I am hearing a common refrain in the discourse around the Russian domestic situation: If and when the oligarchs who hold the real power get fed up, Putin’s reign will be ended.
I say this is nonsense. I say this will not happen. I say this assertion is based on a fundamental misapprehension about the relationship between Putin and the oligarchs — the various tycoons and figureheads installed atop the industrial and economic giants of Russia — and about the nature of power in Russia.
Putin does not serve at their pleasure. They have their wealth at his. And they have essentially no leverage over him.
The arrangement, basically, was this: When Putin arose, he looked around at the potential competition, and he offered them a deal. You agree that I’m in charge, he said, and I will make you rich. That’s the tradeoff, and the terms are absolute. I have unquestioned, undiluted power over the state. You will not challenge me, threaten me, or contradict me in any way. You will stay out of politics; you will not cultivate relationships in the military or any other security organizations. You will accept that I have unlimited and unconditional dictatorial power. And in exchange, I will see that you become obscenely wealthy.
Consider the example of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He was leading one of many of Russia’s oil companies, and initially found success under Yeltsin. When Putin arrived, he went along with the arrangement at first, and wound up at the summit of Russia’s oil industry. At the peak of his power, he was the richest man in Russia. But he insisted on questioning the corruption that had begun under Yeltsin and then became entrenched and endemic with Putin’s explicit spoils system, so his whole world was torn down. His fortune was dismantled and he was thrown into prison. Now, he lives in exile in the UK, with barely a fraction of a fraction of his previous wealth.
He was the richest man in Russia, and Putin demolished and discarded him as an example to the others.
The surviving oligarchs cannot coordinate with each other. Putin keeps everyone under surveillance; if they try to conspire, he will know, and he will pick them apart. They have no meaningful power, anyway; they have vast amounts of money, but with no connections to Putin’s security services, they have no levers whose movement they can purchase. Putin has spent more than two decades filtering out disloyal forces and consolidating his power over those who remain, and there’s essentially nothing left on which the oligarchs could potentially get a grip, even in the event they decided they would want to.
Appealing to the frustration of the Russian oligarchs is a non-starter. If Putin is removed against his will, it won’t be by any of them, directly or indirectly.
So unless someone has good reason to believe that one of these billionaires has some mechanism of political force that has somehow escaped Putin’s notice, it would be nice if this argument went away. It’s nonsense.