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Russian elites show no signs of defying Putin

Aleksandr Y. Lebedev appears to be a privileged target of the sanctions intended to incite the Russian elites to turn against the Kremlin. He is a former billionaire and former KGB agent with deep ties to both the Russian ruling class and the West; his son owns British newspapers and is a member of the House of Lords.

But Mr. Lebedev has a message for anyone expecting him to now try to bring down President Vladimir V. Putin: “It won’t work.”

In this matter, he insists, he is powerless. “What, am I supposed to go to the Kremlin now with a banner?” Mr Lebedev said via video call from Moscow. “It’s more likely to be the opposite.”

Russia’s top business owners and intellectuals fled their country after the Feb. 24 invasion, settling in places like Dubai, Istanbul and Berlin. But many others who were well-connected at home and had strong ties to the West remained behind, struggling to redefine their lives.

As they did, their paths diverged – illuminating the turning point in choices the war represents for wealthy and influential Russians, and the long odds that a broad coalition of Russians will emerge to challenge Mr Putin. A handful speak out against the war while remaining in the country, despite great personal risk. Many, like Mr. Lebedev, keep their heads down. And some have chosen to set their sights on the Kremlin.

“What we have is what we have,” said Dmitry Trenin, who until April headed the US-funded Carnegie Moscow Center, which the West relies on for research. independent assessments of Russian politics and policies. Now he has completely changed his role, defining the West as “the enemy” and describing “strategic success in Ukraine” as Russia’s “most important task”.

“We have all crossed the line from a confrontation in which dialogue was possible to a war in which in principle there can be no dialogue at the moment,” he said in an interview.

The mood of Russia’s so-called elite – a kaleidoscope of senior officials, business leaders, journalists and intellectuals – has been closely watched for any domestic backlash to Mr Putin’s decision to go to war . If their dismay at the country’s sudden economic and cultural isolation were to cross a threshold, some Western officials believe, Mr Putin may be forced to change course.

Yet what is actually happening, as the interviews show, is that the mood ranges from desperation to elation, but with a common denominator: the feeling that the future of the country is beyond their control.

“They are drinking,” said Yevgenia M. Albats, a journalist still in Moscow, trying to characterize these elites dismayed by the decision to go to war. “They drink a lot.”

Almost no Russian billionaire has spoken out forcefully against the war, even as sanctions have frozen billions of dollars in their Western assets. A senior Putin adviser quit, apparently over the war, but did not comment on his departure; only one Russian diplomat, a mid-level civil servant in Geneva, has publicly resigned in protest.

Instead, many choose to cut ties with Europe and the United States and refrain from criticizing the Kremlin. This position aligns with Mr. Putin’s constant assertions that it is better to share your fate with Russia than with the West.

“It’s safer at home,” Mr Putin told an economic conference in St Petersburg last week, demanding that wealthy Russians steer clear of Western vacation homes and boarding schools. “Real, solid success and a sense of dignity and self-respect only come when you tie your future and that of your children to your homeland.”

As a result, even Russia’s tightly controlled pre-war politics now seem dynamic in retrospect.

Ms. Albats, a liberal radio host and magazine editor, continues to broadcast from her apartment on YouTube; Moscow’s Echo radio station, which aired its show for nearly two decades, closed after the war began. She has called Mr Putin a war criminal and already faces four misdemeanor charges under Russia’s new censorship law.

As one of the few liberal figures who continue to be vocal critics of the war at home, and with just about all her friends gone, Ms Albats says she faces “monstrous” loneliness.

“This youthful energy of resistance – everyone who could have resisted is gone,” said Ms Albats, 63. “I have to resist, otherwise I will stop respecting myself. But I understand that life is over.

Yet for others, life goes on. Mr Lebedev, the business tycoon, owns a minority stake in Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper whose editor Dmitry A. Muratov auctioned off his 2021 Nobel Peace Prize medal for $103.5 million this week to support Ukrainian refugee children.

Mr. Lebedev, 62, said Russia was moving closer to the “Iran and North Korea” model and would be able to sustain it for years; Mr Putin would stay in power as long as his health allowed, he predicted in a phone interview, dismissing rumors the president was ill as “nonsense”. It was “an absolute illusion”, he insisted, that Russia’s wealthy could have any influence over Mr Putin’s inner island circle.

He spoke out against the sanctions, saying they only entice wealthy Russians to side with Mr Putin by forcing them to cut ties with the West and making them feel like victims. Canada has placed Mr. Lebedev on a sanctions list of oligarchs who “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine.” He rejects this characterization, noting that he was a major funder of Russia’s best-known independent newspaper.

Novaya suspended publication in March, with Mr Muratov announcing he was doing so to ensure the safety of his journalists. Mr Lebedev predicted that Novaya would not reopen as long as the war in Ukraine continued – which military analysts said could take years.

“I live here, I have to feed my family, so I will continue to do things in the areas where I understand something,” he said. “But it won’t be journalism.”

Life in Moscow has changed little so far, Mr Lebedev said, although it has proven difficult to import his collection of fine wines from Italy. He pointed out that apart from Oleg Tinkov, the founder of a Russian bank who said he was forced to sell his stake this spring, no major Russian business tycoon has come out forcefully against the war, despite numerous billions they might have in Western assets.

“Even if you say it was a mistake,” Mr. Lebedev said of the invasion, “we still have what we have.”

It is also the logic that prompted Mr. Trenin, the former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to change course. For decades, he rode the mainstream foreign policy discourse of Moscow and Washington, and employed critiques of Mr. Putin in his think tank. Before the war, Mr Trenin said Mr Putin was unlikely to invade Ukraine as it would entail “great human and financial losses” and “an enormous risk for Russia itself”.

But after the war started on February 24, when some of his colleagues fled, Mr. Trenin decided to stay put. He said whether the invasion was the right decision in hindsight no longer mattered and that he now had to support his country in what he presented as a war between Russia and Israel. West.

The Russians who left and who are speaking out against the invasion, he said in a telephone interview, have made a choice to “stand up against their country, against their people, in times of war”.

“Now is the time to make a fundamental choice,” said Mr. Trenin, who served for two decades in the Soviet and Russian armies. “Either you stay with your people and in your country, or you leave.”

In April, the Russian government closed the Carnegie Moscow Center, funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Trenin, 66, said he now plans to do research and teach in Moscow, and that his longtime mission to promote understanding between Moscow and Washington is no longer relevant.

If Washington had acceded to Mr. Putin’s demands to promise that Ukraine would never join NATO, Mr. Trenin argues, the war could have been avoided. Now the conflict between Russia and the West “will probably continue for the rest of my life”.

“My work was aimed at creating mutual understanding between America and Russia,” he says. “This does not happen.”

Jennifer Schuessler contributed reporting.

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