Leonid Bershidsky

Why So Few Big Rats Have Fled Putin’s Ship

When someone like Boris Bondarev, a Russian counselor to the United Nations in Geneva, slams the door on his employer, the Russian Foreign Ministry, and on his home country, it’s only natural to wonder if Vladimir Putin’s system is showing cracks three months into the dictator’s disgraceful Ukraine adventure. The answer, however, is “not really.” Despite the relative failure of the invasion so far, prominent defectors are remarkably few in number. The Russian establishment is not about to implode.

For most of the Putin-era breed of establishment figure, carrying on has more upside than defecting.

Bondarev, a rank-and-file diplomat specializing in arms control, is the highest-ranking Foreign Ministry renegade so far. No deputy ministers or ambassadors have made a show of abandoning ship even as Sergei Lavrov, the minister, has cast aside any pretense of diplomacy and joined the pro-war propaganda effort fulltime, declaring that Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, could easily be a Nazi because Adolf Hitler — Lavrov alleged — had Jewish blood. Even so, it took Bondarev three months since the war began and three weeks since Lavrov’s anti-Semitic remarks to resign and voice some diplomatically mild criticism of the minister, who, Bondarev wrote, “constantly broadcasts conflicting statements.”

Other defectors of note? Well, there’s Anatoly Chubais, the long-time top civil servant, who quietly resigned his final, insignificant position as Putin’s special representative for sustainable development and left Russia without saying anything publicly about the war. A number of propagandists and state TV officials have jumped ship in spectacular fashion, like Channel One’s Marina Ovsyannikova, who disrupted a broadcast by jumping in front of the camera with an antiwar sign, or like two editors of the timid, pro-Kremlin website lenta.ru, who managed briefly to replace the landing page content with anti-Putin material. Others have left more quietly, like Kirill Karnovich-Valua, a senior manager at the RT propaganda network, who has made it known that the team of RT creatives he has led would rather operate as a start-up than continue working for the state-funded outlet.

A trickle of business figures has condemned the Ukraine invasion, billionaire Oleg Tinkov most prominent among them. Ukrainian and some international media had a field day with the story of Igor Volobuyev, a vice president at Gazprombank, which services Russia’s gas export contracts: Ukraine-born Volobuyev not only quit his job but moved to his native country and joined its territorial defense forces; the story would carry more weight, though, if vice presidents weren’t a dime a dozen at Gazprombank, as at many other banks.

But anyone looking for ministers, generals, state TV chiefs, presidential aides and oligarchs on, say, Newsweek’s recent “full list” of prominent regime dropouts will be disappointed. Sure, a few dozen cultural figures have resigned their state-funded jobs or left Russia in protest against the Ukraine invasion — a rapper here, a ballet dancer there, the odd film director or orchestra conductor — but these can hardly be considered pillars of the regime. They are easily replaceable, as far as the Kremlin is concerned.

If the rats aren’t running, the ship isn’t sinking, at least not from the rats’ point of view. One can count on regime supporters — a cynical bunch —to make their life decisions with a cool head. Emotional moves are a matter of days, perhaps a week — and the rare individuals among the Putin crew who were capable of strong emotions about an onslaught on a neighboring country quit within the campaign’s first few days. The rest are sniffing the air for the scent of defeat, and despite Russia’s military setbacks, they are not catching it. Top bureaucrats, officers, managers, business leaders know the rewards of serving Putin and the dangers associated with an open refusal to do so.

Tinkov, for example, says he has been forced to sell his share in the Russian bank that was the foundation of his fortune after he spoke out about the war; the bank has announced it would shed Tinkov’s name, which it currently bears. On the other hand, as foreign companies quit Russia and their assets are nationalized or handed over to loyal entrepreneurs, Russia’s new pariah status creates a certain kind of opportunity.

The Putin system has fed and tamed its people for two long decades. It’s unclear what a Russian general or minister could gain by denouncing the “special military operation,” as the war is officially known in Russia. Even the lower-ranking regime cadres who have tried to break with Putin in recent months face pushback from a vocal Russian emigre community. Russian dissidents living in Germany voiced loud protests when Axel Springer SE, the media giant, hired Ovsyannikova to report on Russia and Ukraine: Why reward the propagandist while many honest Russian journalists, who had never been employed by the Putin propaganda machine, are struggling to find gainful employment in Europe?

When Karnovich-Valua announced his departure from RT, Maria Pevchikh, a close associate of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, launched a Twitter crusade against him.

“Do not search your soul for commiseration and sympathy for people who do not deserve them,” she wrote. “They had access to full information. Every second, they had a choice. And they made it.”

You don’t have to be an intellectual giant to know that, even if defectors are welcomed and seemingly rewarded, nobody really harbors any warm feelings toward them — any encouragement is really only a device to make defection look attractive. Once that purpose is served, long-time Putin servants have no future in the West, where Russian emigres and Westerners alike will always question their past; even in the best-case scenario, they will always face some career and business headwinds. In Russia, meanwhile, they can only be nonpersons, their names erased from every official source, their property, kin and friends at risk.

Even if, deep down, some of the Russian establishment figures — for example, the so-called “systemic liberals” who were always lukewarm toward Putin’s imperialist project — are against the war and everything it has meant for Russia’s place in the world, their best bet is to lay low and wait out what remains of Putin’s rule. Thus far, the war seems unlikely to displace him, barring a major reversal of military fortunes — but even if it doesn’t, he’s getting older and is rumored to suffer from a variety of illnesses. Anyone interested in grabbing a piece of the post-Putin pie should be in Moscow, or close enough to it, when the slicing begins. A comeback from Western exile is unlikely for the same reasons few German emigre figures (with notable exceptions such as Chancellor Willy Brandt) prospered in their home country after the fall of Nazism, while many former Nazis (including, for example, Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger) did.

For those playing the waiting game, the proverbial ship will need to take on a much more pronounced list before they make a move, and that move is more likely to be a power play than an escape.