From Russian Elites, No Sign of Broad Challenge to Putin

Aleksandr Y. Lebedev looks like a prime target for sanctions meant to prompt Russia’s elites to turn against the Kremlin. He is a onetime billionaire and a former K.G.B. agent with deep connections both in Russia’s ruling class and in 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’s not going to work.”

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

Evgeny Lebedev, left, and his father, Aleksandr Lebedev, in London in 2019.Credit…David M. Benett/Getty Images

Leading Russian business owners and intellectuals fled their country after the invasion on Feb. 24, settling in places like Dubai, Istanbul and Berlin. But many others who were well-connected at home and had close ties to the West stayed behind, struggling to redefine their lives.

As they did, their paths diverged — illuminating the watershed of choices that the war represents for wealthy and influential Russians, and the long odds that any broad coalition of Russians will emerge to challenge Mr. Putin. A handful are speaking out against the war while remaining in the country, despite great personal risk. Many, like Mr. Lebedev, are keeping their head down. And some have chosen to throw in their lot with the Kremlin.

“What we have is what we have,” said Dmitri Trenin, who until April ran the country’s marquee American-funded think tank, the Carnegie Moscow Center, relied on by the West for independent assessments of Russian politics and policies. Now he has switched roles completely, 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 for now,” he said in an interview.

The mood of the so-called Russian elite — a kaleidoscope of senior officials, business executives, 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 might be forced to change course.

The journalist Yevgenia Mr. Albats in New York in 2018. She faces misdemeanor charges under Russia’s new censorship law. Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet what is happening in reality, interviews show, is that the mood spans a spectrum from desperation to exhilaration, but with one common denominator: the sense that the country’s future is out of their hands.

“They are drinking,” said Yevgenia M. Albats, a journalist still in Moscow, attempting to characterize those elites who were dismayed by the decision to go to war. “They are drinking very heavily.”

Almost no Russian billionaires have spoken out forcefully against the war, even though sanctions have frozen billions of dollars in their Western assets. One senior adviser to Mr. Putin has quit, reportedly over the war, but has not commented on his departure; only one Russian diplomat, a midlevel official in Geneva, has publicly resigned in protest.

Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War

  • History and Background: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.
  • How the Battle Is Unfolding: Russian and Ukrainian forces are using a bevy of weapons as a deadly war of attrition grinds on in eastern Ukraine.
  • Outside Pressures: Governments, sports organizations and businesses are taking steps to punish Russia. Here are some of the sanctions adopted so far and a list of companies that have pulled out of the country.
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Instead, many are choosing to cut ties with Europe and the United States and to refrain from criticizing the Kremlin. That stance aligns with the constant assertions by Mr. Putin that it is better to cast your lot with Russia than the West.

“It’s safer at home,” Mr. Putin said at a St. Petersburg economic conference last week, demanding that Russia’s wealthy turn away from Western vacation houses and boarding schools. “Real, solid success and a feeling of dignity and self-respect only occurs when you tie your future and your children’s future to your Motherland.”

As a result, even the tightly controlled politics of prewar Russia now looks vibrant in retrospect.

A live session at the Echo of Moscow studio in Moscow. The liberal radio station was forced to close in February.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Ms. Albats, a liberal radio host and magazine editor, continues to broadcast from her apartment to YouTube; the Echo of Moscow radio station, which carried her show for nearly two decades, shut down 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 prominent liberals who continue to loudly criticize the war while inside the country, and with just about all her friends having left, Ms. Albats says she faces a “monstrous” loneliness.

“This youthful energy of resistance — all the ones who could have resisted have left,” Ms. Albats, 63, said. “I must resist — otherwise I will stop respecting myself. But I understand that life is over.”

Ms. Albats, center, at an unsanctioned anti-Putin rally in Moscow in 2012.Credit…Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

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

Mr. Lebedev, 62, said Russia was approaching the model of “Iran and North Korea” 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, rejecting rumors of the president being sick as “nonsense.” It was “an absolute illusion,” he insisted, that Russia’s wealthy could have any influence on Mr. Putin’s insular inner circle.

He railed against sanctions, saying they were only prompting Russia’s wealthy to rally around Mr. Putin by forcing them to cut ties with the West and making them feel like victims. Canada placed Mr. Lebedev on a sanctions list of oligarchs who “directly enabled Vladimir Putin’s senseless war in Ukraine.” He rejects that characterization, noting that he has been one of the main financial backers of Russia’s best-known independent newspaper.

Novaya suspended publication in March, with Mr. Muratov announcing that it was doing so to ensure its journalists’ safety. Mr. Lebedev predicted that Novaya would not reopen so long as the war in Ukraine continued — which military analysts have said could be years.

“I live here, I have to feed my family, so I will keep doing things in the fields in which I understand something,” he said. “But it won’t be journalism.”

Dmitri Trenin, then the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, receiving the Order of the Rising Sun honor at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow in February 2020.Credit…Kyodo News via Getty Images

Life in Moscow has changed little so far, Mr. Lebedev said, though it was proving difficult to import his fine wine collection from Italy. He pointed out that other than Oleg Tinkov, the founder of a Russian bank who said he was forced to sell his stake this spring, no major Russian business magnate has spoken forcefully against the war, despite the many billions they may possess in Western assets.

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

That is also the logic that helped prompt Mr. Trenin, the former Carnegie Moscow Center director, to change course. For decades, he straddled the mainstream foreign-policy discourse of both Moscow and Washington, and employed critics of Mr. Putin at his think tank. Before the war, Mr. Trenin said that Mr. Putin was unlikely to invade Ukraine because doing so would entail “great human and financial losses” and “a tremendous risk for Russia itself.”

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

The Russians who left and are speaking out against the invasion, he said in a phone interview, had made the choice to “stand against their country, against their people, at a time of war.”

The entrance of Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow, a fierce critic of the invasion until it stopped publishing in March amid a law punishing independent reporting on the war in Ukraine.Credit…Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“This is a time of making a fundamental choice,” Mr. Trenin, who served for two decades in the Soviet and Russian militaries, said. “Either you stay with your people and in your country, or you leave.”

The Russian government in April shut down the Carnegie Moscow Center, which was funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Mr. Trenin, 66, said that he now plans to do research and teach in Moscow, and that his longtime mission of promoting understanding between Moscow and Washington is no longer relevant.

Had Washington acceded to Mr. Putin’s demands to pledge that Ukraine would never join NATO, Mr. Trenin argues, the war could have been averted. Now, 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 has not happened.”

Jennifer Schuessler contributed reporting.

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