Pro-war paper tigers
Hello! This week our top story is a look about to what extent top pro-war voices in the Russian elite are becoming more powerful. We also look at some of the arguments at a controversial gathering of anti-war Russians in Poland and review a colorful interview given by anti-war Russian tycoon Oleg Tinkov.
Russia’s war cheerleaders wield limited influence within the country’s elite
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the loudest pro-war voices in the Russian elite have not been those of President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, but those of a disparate elite group including former president Dmitry Medvedev, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the businessman behind the Wagner mercenary group. These hawks are ubiquitous in Russia’s media sphere, with Medvedev and Kadyrov both running popular Telegram channels. For his part, Prigozhin has an entire media holding producing “patriotic” (i.e. pro-war) material. While much has been said about their growing influence, are they really that significant?
- Medvedev, who as president positioned himself as a liberal, pro-Western figure, has morphed into one of the West’s harshest critics, recently suggesting Russia’s Constitutional Court should lift a moratorium on the death penalty. In a recent article, journalist and analyst Alexandra Prokopenko argued that Medvedev had adopted such an aggressive stance to boost his chances of running in, and winning, the presidential election in 2024 (his name has apparently been floated as a potential consensus candidate for Russia’s moderate elites).
- But it also seems that some of Russia’s hawks are seeking to use their influence on the elite to further their personal interests. Prigozhin, who has been embroiled in a long-running spat with St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, is now directly accusing Beglov of sheltering a criminal gang in City Hall and has submitted a formal request to prosecutors.
- Do these supporters of the war enjoy real influence? There are no signs that Putin is listening to them, Prokopenko argued. On the other hand, Alexander Lapin, a Russian military commander in Ukraine was last month relieved of his post following public criticism by Kadyrov following the fall of the city of Lyman.
- And, thanks to Wagner’s success at the front, Prigozhin is currently well regarded in the Kremlin. He is seen as an effective military manager, and the “liberator” of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, a source told Meduza last week. It was Prigozhin who began to recruit convicts from Russia’s jails for the war in Ukraine, a move that would have required permission from the Kremlin. Senators have drafted a bill that will offer pardons to criminals who enlist and Putin signed a law Friday that allows the mobilization of Russians with criminal records. Prigozhin is reportedly the only member of Putin’s inner circle to have criticized Russia’s military leadership to the president’s face (Prigozhin has denied any such conversations took place).
- It is undeniable that Kadyrov and Prigozhin have been granted unusual freedom to speak their minds since Russia’s attack on Ukraine. In particular, Kadyrov’s outspokenness has been unusual. No other Russian regional leader would permit himself such stark criticism of the Russian elite, Prokopenko argued in her article. Prigozhin is also unique among Russian top businessmen — no other businessmen would dare criticize the military in such forceful terms. “Right now, the president likes these ‘real people’ from the front line,” said one of Meduza’s sources. “Prigozhin and Kadyrov live up to this image, or try to.”
- Despite all this, it remains difficult to pinpoint any real increase in influence for Medvedev, Prigozhin or Kadyrov since the start of the war. “To be a recognized member of Russia’s elite, you need a significant asset: an influential position, management of an industry or a systemically significant enterprise. Neither Medvedev, nor Kadyrov, nor Prigozhin have any real assets,” Prokopoenko argued.
Why the world should care
Despite the prominent place these pro-war figures in the Russian elite occupy in the media space, there is actually very little real sign that their influence is on the rise. Kadyrov and Prigozhin may both have a de facto army at their disposal, they are unlikely to receive formal positions in national government any time soon.
Russian anti-war congress sees more argument than consensus
The so-called Russian Congress of People’s Deputies opened last week in Poland, bringing together disparate Russian opposition politicians. The congress’s main aim was to establish a basis for rebuilding Russia in the post-Putin era — but it was poorly-attended and more dominated by arguments than constructive suggestions for the future.
- The Congress of People’s Deputiesbrings together Russian opposition politicians who have enjoyed electoral success in the past. According to the participants, the Congress’s main aim is to establish a basis from which to “reconstitute” Russia after a change of regime.
- Among other decisions, they announced the creation of a legitimate government in exile, agreed on the rights of nations to self-determination and spoke of moving the country toward free and fair elections.
- A total of 60 delegates registered for the Congress, but in reality barely half that number took part. Thus, there were only 21 delegates in the hall, and a further 11 online, to ratify the founding document. One delegate voted against.
- Former Russian lawmaker and ex-security services officer Gennady Gudkov chaired the proceedings. But the real power lies with Ilya Ponomaryov, who was deputy in the State Duma from 2007 to 2014. Before becoming a deputy, Ponomaryov was a senior manager at a major Russian oil company and, in his youth, he was a member of the Communist Party. In 2014, he was the only deputy to vote against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. After that, he emigrated to Ukraine and became a Ukrainian citizen. Working with a U.S. company in Ukraine, he traded commodities andunsuccessfully attempted to win the rights to drill for Black Sea gas.
- Today, Ponomaryov is one of the most prominent figures in Russia’s exiled opposition. For example, he took part in the Russian Anti-War Committee, where opposition leaders proposed the creation of a so-called “good Russian” passport, which was intended to ease the lives of exiled Russian anti-war activists. But the idea was scrapped after fierce criticism.
- In addition the Congress of People’s Deputies was marred by arguments over Nina Belyayeva, a participant who accused Ponomaryov of interfering in post-war proposals she had drafted and not paying her for work. Belyayeva also accused organizers of muting her connection, meaning she was unable to speak.
- Critics of the gathering included an independent group of Russian anti-war activists in Poland. The group accused its organizers of seeking “false legitimacy,” and pointed out many opposition politicians in Russia were never allowed to participate in elections. “Firstly, therefore, we doubt that the members of this ‘Congress’ would have won a fair election; second, we believe that in the years since their election, their appeal to the electorate has changed,” the association said in a statement.
Why the world should care
Several forums, conferences and gatherings of exiled anti-war Russians have taken place since the invasion of Ukraine. But they have all descended into squabbling as other activists question their legitimacy — and ask who exactly they are representing.
Anti-war tycoon pledges to sue his ex-bank for using his name in branding
Oleg Tinkov, the former billionaire best known for founding Tinkoff Bank, one of the biggest in Russia, was forced to sell his business to billionaire Vladimir Potanin for just 3% of its market value earlier this year. In an interview published last week with The Bell’s founder, Elizaveta Osetinksaya, he attacked his former colleagues, said he would sue Tinkoff Bank for continuing to use his name and condemned the Putin regime.
- Tinkov blamed his former bank colleagues for pressuring him into selling. According to Tinkov, the bank’s management joined Oliver Hughes, co-director of parent company TCS Group, in urging him to sell Tinkoff after his criticism of the war (After the interview was published, Hughes accused Tinkov of slander). Tinkov said Hughes and others started scaring him with tales of the Central Bank’s powers to impose temporary management, as well as official Kremlin displeasure. As a result, Tinkov sold the bank — but his brand remained. Now, Tinkov plans to get a court order forbidding the bank to use his brand. “I don’t want my name to be in Russia,” he said. “I left and I no longer wish to have anything in common with this country.”
- In the interview, Tinkov also said that he is ashamed to be Russian and no longer wants anything in common with Russia. “Some day, Russia will repent, offer reparations to Ukraine, sprinkle ashes on her head and at last carry out something that, unfortunately, did not happen in 1991 – it will recognize Communists and Putinists as criminals. Just like the Germans did.” Earlier this month, Tinkov said that he had renounced his Russian citizenship. If this is true, he is now a Cypriot citizen.
- Among other topics in the interview, Tinkov also offered his thoughts on relations between the U.S. and Russia. He believes that Russia has an Oedipus Complex in respect of the U.S., so Russian politicians are left to ‘envy, reflect and drool’. Tinkov also believes that the Ukraine war is Putin’s responsibility and that Russia will close its borders and introduce martial law by the end of the year.
Why the world should care
Firstly, TCS shares are still traded and the withdrawal of the Tinkoff brand could impact the company’s stock price. Secondly, Tinkov is one of a handful of Russian business people to have publicly condemned the war — and he also attacks those who remain silent. It’s possible that, sooner or later, his words will have an impact on other influential billionaires.
As the Ukraine war enters its 10th month, the loudest pro-war voices in the Russian elite are not, as might be expected, Russia’s president and defense minister. Instead, a disparate group of others is making most of the noise.
They include former president Dmitry Medvedev, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose outspoken commentary and wild claims have featured prominently in the Russian media.
Medvedev writes regularly on Telegram about his hatred of the West and how Russia is battling “the supreme overlord of hell” in Ukraine. Such statements have helped make him one of the most-quoted politicians in Russia.
Prigozhin has his own media group that produces a steady flow of pro-war material, which is also used to attack his political enemy, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Beglov.
Kadyrov is another politician widely quoted in the media. While he is just one of many regional leaders, he enjoys a liberty afforded to no other: he appears to have been given a free hand to criticize Russia’s military leadership for its failures in Ukraine.
But how much influence do these three men have on Russia’s elite?
Shortly after Kadyrov branded the commander of Russian troops in Ukraine a “mediocrity”, the general was dismissed, and since Wagner began recruiting prison inmates, lawmakers have begun working on legislation to grant pardons to conscripts who enlist.
“Right now, the president likes hearing from ‘real people’. Prigozhin and Kadyrov meet that description, or try to,” a source recently told media outlet Meduza.
Despite this, there are no signs that Putin is actually listening to Kadyrov and Prigozhin’s complaints about incompetent military leadership.
And it’s hard to pinpoint a genuine increase in influence for Kadyrov, Prigozhin or Medvedev. “To be part of the elite, you need a significant asset. And these guys don’t have one,” journalist Alexandra Prokopenko wrote in a recent article for Carnegie Endowment.