Russian President Vladimir Putin is stepping up his invasion of Ukraine against the wishes of at least some of his top officials and influential oligarchs, according to a former NATO intelligence chief.
Mikk Marran, who headed Estonia’s foreign intelligence agency from January 2016 to October 2022, said news week that Putin’s power remains firmly in his grip, even if some of his subordinates are completely opposed to the war in Ukraine.
“I think Putin has had a pretty good grip on power during my time in service and even now,” said Marran, who now serves as CEO of the Estonian State Forest Management Center.
But all is not rosy for the Russian leader, who has used his invasion of Ukraine to tighten control over domestic dissidents and allies alike.
“I think tensions are increasing; definitely we can see some signs there,” Marran said. “There were officials in the administration who were very critical of or opposed to the war. I cannot tell you their names, but there were and are officials in the Kremlin who are absolutely against the war.”
A senior Russian official has publicly denied the war with former United Nations official Boris Bondarev, who resigned in May and said he was ashamed of my country. Even before the war, Moscow’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “repeatedly asked for requests for retirement,” according to experienced Russia observer Mark Galeotti.
The Washington Post reported in December there was “great frustration among those around him,” citing an unnamed Russian billionaire who was in touch with senior officials.
“He obviously doesn’t know what to do,” the source said.
Still, disaffected insiders appear determined to weather the storm, or at least wait for a better moment to move.
Influential figures in Russian business are unhappy, Marran said. Reports emerged on Wednesday that 15 top businessmen had quit the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, which was due to meet with Putin later this week. Among them, according to RBC, are billionaires Araz Agalarov, Leonid Fedun and Alisher Usmanov.
“There are also oligarchs who are not very happy with the war,” said Marran. “We see some tensions but I wouldn’t say they can rock the boat too much at this point. The boat is rocking, kind of, but I still think Putin has a pretty good grip on power.”
“Of course they don’t say anything in public,” Marran said of the silent dissidents. “It would be a kind of death sentence for her and for her career. It wouldn’t be career-promoting to say that. But in private conversations, in smaller groups, they were quite vocal.”
Most power, Marran argued, still rests with the Kremlin and not with its powerful oligarchic partners. Influential figures like Yevgeny Prigozhin have used the war for their own political gain, but most Russian billionaires are more concerned about their wealth.
“I would say that the Kremlin power circle has more influence than the businessmen,” Marran said. “The oligarchs may be unhappy, but they are still businessmen worried about their businesses.”
“In a case where we had more pressure from the Kremlin, from the secret services, we could see something forming up against Putin. But at this point I don’t see that in the near future.”
news week emailed the Presidential Office to request comment.
A year after the full-scale invasion, Russia’s anti-war movement has been repressed, the country’s civil society and media have proved too emasculated to stoke political opposition, and Moscow’s lucrative fossil-fuel export profits have bolstered the country’s increasingly isolated economy.
Rumors of Putin’s terminal illness have so far proved unfounded, and the leader’s grip on the levers of power leaves little room for intrigue in the Kremlin Palace, even after defeats on the battlefield in Ukraine.
“Russia is moving towards total dictatorship,” Estonia’s foreign intelligence service said in its 2023 report. “The prospects of a collapse of the current regime and democratization of the country are slim, despite problems caused by war and Western sanctions.
Putin and his key allies plan to outlast Ukraine (or, more importantly, Kiev’s western partners), betting that international resentment will subside and business interests will eventually trump political concerns, as they did after his land grabs in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014.
The sanctions have not eroded Russia’s economy as brutally as hoped, although recent figures show a skyrocketing budget deficit, partly due to European Union and G7 oil price caps, which some member states are already lobbying to lower further.
“The Russian economy is doing really, really badly,” Marran said. “The financial situation of the country is pretty bad. Of course Russia will never go bankrupt because it has huge resources – I mean oil and gas and so on – but the financial system is still not in a good place. And that will probably be noticed by the Russian people at some point in the future.”
“We’ll see how it develops.”