What next for Russia’s high-profile defectors?

Only a few members of the business and political elite have criticised Ukraine war

Vladimir Putin during a meeting of he Summit of Collective Security Treaty Organisation
Vladimir Putin’s invasion has remained muted among Russia’s elite
(Image credit: Contributor/Getty Images)

While Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion is being backed by the majority of Russia’s power brokers, life has changed forever for those who have broken ranks.

Hundreds of thousands of Russians are thought to have fled since February, including “intellectuals, journalists and activists” who “voiced their opposition to the conflict”, said The Guardian. But “among the political and business elites, defections have been extremely rare”, with only a “only a tiny handful” publicly criticising the Kremlin.

Earlier this week, Boris Bondarev, a diplomat posted to the Russian mission to the UN in Geneva, became “the highest-level Russian diplomat to denounce the war”, the paper reported. Bondarev wrote that he was “ashamed” of his country, in a “scathing” letter announcing his resignation that he fears could cost him his safety.

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Conscientious objectors

Bondarev’s “rare political resignation” over the war comes as Putin continues to “crack down on dissent” within Russia, said Sky News.

Bondarev reportedly told the BBC that “he knew his decision to speak out may mean the Kremlin now considers him a traitor”. But “he stood by his statement” condemning the invasion, the broadcaster added.

In the letter, posted on LinkedIn, the diplomat said that he had decided to end his 20-year career because he could “no longer share in this bloody, witless and absolutely needless ignominy”.

“Those who conceived of this war want only one thing – to stay in power forever,” he wrote. “To achieve that, they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this.”

In an interview with Sky News, Bondarev said he was “concerned” about his “safety”, and that “there is a possibility” that Moscow would retaliate.

He added that while many of his colleagues in the Russian civil service were not “warmongering” and “are reasonable”, they “have to keep their mouths shut”.

Bondarev is not alone in taking a stand against the invasion, however.

Igor Volobuyev “spent two decades working in the heart of the Russian business establishment”, for state energy company Gazprom and then for its affiliate Gazprombank, where he rose to the position of vice-president, The Guardian reported.

But the Ukraine-born executive resigned in February, and subsequently told Russian independent newspaper The Insider that he “could no longer be in Russia”.

Volobuyev, who has since joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Force, said he “could no longer observe from the outside what Russia is doing with my homeland”.

“This is a crime on the part of Putin, the Russian government and, in fact, the Russian people,” he continued. “Although Ukrainian by nationality, I also bear responsibility for this. I am ashamed. I will repent for this all my life because I have a double responsibility.”

Speaking to The Guardian, Volobuyev said he was “never going back to Russia”.

“In Gazprom, there were a few passionate Putinists, but the majority of people understood exactly what kind of country they lived in,” he told the paper.

“A lot of people in Russia are just scared. You have this internal censorship, that it’s dangerous to say certain things, and you live with this permanently.”

Silence in the ranks

Volobuyev was “a mid-ranking cog in the Gazprom machine”, said The Guardian. But few “have dared to break ranks” in the “higher business echelons”, which has been hit by a string of unexplained deaths in recent weeks.

Oleg Tinkov, a self-made billionaire who founded one of Russia’s largest and most influential financial institutions, “has so far been the most outspoken public opponent of the war among the business elite”, the paper added.

In one of a series of critical Instagram posts, the Tinkoff Bank founder wrote: “I don’t see ANY beneficiary of this crazy war! Innocent people and soldiers are dying.”

In response, the Kremlin forced him to “sell his assets at a knockdown price to an oligarch loyal to the Kremlin”, The Guardian reported.

In an interview with Russian journalist Yury Dud, Tinkov claimed that many of his fellow billionaires shared his sentiments about the conflict. “I have spoken to 12 of the top 20 on the Forbes list personally, and they all support me, there is a full consensus,” he said.

But half feared that speaking out would wreck their employees’ livelihoods, Tinkov claimed, while “the other half say, ‘We’ll make a statement and then lose our business, like you, and then what, what have you achieved?’”

Holding firm

“As resignation letters go”, said the BBC’s Russia editor Steve Rosenberg, Bondarev’s was truly “scathing”. The diplomat “didn't hold back”, levelling “criticism at Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian offensive in Ukraine”.

But while the letter was “embarrassing for the Russian authorities”, who “like to make out that the state machine is fully behind” the invasion, “one resignation does not automatically mean that many more will follow”, Rosenberg continued.

Bondarev has already “admitted that he’s in the minority”. For now, at least, it appears that “most officials in the Russian Foreign Ministry back the official line and support the Kremlin's ‘special operation’”.

The same appears to be true of Russia’s civilian elite, which “despite the relative failure of the invasion so far”, looks unlikely to “implode”, said Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky in The Washington Post.

For almost all of the “Putin-era breed of establishment figure”, he wrote, “carrying on has more upside than defecting”.

A “trickle of business figures” may become increasingly critical, but “anyone looking for ministers, generals, state TV chiefs, presidential aides and oligarchs” to turn on Putin “will be disappointed”.

And “if the rats aren’t running, the ship isn’t sinking”, Bershidsky added. “At least, not from the rats’ point of view.”

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