The Oligarchs Will Not Overthrow Putin

The West has been in a simultaneous state of denial and self-delusion about the situation in Russia. Believing that the mere threat of Western economic sanctions would roil the Russian economy so much that the small cadre of wealthy Russians who rule the Eurasian nation–the so-called “oligarchs”–would, after feeling the pinch of economic sanctions over the long-term, rush in and remove Vladimir Putin from his perch atop the Kremlin, Western leaders and analysts continue bludgeoning Russia with more covert attacks, media assaults, and sanctions.

Yet, despite the war in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin initiated not going precisely according to the original plan (when do war plans ever go according to their original plans?), the oligarchs who surround Putin appear unable or unwilling to do the West’s bidding.

Instead, it seems as though the Russian economic elite are packing their bags and fleeing the country with their families, mistresses, friends, and their essential belongings en masse. This is coming just a day after President Putin took to the airwaves to denounce those around him whom he believed were “disloyal” and after he promised to conduct a “self-cleansing” or Russian society in the wake of the repeated failures of the ongoing Ukrainian war…and the constant fear that Putin now lives under that someone among his cadre will be readying to put a bullet in the back of his head for having misled their country into the current morass that it finds itself in.

Courtesy of EuroNews.

Again, though, it should be noted that Russia has not lost anything in Ukraine.

They have been slowed but not stopped. And even now, the elephantine Russian war machine plods on toward its ultimate objective of Ukraine’s capital: Kiev.

God help the defenders of that great, ancient city when the Russian war machine fully “uncoils” and strikes–Putin’s vengeance will be merciless, unfortunately and the West can do little to mitigate that pending bloodletting (though the West must continue its efforts to arm the Ukrainian resistance and to lay the groundwork for what will inevitably be a long-term insurgency against Russian control).

Courtesy of CNN and The Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

It is obvious, too, that the West seeks regime change in Russia. That has been the goal since at least the 1990s. Although, the West lacks the geopolitical capabilities–either covertly or, more improbably, overtly–to effect regime change in Moscow.

If the oligarchs are Washington’s last, great hope to achieve the goal of regime change before Putin solidifies his grip on power and, possibly, escalates his war in Ukraine to targeting Europe and the United States–probably with cyberattacks, space attacks, and possibly nuclear attacks–in order to change the military facts on the ground in Ukraine, and the oligarchs have fled, are imprisoned, or remain compliant with Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule…then what happens if that elite backlash to Putin’s reign never fully materializes in a timely manner to prevent the very kind of escalation that the West should be fearful of?

Remember that in the 1990s, as Putin and his siloviki assumed control of “Mother Russia”, they ensured that Russia’s vast state resources would be doled out exclusively to those Russian elites upon whom they could depend to support the rule of Russia’s autocracy, even in the darkest times (such as the current time we find ourselves living through).

A brief explainer on who the Siloviki are featuring Mark Galeotti from 2017.

To a tee, every Russian oligarch owes their fortune to the largesse of Vladimir Putin and his iron-fisted regime. While many have fled and hidden their assets overseas, so as to avoid the sharp claws of Putin’s regime, the fact remains that these oligarchs clearly fear Putin’s vengeance (for the most part). They will happily take their possessions and flee to Dubai or San Francisco and New York or the Seychelles before staying in Russia. But, they will not use their influence and vast resources to mount an overthrow of the Mad King.

Courtesy of Alux.

There’s something more to consider. According to the brilliant research of Catherine Belton, an investigative reporter for Reuters, who has written a wonderfully edifying expose on Vladimir Putin and his inner circle entitled, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West, many of the oligarchs and siloviki who surround Putin are fellow travelers with Mr. Putin (which is why they were chosen by Putin and his allies to be given the wealth they were given over the last 30 years).

In the opening chapter of her thrilling book, Belton analyzes reports of how Russian criminal investigators in the early hours of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency were dispatched to investigate a string of murders of former Soviet officials who were deeply involved in the world of espionage and the finances of the Communist Party.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing under the weight of Mikhail Gorbachev’s massive reforms of the USSR, an elite cell of KGB counterintelligence officials took to creating special funds pulled from the bloated coffers of the Communist Party (which, the Communist Party had stolen from the Russian people for generations).

This was done was to ensure that there would be a cushion for the most committed elites of the USSR when the inevitable collapse came; to ensure that the right sort of ideologues would come out on top of whatever system was birthed following what the KGB elite assumed would be the ultimate collapse of the USSR, thanks to the Gorbachev era reforms (Perestroika and Glasnost).

One such document Russian investigators found while investigating these strange “suicides” that befell former KGB and Communist Party officials in the early 1990s was dated August 23, 1990. Signed by Gorbachev’s deputy general secretary Vladimir Ivashko ordered the creation of an ‘invisible economy’, according to Belton’s research.

“The top [Communist Party] leadership had evidently recognised [sic] that it urgently needed to create a network of firms and joint ventures that would protect and hide the Party’s financial interests financial interests as Gorbachev’s reforms sent the country hurtling into chaos. The Party was to invest its hard currency resources into the capital of international firms operated by ‘friends.’ The funds and business associations would have ‘minimum visible links.'”

From there, Belton analyzes an “even more telltale document” found by Yeltsin-era Russian investigators on the desk of Nikolai Kruchina, a former high-ranking Soviet KGB official found “suicided” in his apartment back in 1991:

“Inside were documents that pointed to a potentially vast network of proxies managing funds for the [Soviet] regime. One of the documents they reportedly found had spaces left blank for the name, Party member and signature of the Party member signing up to become a trusted proxy, a doverennoye list, or custodian of the Party’s funds and property.”

Below is a copy of the “pledge” that all Communist Party officials were required to sign before pulling funds from the Communist Party’s coffers to use for these “joint ventures” and “firms” that were designed to effectively cushion the blow for the KGB higher-ups after the pending collapse of the Soviet Union occurred:

Taken from the hardcover edition of Catherine Belton’s book, “Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 2020.

Perhaps this is why the Western dreams of an oligarch/siloviki-driven regime change in Moscow has yet to materialize?

Not only are these economic elites in Russia beholden to Putin for their wealth and power…but they are, going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, fellow travelers. They may not like what’s going on under Putin’s reign. And they likely do fear reprisals against them. But, like the constantly terrorized and tortured elites under the tsars and, later, the communist dictators of the USSR, the Russian elites just take the punishment and try to hang on for dear life–or flee with their wealth until things “blow over.”

The source of wealth for these people was not only Russian tax dollars; it was the former KGB, Russia’s feared intelligence service. Undoubtedly, the most lethal intelligence service in history, the Soviet KGB was much like the Prussian Army of old: not an intelligence service of a state but instead an intelligence service that happens to have a state attached to it. The KGB has been officially dead since the Soviet Union died. But, thanks to schemes like the one that Belton revealed, the KGB lived on–under a new imprimatur, the FSB, but with the same management and overall aims.

It isn’t so much about restoring communism and returning to the great ideological struggle of the Cold War as it is about getting revenge on the West–particularly the United States–for having broken the back of Soviet (and, by extension, Russian) geopolitical power and throwing Russia into chaos afterward. For the Russian elite it is also about restoring Russian power by realigning the entire Eurasian landmass away from the US-led “Atlanticist” coalition and toward the Sino-Russian-led “Continentalist” axis.

This, in turn, will help to create a multipolar world where Russia’s elite will have greater influence and say in international affairs than they previous had in the American-dominated unipolar world–and it will ensure that Washington’s power projection into the heartland of Eurasia is stunted and Moscow’s power is relatively enhanced. Thus, the age-old Russian obsession with creating stable, reliable “buffer zones” between their country and the borders of Europe will have been returned in full.

And what if the Russian oligarchs are fleeing for the same reason that President Putin moved his family to an undisclosed location somewhere in Siberia? Because they understand that Russia is a target that will be annihilated in any potential nuclear war and these elites plan to ride out that particular storm and see if they can survive the aftermath of it from afar? Western elites are deluding themselves if they think Putin fears nuclear warfare. Russians have not traditionally feared this prospect. Only Americans have convinced themselves that, just like themselves, the Russians and the rest of the world believe that any nuclear war is unwinnable and not worth attempting.

I suspect that Russians, especially under Putin, do not share these sentiments. If necessary, in fact, I believe that Putin would escalate all the way up to limited nuclear warfare (and possibly beyond) to try to force a victory in Ukraine while at the same time punishing the West for meddling in what he believes is Russia’s sovereignty. And since Putin has gone all-in on the Ukraine imbroglio, he is unlikely to back down without first at least bloodying the nose of the Ukrainians and breaking the back of Ukraine’s resistance.

The KGB connection to the oligarchs and Putin’s reign is essential for understanding the truth about the prospects of internal regime change. It is unlikely to come soon because the oligarchs are part of the structure that was created in the final death agonies of the Soviet Union to preserve the KGB’s power.

They are all in this together.

Even if change did come to the Kremlin, it is unlikely that replaced Putin would be any better (in fact, it could be nastier and more competent than the aging Vladimir Putin). The West needs to stop deluding itself about these prospects and formulate real strategies both for helping Ukraine to protect itself from the ongoing (unlikely to end anytime soon) Russian invasion and also to help lay the groundwork for a real diplomatic solution before Ukraine is utterly obliterated by Russian rage.

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