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Leaked Phone Call Reveals Rage Among Russia’s Elites

More repression is likely to follow the release of a purported conversation between two high-profile figures bitterly criticizing Russia’s leaders and the war in Ukraine.

Early last month, a leaked recording emerged of a conversation between two people alleged to be the prominent Russian music producer Iosif Prigozhin and businessman (and former Russian senator) Farkhad Akhmedov. In the recording, neither man minced words in slamming President Vladimir Putin, the war in Ukraine, and the general state of affairs in Russia.

So great was the interest in the leak among politicized Russians that it eclipsed Putin’s declaration that Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. For Russians, the story is not only illustrative of hidden dissatisfaction with how the war is unfolding, but also shows that the elites’ expressed support for the Kremlin’s decisions is pure lip service.

Whether the recording is authentic matters less than whether it accurately reflects elite attitudes to the war and Russia’s leadership. Rage and despair are privately noticeable among technocrats and bureaucrats, military figures and other siloviki (security service officials), business figures close to the government, and even the so-called ultra-patriots, from those in favor of escalation to those who take a more pragmatic view of the war. The leaked conversation, in which the participants used colorful language to curse the country’s leadership as “stupid cockroaches” “gnawing on each other” and “dragging their country downwards” and “destroying its future,” appears to be all too similar to what can constantly be heard unofficially in Russian elite circles: that Putin has failed Russia. 

Regardless of ideology, Russian elites are united in their conviction that since Putin started this war, he must win it. Even those who oppose the war do not wish to find themselves on the losing side, but together with those who backed the invasion see the current state of military affairs as a looming failure. No one understands how Putin could secure a victory. 

Russia’s troops have not had any notable successes since last year’s tactical withdrawals, and now they are facing a new Ukrainian counteroffensive. The Kremlin will not commit to total mobilization for political reasons (a second wave of mobilization may take place later, but will not be mass-scale); the military cannot afford to launch a full-scale offensive; the government is too weak to carry out reforms; and industry is too ineffective to swiftly substitute lost imports. In the face of all of the above, Putin is radiant with optimism, living in a dreamworld of ongoing breakthroughs and the revolutionary transformation of the Russian economy. 

Few are convinced by Putin’s assurances that Russia is at war not with Ukraine but with the West, and that it can defeat the latter by attrition. Most elites’ confidence in the certainty of Russian victory was shattered when the Russian army was forced to retreat first from the Kharkiv region last September, and then from Kherson in November. 

Putin’s constant and desperate nuclear saber-rattling has not helped morale, and nor has the irreversible deterioration in Russia’s relations with the West, the political rise of marginal yet radical figures such as the mercenary army boss Yevgeny Prigozhin (no relation to Iosif), or the wider risk of the country sliding into a military dictatorship (a prospect raised in the purported conversation between Iosif Prigozhin and Akhmedov).

There is no doubt that the recording’s release has greatly unsettled the elite, with some starting to worry about who other than Russia’s own spies might be listening in on their conversations, and others relieved that what had hitherto been said only in private was finally out in the open—courtesy of self-professed patriots, no less.

Russia’s security services will take the affair as a warning that they must pay closer attention to their wards, taking heed more often of denunciations and being quicker to crack down on those deemed unreliable, even in the absence of evidence. The most vulnerable groups are those previously known as “in-system” liberals, such as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin and central bank chair Elvira Nabiullina; businessmen with ties to the West; apolitical technocrats like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin; and cultural figures. Their lack of enthusiasm for the war makes them especially suspicious.

Also in a precarious position are the heavyweights alleged in the leaked conversation to have plotted against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu: Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, and National Guard head Viktor Zolotov. While it is incorrect to talk of elite coalitions in Russia, where members operate solo, all those people have cause to dislike not only Shoigu but also the heads of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), as well as Nikolai Patrushev and former president Dmitry Medvedev, respectively the secretary and deputy head of the Security Council. 

Among Russia’s elites, much anger is reserved for those who reacted opportunistically to the outbreak of war, pouring fuel on the fire instead of counseling Putin against invading Ukraine. Fear of the likes of Yevgeny Prigozhin is therefore often accompanied by respect for the radicals’ readiness to attack the regime’s “untouchables.” The leaked audio affair was no exception: Yevgeny Prigozhin responded with a defense of freedom of speech that will have been taken by some as an endorsement of what was said in the conversation. He also criticized Iosif Prigozhin for attempting to pass off the recording as a fake.

All in all, the affair has underscored two conflicting trends among Russia’s elites. The first is growing alarm and despair, and a sense that Putin is leading the country over a precipice to imminent doom. The second is the rising stock of the country’s repressive apparatus and the patriotic bloc, which is baying for blood ever more loudly, with its calls for purges and even greater turning of the screws.

In the face of this threat, many will be forced to self-censor further—even when in familiar company—lest they be branded traitors, actual or potential, for years to come, as Iosif Prigozhin has been. The Kremlin itself is unlikely to take any action over the leak, as that would only confirm its authenticity and undermine Putin’s authority. Far easier to maintain that the recording is a fake.

Even so, those involved in the episode will need to make amends, in yet another lesson for the elite. Iosif Prigozhin—and his wife, the veteran pop star Valeriya—can be expected to follow in the footsteps of former president Dmitry Medvedev and take a radically pro-war turn in an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty, though a newfound patriotism is no guarantee of safety from future reprisals by the authorities.

Indeed, amid reports of widespread dissatisfaction with Putin and the war, the key decision facing the regime will be how to treat Iosif Prigozhin and his kind. With the Kremlin preoccupied with identifying and cowing “unreliables,” disapproval and desperation within the elites will grow alongside mutual distrust and suspicion: problems the regime will almost certainly try to solve with not only more repression, but also a return to state ideology as a way of keeping control.

Source: Carnegie Endowment