Author: Olga Khvostunova, Fellow in the Eurasia Program

While Russian elites do not form a cohesive entity, certain attributes of the Putin regime ensure that on key political issues they appear as a unified front, despite growing tensions and discontent. The appearance of a monolithic façade does not signify elites’ cohesion based on common values and beliefs- a factor that could hold them together in the long term. Putin’s initial efforts to consolidate elites were only partially successful, as various elite groups continued to pursue divergent interests, and feud for influence and resources while demonstrating loyalty to Putin regardless of their actual views. Vladimir Putin has increasingly relied on a combination of ressentment, ultraconservative ideology, targeted repressions, and the general atmosphere of fear to strengthen his grip on power and rein the elites. Today, Russian elites, unless they are true supporters of Putin’s war in Ukraine, find themselves largely paralyzed by the high costs of dissent or defection-both in Russia and in the West-opting for the status quo, which adds to the growing internal tensions and creates more risks for the regime in the future.

The Russian elites are composed of the top decision-makers in the political, economic, military spheres. While under Russia’s authoritarian regime, elites might be seen as the ruling class, their power and decision-making capacity is relatively limited. They are allowed to compete for various resources but have to follow a set of evolving formal and informal rules, and recognize the authority of Vladimir Putin, who is positioned as the ultimate arbiter and power-holder in the political system. The scope of their influence also depends on which elite group they belong to.

There are four main elite groups that have emerged in Russia in recent decades: Putin’s inner circle, oligarchs, siloviki, and state bureaucracy. The group of oligarchs consists of two subgroups: the so-called “old” oligarchs, who came to wealth and power in the 1990s under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, and the “new” oligarchs, who rose to prominence under Putin. The siloviki group includes leaders of all key security and military agencies, such as the director of the Federal Security Service (FSB, ), the head of Foreign Intelligence Service as well as director of the National Guard and the president of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. State bureaucracy constitutes the fourth elite group, which, to an extent, has emerged on the basis of the Soviet nomenklatura—the ruling bureaucracy.

Putin’s early efforts to consolidate Russia’s elites, which had been feuding fiercely in the 1990s, have been successful in terms of establishing a consensus regarding the rules of the game under his regime (e.g., Putin as the ultimate political arbiter), but it never translated into true unity of common values and beliefs. Russian elite groups are still engaged in overt and covert conflicts, enjoy limited power and authority, disagree over political symbols and historical figures—and are a long way from cohesion. Still, due to Putin’s consolidation of media control, the visibility of elite discord has been greatly reduced. 

Over the course of his 22 years in power, Putin himself has undergone a curious ideological transformation. Early in his tenure, he denied the need for state ideology. Later, he embraced conservatism and then a bizarre mix of ideas borrowed from ethnonationalism, Eurianism, and totalitarianism. The concocted ideological mix, while not presenting a coherent set of beliefs and values, nevertheless offers opportunities for various elite factions to link their ideological preferences to the specific ideas of the mix and thus be able to demonstrate loyalty. Yet, despite this public conformity, very few ideas truly unite Russian elites. 

Another crucial factor that keeps Russian elites together is corruption. Patrons sponsor the appointments of clients to government positions, or award their companies state contracts, and in return, the clients offer political loyalty—and a share of the proceeds. Russia’s pervasive corruption creates a collective responsibility of the elites a yoke that is hard to escape for those operating within the system. It should be added that it also creates rich opportunities for the special services—notably FSB—to keep elites’ loyalty in check and use them for intimidation, blackmail, and extortion. 

Despite Putin’s going into a full-blown war with Ukraine, there have been no signs that Russian elites are ready to split to challenge the regime. Today, it seems to many within the power vertical that Putin bit off more than he could chew, and then wasn’t resolute enough to see it through. From the viewpoint of the hawks, Putin looks weak. This strains any inter-elite solidarity with the president and makes his support base increasingly fragile, and the system remains in the state of ‘political paralysis.

There are political and psychological reasons for the conformity of those members of the Russian elites who are not satisfied with the situation or unsure what to think about it.

First, Putin’s Russia is a highly centralized regime where all branches of power are essentially subordinated to the president. Elections are constantly rigged to prevent genuine political opposition to access the political system; media and civil society are subjugated to the state; grassroots movements are suppressed or hijacked; and public opinion is manipulated by relentless and powerful propaganda. Within this regime, people have few legitimate outlets to voice views that are different from the “party line.”

Second, the benefits of supporting the regime outweighed opposition and dissent. Since his third term in the office, Putin has increasingly relied on repression to thwart dissent—a tendency that has reached even higher levels after the Ukraine war. The regime has been employing targeted repression that was effectively used not only against non-elite political actors, or average citizens, also against the elites. Purges of the elite ranks have become routine, and the jailing of high profile figures. 

Third, some of the distinct features of Putin’s political leadership are his secrecy and unpredictability, which collide with people’s basic psychological needs for certainty and security. His leadership style taken against the backdrop of the vast repressive apparatus and pervasive presence of the special services in public life generates constant fear. 

In critical situations, three typical responses to fear are fight, flight, or freeze. Given Russia’s current political realities, fighting comes at a premium cost—freedom or even life. Fleeing can be costly too, especially under the sanctions regime. The remaining option is to “freeze”—to do nothing, go into paralysis, which is likely what happened to many elite members as the shockwaves of the war swept over the country. Still, the Kremlin might have sensed a hidden risk in this paralysis and actively engaged in damage control. Several techniques to address elites’ confusion and anxiety are reportedly employed: use of the wartime rhetoric to mobilize elites and coordinate their resistance to the sanctions pressure; pushing of the inter-elite conflicts further under the carpet; offering economic support for their efforts in import substitution (e.g., through nationalizing foreign assets of the companies that left Russia); and threatening those who refuse to conform with ostracism and isolation. These efforts may have worked for now, helping to mobilize elites in the face of Russia’s economic collapse, but they are unlikely to help with their grudges and anger over incurred and future losses.  

The Putin regime approaches its next challenge the 2024 presidential election and its power transition problem in an increasingly hostile external and internal environment. More repressions and purges of the elites are likely. It remains to be seen if the accumulating damages could force the elite groups to defect or challenge the Putin regime.



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