Vladimir Putin’s inner circle could move to replace him if they conclude that Russia has launched a losing war, according to a former US National Security Council aide to president Barack Obama.
Several Russian elites have publicly condemned the invasion, including Evgeny Lebedev, son of a former KGB agent and owner of the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers. Others include Oleg Deripaska, founder of the Russian aluminium company Rusal, and Mikhail Fridman, founder of Alfa-Bank, who has been put under EU sanctions.
Mr Fridman has called for the “bloodshed” to end, while Mr Deripaska has said: “We need peace as soon as possible”.
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Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank and a former special assistant to Mr Obama, said: “I am struck by the readiness of influential Russian elites to speak out. Some have been raising their voices and they’re shocked.
“Something has changed. There is considerable domestic discontent with this war, and that discontent will grow as the sanctions bite and body bags come home.
“From the fact that high-ranking influential Russians are upset and are speaking out, so one could say if they’re upset, one could surmise that people in official positions are not very happy either.
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The West has been targeting a “hit list” of Mr Putin’s inner circle, including oligarchs and government officials. Russia’s wealthiest will face enormous economic upheaval as a result not only of sanctions, frozen assets and the expulsion of Russian banks from the Swift payments system.
Dr Kupchan said that the oligarchs, who have their “yachts and private aircraft and apartments in Knightsbridge possessed or frozen … may come to the conclusion that this is not working for them.
“And then there’s the inner circle of policy advisers, his top military brass, the heads of the intelligence outfits,” he added.
These close associates of Mr Putin include the Siloviki, or security men, many of whom rose through the ranks of the KGB during the Cold War and have since been locked into the same anti-West mind-set.
These include Nikolai Patrushev: head of Russia’s Security Council; Alexander Bortnikov: director of the FSB, Russia’s security agency, which was blamed for poisoning Alexei Navalny; Sergei Naryshkin: head of SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Agency; and Sergei Shoigu, the Defence minister.
“They’re clearly with him, they benefit from being in positions of power,” said Dr Kupchan. “But Russia is not North Korea. Russia is a state with institutions, and if the Russian general staff and other individuals who have access to Putin conclude that they’ve launched a losing war that is leaving Russia weaker, that is isolating Russia from the international community, it’s conceivable to me that they could say, ‘we need a change.’
“It’s conceivable to me that the state could decide ultimately that their leader has pushed the country off a cliff.”
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