Russia's Elite Knows 'Something Is Wrong' With Putin, Ex-Diplomat Says

A former Russian diplomat who resigned in protest of Moscow's war in Ukraine has said that the elite around President Vladimir Putin are broadly unsettled by his latest disastrous military gambit, but lack the resolve to move against "the boss."

"They really don't see any alternative to Putin," Boris Bondarev—who quit his post representing Russia at the United Nations in Geneva in May 2022 after declaring he had "never been so ashamed of my country"—told Newsweek in an interview.

Despite rumblings of discontent among Moscow's political and business giants, Putin is still believed to have a firm grip on power. The 70-year-old has used the full-scale invasion of Ukraine to further neuter Russian civil society and silence any organized opposition, as his allies publicly tout a supposed coalescence of the Russian nation behind the Kremlin's so-called "special military operation."

"I believe those people are very much frustrated by what is going on, but I don't think they have any resolve to counter these policies," Bondarev said of Russia's most powerful politicos and businesspeople. "The most influential and informed people, I think they realize that something is wrong," he added.

Russia president Vladimir Putin in Moscow Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via a video link in Moscow on March 24, 2023. A former Russian diplomat tells Newsweek that the country's elite are starting to realize that "something is wrong" with Putin. ALEKSEY BABUSHKIN/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Newsweek reached out to the Kremlin via email for comment.

Putin's Children

Members of Russia's so-called "party of peace" camp now rarely risk voicing their discontent in public. "All they can do is to mitigate the consequences," Bondarev said. "They are serving Putin, they still help him to get away with everything. They keep saying, 'What can we do? We cannot do anything. We cannot risk it, because our lives may be at risk or our children.'"

"They may be very discontented, dissatisfied, and worried about the future, but at the same time, I don't think can imagine their own futures without Putin. Without Putin, I think they would be totally lost. They feel that without Putin, without his protection, without his authority, they will be left to their own devices," he said.

"Putin grew them, raised them in this atmosphere where he decides for everybody. You don't have to decide for yourself. Putin will do it better than you can. They're like grown-up children, in a sense. People who are not used to making their own decisions, not only the elite but I think it can more or less be applied to the entire population, to some extent.

"People have been taught that you shouldn't make too many decisions. You can decide what to do with your daily life, to some extent, but all the key decisions are Putin's privilege. Everyone was quite happy about this for many years. I don't think it's easy for people to abandon this."

The Russian troops spearheading last February's invasion reportedly carried with them dress uniforms for their expected victory parade through Kyiv. One year later—and with a significant portion of that vanguard dead—the Kremlin's war goals appear unachievable. Russian troops still hold swathes of territory in the south and east of the country but have proved ineffective and vulnerable in the attack.

Meanwhile, Kyiv is preparing its own spring offensive which will be supported by NATO heavy armor. Russian troops will not be able to hold occupied Ukraine without more bloody fighting.

"The war is evidently not going as they expected," Bondarev said of Russia's most influential people. Both the pro- and anti-war camps, he said, are unsettled. "Some are annoyed and irritated by Putin's weakness, or his unwillingness to escalate and bomb NATO bases or something like that, some of the hawks in Putin's entourage."

"Others are more like 'pigeons,' and they want this war to stop as soon as possible, to return to business as usual, to lift all sanctions, and so on," he said. "I think they may soothe themselves with these illusions that there can be business as usual. I don't think that a lot of people around Putin think that what is going on now is exactly what was planned. Maybe some very stupid people."

"Maybe they realize that Putin is the key to all their problems, but I still don't think they are ready to move against him," he added.

Ukrainian tank rolling near Bakhmut Donetsk Donbas
A Ukrainian tank heads toward Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine on March 22, 2023. "The war is evidently not going as they expected," Bondarev said of Russia's elite. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

The Sick Man of Eurasia

The invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a fierce battle for influence in Moscow. Top officials are seeking to advance their careers—or in some cases revive them, like former Prime Minister and President Dmitry Medvedev—while those with access to their own private armies look to win riches and glory, and carve out fiefdoms on occupied Ukrainian territory.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and oligarch-turned-warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin have both publicly clashed with the Defense Ministry and the regular military hierarchy. Though Putin has largely stayed above the fray, Bondarev said the chaos is a bad look.

"Generally, it undermines his authority," the former diplomat said. "People start to see that there is no discipline among the ranks. Prigozhin's Wagner Group, for example, is functioning like an alternative to their authority. The monopoly on violence is delegated to non-state actors. And that, of course, is very bad in the eyes of people who want to see Russian state mechanisms as solid and powerful."

"I think all these controversies around Prigozhin and all the scandals, all these tricks, do not favor Putin," Bondarev added. "Because people see it in one of two ways: Either Putin doesn't have any influence on what is going on in the ranks, and that undermines his authority in the eyes of people.

"Or, if he is aware of this and he allowed this to happen, then he endorses this rivalry between the legal military and the illegal paramilitaries, whoever they are, which also doesn't play well in the eyes of his audience."

Faux Vladimir Putin gravestone outside Kyiv Ukraine
A gravestone bearing a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, altered to look like Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, is seen at a barricade that was previously used as a Ukrainian army checkpoint, on March 22, 2023, outside Obukhiv, Ukraine. "Maybe they realize that Putin is the key to all their problems, but I still don't think they are ready to move against him," Bondarev said of Russia's elite. Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

Prigozhin may have already peaked. Soledar fell almost two months ago, and Wagner fighters have been unable to take Bakhmut despite staggering casualties. Prigozhin is now warning that Ukrainian forces are poised to counterattack and this week was reported by Bloomberg to be shifting focus to Wagner operations in Africa amid his setbacks in Ukraine.

"If in the beginning, Wagner thought they could be key players in this war, now they are being cut off from supplies, their losses are not compensated," Bondarev said. "And everything is because of Prigozhin himself; he turned out not to be a brilliant and bright man.

"He managed to quarrel with the military, with generals, with everybody around in a very short period of time. And now he's become exposed to their counterattacks. And of course, the military has the resources to crush him if Putin says so," Bondarev said. "These internal rivalries are a symptom that the Russian state is very, very sick."


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