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Behind the negotiations, Russia’s elites are pulling strings of their own

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On the surface, continued bilateral negotiations between Russia and Ukraine give the impression that the Russian side has achieved unity in message and understanding of the conflict. However, murmurs of dissent and intra-elite jockeying behind the scenes betray confusion in Russian policy. This confusion is not a simple byproduct of the failure of Russia’s initial invasion strategy, but rather a feature of Russia’s political system and decision-making process. 

Significant autonomy for Putin’s subordinates and for different parts of the Russian government is built into the Russian state in the Putin era. Recent U.S. and European reports that President Vladimir Putin has been regularly misled about the setbacks faced by his invasion force lay bare the disjointed character of the Russian state, which all but guarantees that its policy remains fractured in practice. Internal competition between Russian elites consumes much of the government’s bandwidth, it is an organizing linchpin of how the Russian state functions — a feature of most, if not all, personalistic regimes in the world. Changes to the Russian constitution made official through a referendum in July 2020 can be seen as an attempt (effective or not) to build a more resilient and streamlined elite political culture that does not rely on Putin to play the role of an arbiter between competing groups.  

Ukraine has continued to express faith in negotiations with Russia by appointing a team to discuss a draft agreement of security guarantees for Ukraine to halt the fighting. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has expressed a similar interest in the value of continuing negotiations even as he accused Ukraine of “provocations.” Support for negotiations to discuss Ukrainian “neutrality” received official sanction almost immediately after the start of Russia’s invasion from Putin himself. So where are these challenges to policies of negotiation coming from?

Regional elites such as the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov have emerged as supporters of aggressive prosecution of Russia’s war. The Chechen leader has also been particularly vocal in his criticism of any signs of concession from Moscow’s negotiating team in talks with Ukraine, even going as far to say that the Kremlin’s chief negotiator had made a “mistake” in saying that Russian forces would reduce their operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv. Kadyrov also expressed disbelief that Putin would “quit” a campaign he had “just started.” Kadyrov’s Telegram channel fetes the supposed achievements of Chechen Rosgvardia and other “Kadyrovtsy” troops operating in conjunction with other Russian troops in Ukraine. Other local elites who wield significant power in and around the Kremlin, such as Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, have offered full-throated support for the war.  

The reported poisoning of Russian oligarch and now unofficial-emissary Roman Abramovich is another potential instance of zealous groups in the ecosystem of the Russian state acting on their own initiative. Abramovich, whose intermediate role in bilateral talks between Russia and Ukraine was confirmed by Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, experienced symptoms consistent with chemical weapons poisoning between March 3-4 along with two other negotiators. Other reporting has suggested that Abramovich’s poisoning may have been conducted by a hardline group within the Russian government that seeks to derail talks with Ukraine to continue the war. This would be highly characteristic of Russia’s system, where groups within the Russian government have incentives to act autonomously to protect their own interests against those of the political center or other rival groups. 

Given their connections to the West for business and pleasure, Russia’s oligarchs have emerged as some of the most high-profile citizens who have expressed discomfort or opposition to Moscow’s invasion and have so far taken the most strident position in favor of ending the invasion out of Russia’s elite groups. Russian magnates such as Oleg Deripaska, the founder of Russia’s massive Rusal aluminum company, Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman, and Tinkoff Bank founder Oleg Tinkov have appealed for an end to the war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky even appealed to the White House on behalf Roman Abramovich, who has played an active mediatory role between Moscow and Kyiv. While they do not have the same access to the presidential administration as many of the war’s security state proponents, the opposition of Russian oligarchs is a particularly telling example of the divides which define the Russian state. 

Russian hacking groups with a history of acting autonomously could prove to be spoilers for any future agreement reached by Moscow and Kyiv. Such groups frequently take matters into their own hands in support of what they see as the interests of the Russian government. While some hacks appear to be covered in the fingerprints of the Russian military or intelligence services, such as the 2017 NotPetya attack against Ukraine and the 2021 SolarWinds hack, the ecosystem of Russian hacking and ransomware groups which appear to act with the tacit approval of the Russian government but without clear orders from Moscow remains large and prolific. Such groups often promise to attack entities associated with countries they perceive to be adversaries of Russia, and it is possible that they would feel unconstrained by any future agreement reached by Russian and Ukrainian negotiators.  

Western leaders and Kyiv should be careful of assuming that any Russian policy towards its invasion or ceasefire negotiations will hold. Assumptions that all factions in the halls of the Kremlin will walk in lockstep with the political center will inevitably be forced to reckon with the spillover effects of Russian intra-elite jockeying, which can challenge even agreed-upon policy of the Kremlin.  

Wesley Culp is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress focused on Russia and Eurasia. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Tags Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Roman Abramovich Russia Ukraine Russian oligarchs Vladimir Putin

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