08.09.23 Review

Deceived expectations: Russian elites between nationalism and Putinism in polls over two decades

Do Russia’s elites genuinely support the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and are they capable of adapting to a new historical framework of Russia’s almost complete isolation from the West and a decline in its international influence? Commentary on this issue is abundant, but there is very little actual data to draw more substantiated conclusions than those based on personal intuition. A survey of the Russian elite conducted over almost three decades shows that during this time the militaristic and messianic attitude of the Russian elites has gained strength. Moreover, over time, they have become more accepting of Ukraine as a separate state, while the idea of Russia annexing it or its territories has remained unpopular. Russia's failures on the international stage, its isolation from the West, and the reduction of its global influence are leading to results contrary to the expectations of the elites. Ultimately, this could devalue Putin's political capital in their eyes, which was built on the image of a strong leader who bolstered Russia's position on the international stage. Although the regime has done much to suppress any outward signs of protest among the elite and convince them of the population's loyalty to the invasion, one should not underestimate the potential for 'betrayed expectations' among the elites, which could manifest itself if favourable conditions arise or if a significant level of ‘accumulated fatigue’ is reached.

From the very beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, politicians and analysts have been trying to understand and predict the reaction of the Russian elites to the war and its transition into a protracted conflict. Is the invasion of Ukraine a reflection of their sentiments or a personal venture of Putin? Why, despite their high level of business and personal integration with the Western world, have the elites failed to influence the course of events, and under what conditions could an intra-elite conflict or crisis emerge? The failed Prigozhin coup sparked a wave of discussion about the prevailing sentiments within the Russian elite.

And this is quite natural — for the stability of autocracies, elite support is even more important than public approval: more than two-thirds of the dictators who lost power through unconstitutional means initially lost the support of insiders from their own regime, writes one of the leading contemporary experts on dictatorships, Milan Svolik, in his book. Comments on the sentiments of Russian elites are in demand and popular, but they are usually based on the impressions of their authors from sporadic interactions with various representatives of this class. In reality, researchers and analysts have a very limited set of tools and data to judge the prevailing views within the Russian elite. One such rare resource is a survey of Russian elites conducted under the guidance of Professor William Zimmerman of the University of Michigan from 1993 to 2020, in which 180 to 320 individuals participated in different waves. Over the course of 27 years, 1,909 representatives of the highest echelons of legislative and executive power, security agencies, state corporations, private business, media, and scientific and educational institutions in Russia were surveyed. Of course, the survey did not include the key figures of the Putin regime who directly participated in the decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, understanding the evolution of the attitudes of the 'broad' class of the Russian elite can shed light on the direction events may take within the regime's inner circle and what could lead to its crisis.

Despite the fact that the last wave of the survey took place in February-March 2020 (245 respondents), that is, before the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sharon Wening Rivera writes in an article for the Russian Analytical Digest that the data collected over nearly three decades allows us to trace fundamental trends and draw some conclusions regarding the perception of the war in Ukraine by Russian elites.

On the one hand, during the survey period, militaristic and messianic sentiments gained strength among the elites. In 2020, the overall level of approval for the use of the Russian armed forces beyond the country's borders was significantly higher than in the early 2000s. The proportion of those willing to send troops to ensure the 'safety of our international friends' increased from 29% in 2016 to 42% in 2020 — a record high in the history of the survey. In 2020, 46% of the elite representatives surveyed were willing to use the army to protect the 'interests of Russian citizens in other countries,' compared to 42% in 2012 and just 19% in 2016. Predictably, respondents displayed an even greater readiness to involve the armed forces in protecting the 'interests of Russians residing in the former Soviet republics,' which reflects the prevailing public perception that the post-Soviet space is a zone of special interest for Russia. This figure reached its peak in 2012 (65%), but then began to decline and reached 52% in 2020.

On the other hand, the Russian elites, as the data reveals, have come to see Ukraine as a separate state over the past quarter-century. The idea of merging Ukraine with Russia has become extremely unpopular among them. In 1995, 65% of elite respondents supported it, but by 2020, that figure had dwindled to just 5%. These findings indicate that annexing new Ukrainian territories was not expected to elicit the same effect as was observed in 2014 after Crimea. At first glance, it may seem that the first and second conclusions contradict each other, but Wening Rivera notes that these trends can coexist in the same reality. The unwillingness to revise all the borders drawn since 1991 does not negate the readiness to project Russia's influence abroad, especially if it can be done cost-effectively and efficiently.

Finally, according to the survey data, since 1993 (with the exception of 2004), elites have consistently believed that the inability to solve internal problems threatens Russia's security more than the growth of US military power. Assessments of the president's achievements on the international stage significantly differ from evaluations of his domestic performance. According to the elites, during Putin's rule, Russia's influence on the international stage (80%), respect for Russia (68%), and its military capabilities (87%) have significantly increased. However, when asked about various domestic issues, including official corruption, income inequality, the state of democracy, and human rights in Russia, elites only note a noticeable improvement in one parameter — political stability (62%). For all others, less than half of respondents believe there has been improvement, with the most criticism reserved for issues related to the country’s economy. At the same time, as Kirill Petrov and Vladimir Gelman's study based on the same survey of Russian elites shows, over time they have become disillusioned about their ability to influence the decision-making process in foreign policy.

Putin's achievements over the past 20 years in the eyes of elites, 2020, % of those surveyed*

Therefore, the drift of the Russian elite toward nationalism and militarism did occur, but it had a much more limited scope. The elites primarily saw these trends as a means to bolster the country's position on the international stage. However, annexing Ukraine or additional territories did not appear to be a significant goal for the elite. The ideology underpinning the decision to invade Ukraine, while also within the same nationalist trend, gives it an expansionist and imperialistic character. Russia's failures on the front, its isolation from the West, and the resulting decline in its global influence (including by reducing the EU's energy dependence on Moscow) are leading to results contrary to the expectations of the elites. Ultimately, this could devalue Putin's political capital, which has been built on the image of a strong leader who strengthened Russia's international position. This image is now crumbling, and the president's inability to address domestic issues, which has long been a source of concern for the elites, could exacerbate the situation.

However, this does not imply that the disillusioned elites are ready to publicly express their dissatisfaction. Since the onset of the full-scale war, the regime has done much to suppress any signs of protest within elite groups and convince them of the population's loyalty to the invasion. As it stands, the majority of the elite is trying to adapt to Putin's war and find a 'safe spot.' Nevertheless, the military, human, economic, and political costs of the invasion in Ukraine are far from being over, and the consequences of sanctions are accumulating (as evidenced by the recent sharp devaluation of the ruble), while the opportunities available to the elites continue to narrow. In these circumstances, one should not underestimate the potential for 'betrayed expectations,' which may manifest itself if favourable conditions arise or if a significant level of ‘accumulated fatigue’ is reached.