echoed Putin’s oft repeated grievances against the West for what the Russian leader sees as a minimizing by the West’s politicians of Russia’s role in defeating Nazi Germany. Medvedev accused Warsaw of trying to scrub Soviet “liberators” out of history.
“In Poland they dream of forgetting about the Second World War. Firstly, about those Soviet soldiers who defeated Fascism and expelled the invaders from Polish cities. The Fascist occupation is openly equated with the Soviet. It is difficult to come up with a more deceitful and disgusting rhetoric, but the Poles succeed,” he wrote.
Only a handful of Russia’s oligarchs and super-wealthy have spoken out against the invasion. Billionaire Mikhail Fridman, founder of the country’s largest private bank Alfa Bank, was the first, calling for an end to the “tragedy” and “bloodshed.” Metals mogul Oleg Deripaska wrote on Telegram earlier this month: “Peace is very important! Negotiations must begin as soon as possible!” And Oleg Tinkov, another billionaire banker, has described the conflict as “unthinkable and unacceptable.”
Nonetheless, Ukraine’s military intelligence agency has fueled speculation about the prospects of Putin being overthrown as a result of a Kremlin coup. On Facebook, the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine claimed it had information that a “group of influential people in opposition to Vladimir Putin is being formed among the Russian business and political elite.”
Angry at the personal financial losses of the war they are enduring thanks to Western sanctions and frustrated by the lack of military progress on the ground, “their goal is to remove Putin from power as soon as possible,” the agency claimed. It identified a top Russian spymaster, Alexander Bortnikov, who is one of five key members of Putin’s inner circle, as a potential successor. “It is known that Bortnikov and some other influential members of the Russian elite are considering various options for removing Putin from power. In particular, poisoning, sudden illness, or other ‘accident’ is not excluded,” the agency concluded.
There have been unverified reports that Bortnikov’s star has been falling in the Kremlin and that Putin may be blaming him partly for the lack of military progress on the ground as the battle plans were likely drafted on the pre-war intelligence Bortnikov was feeding him. But that might also disqualify him as a potential successor for any in the elite who really want Putin out, a Western security official told VOA.
He said he “can’t see any of the security people around Putin,” men like Bortnikov or Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, who worked with Putin closely for years in the KGB, turning on him. “If Putin goes down; they go down,” he said.
Other Western intelligence sources VOA spoke with also were skeptical of the Ukrainian coup claim, suggesting it may have been made to sow doubts about loyalty within the top echelons of Putin’s Kremlin. “Bortnikov has been a hawk, remember he has been a loyal intelligence apparatchik and is cut from very much the same Soviet cloth as Putin and has set about with relish suppressing dissent and has even justified Stalin’s Great Purge,” said one Western official.