August 15, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 513

To End The War In Ukraine, Look At The Conflicts Within Russia That Are About To Erupt

August 15, 2023 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 513

Many experts praised the recent Jeddah talks in early August, which brought together high-ranking officials from some 40 nations to discuss a peace plan for Ukraine. The event received a lot of media attention, as many countries from the Global South, including China (which did not send its representative to the previous meeting in Copenhagen in June), were in attendance. Nevertheless, the result of the Jeddah talks was, as expected, poor.


No Openings For Peace Talks

Diplomatic sources at the Jeddah talks reported that an agreement had been reached to convene one more time, most probably in New Delhi. Other than that, all parties reiterated once again the importance of restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity with full compliance with the United Nation Charter, and most condemned Russia's aggression, with just a few trying not to focus on Moscow's sole responsibility for the ongoing conflict. Ukraine, which seeks to implement President Volodymyr Zelensky's "Peace Formula," issued several enthusiastic statements about the Jeddah talks,[1] but in general the summit caused little change on the ground.

Russia's stance actually became more entrenched, after the Saudi authorities briefed the Kremlin about summit's results. Russian officials reiterated that debate on peace settlements cannot be conducted without Moscow's participation, and that no agreement may ignore Russian territorial advances.[2] The Kremlin also stressed that NATO should terminate its military assistance to Ukraine, and that Kyiv must agree to its postwar neutral and demilitarized status.[3] The Ukrainians, on their part, responded that they would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin and would not debate any peace treaty before Ukraine's territory is completely liberated from Russian forces.[4]

Furthermore, the Russian authorities recently enacted a series of new laws that, according to many observers, indicate their readiness for a full-scale mobilization. These new norms increase the draft age limit to 30, allow conscripts to be sent to the front after just a month of training, and prohibit lawyers from helping young men evade the draft or apply for an alternative form of service. Additionally, a series of news reports out of Russia suggest that convicted criminals are undergoing health examinations and might be sent en masse to the front without their consent.[5]

Hence, I see no openings for peace talks. Moreover, in the upcoming months, Western powers might face increasing difficulties in supplying Ukraine with ammunition and funds, due to the mounting questions on whether this war can be won at all and whether Western assistance will end up just being a waste of money. Articles with titles such as "An Unwinnable War,"[6] "The War That Will Not End,"[7] "A War Without End,"[8] or "A War With No End In Sight"[9] have been filling the pages of respected media outlets for quite some time, and some investigative journalists argue that even the United States has no intention of ending the war with a crushing Russian defeat on the battlefield. Thus, if a military victory looks unlikely, and the peace talks are in fact rejected by both sides, other options must be considered.

Can Putin Be Toppled?

The most promising option is the gamble on a dramatic change in Russia's leadership; the recent Wagner mutiny led many people to believe that such change was possible. Since most Russian and Western analysts agree that the war will not end as long as Putin remains in the Kremlin, his possible departure is therefore considered to be the only chance for ending the hostilities. There are signs that Western leaders agree on this point (earlier this year, in Warsaw, President Joe Biden said "for God's sake, this man cannot remain in power"[10]), even though the U.S. reiterated that it has no plans to topple or assassinate Putin, and academics have repeatedly argued that "any U.S. push for regime change in Moscow is a bad idea."[11] Nevertheless, it seems that there is no other path to a lasting peace between Russia and the West – and some European scholars are starting to address the issue in a rather straightforward manner.[12] I would argue that such an option deserves consideration – but of course it must not look like a Western plot against Putin.

This task appears incredibly difficult because the Russian leadership still has the support of a large part of the population. Furthermore, Russian opposition to the war in Ukraine is almost nonexistent, as most of Russian society takes a passive and silent stance due to widespread fear caused by the current repression of dissidents.

The Russian "emigrant" opposition in the West has been betting on regime change for some time, but at the moment it is more concerned with staying comfortably abroad, and thus has become almost irrelevant inside the country. What's more, this opposition's support for Ukraine has alienated them from the rest of the Russian people. The few brave Russians who flew to Ukraine to join the Russian battalions there that made some incursions into Russian territory this summer also will not be gamechangers.[13]

Under such circumstances, most experts and policymakers believe that there is nothing to do but continue with the war of attrition, in the hope that Russia's economy will falter and the Russian public might rise up against President Putin's quarter-century-long rule.

To my mind, this option also looks dubious, since the Russian economy remains resilient in the face of the current shocks, and the government can afford to pay both the soldiers on the frontline and the industrialists who supply the needed weaponry (I'm calling this new economic model "Putin's deathonomics"[14] and insist that it might work well for at least another two or three years).

A Focus On Ruptures Inside The Russian Elite

But I'm not as pessimistic as most experts are. My point is that any "general" approach to the situation in Russia might be misleading. Even as the public seems passive and disoriented, the Russian elites are reflecting on the situation, and do not support Putin completely and unanimously. Today, the internal composition of these elites is much more complex than it was, for example, in the Soviet "times of change" in 1953 and in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, the vested interests of both the bureaucracy and of the middle class were clear: In 1953, the bureaucrats wanted an end to the purges and to the everlasting Stalin-era violence, so they welcomed Nikita Khrushchev's reforms. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the educated people were seduced by the promise of a Western way of life, and thus supported Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. However, in today's Russia, every social group is internally divided.

In bureaucracy, for example, one may think that most public officials support Putin – but this is far from obvious, even at the highest level. Quite a few officials are very ambitious and would like a swiftly rising career, skipping some of the hurdles in the present hierarchical system. They want changes, but at the same time want to keep the system that has benefited them for decades, even after Putin's departure. Many of them might be dreaming of dethroning the Kremlin's leader.

However, the highest-ranking military elite appears completely loyal to the President, since they all benefit greatly from his rule (the deputy ministers of defense are supposedly billionaires – in U.S. dollars), and remain in their positions mostly because of his favor. Yet this might not be true for the majority of mid-range generals, who had expected a good life but are now trying to survive, risking their lives in Ukraine under an ineffective and unprofessional command. In July, it was reported that another lieutenant-general had been killed in action, bringing the number of casualties of Russian generals to 11. This sector of the military might be responsive to plans for change in the Kremlin leadership.

Russian industry is widely considered to be a pillar of Putin's rule, and much of it actually is. Recent research shows that nearly all companies are either involved in Russia's war or linked to it, in one way or another. However, dozens of billionaires who once had global ambitions owned large international businesses before they were locked into Russia, with much of their fortune frozen by Western authorities. Many of them are thoroughly dissatisfied with the country's current course and outlook. Thus, the focus should be on internal ruptures inside the fabric of the elite, and on exploring the likelihood of conflict deep beneath the surface. In fact, these conflicts, to my mind, are about to erupt.

The Impact Of Lifting Sanctions On Individuals

The recent Wagner revolt, although not an attempted coup against President Putin,[15] nevertheless proved the overall fragility of the system. The degree of suspicion, already high in the Kremlin, has reached unprecedented levels in recent weeks, as there is no doubt that other groups are quietly considering a repeat of the Wagner mutiny.

Western strategists might try to ignite the smoldering conflicts – and I would argue that they have considerable leverage to do so. As everyone knows, soon after the start of the war, Russia became the world's most sanctioned country, outpacing Iran, with 9,117 individuals targeted by sanctions as of August 1, 2023.[16] However, while Western authorities occupy themselves with finding new Russians to target, these sanctions are pushing their targets closer to Putin, since they have little chance of escape. But what if the West does a U-turn and lifts all the sanctions on, say, a dozen top governmental officials who are not very actively supporting the war, a handful of generals who either serve in rear, that is, not on the frontline, or were dismissed or demoted, and a couple of dozen "oligarchs" not directly engaged in supplying the Russian military? Is Putin's response even imaginable?

Russia's business elites are now keeping a low profile, partially because the Kremlin stopped attacking them – not a single well-known Russian entrepreneur has been arrested or faced criminal investigation since the start of the war, while during the 2010s at least half a dozen entrepreneurs was targeted every year. This rare "ceasefire" against Russia's business and political elites may end if the sanctions policy changes. I would say that individual sanctions are the graphite rods inside a nuclear reactor that help control the intensity of the fission. So why not try to take some of them out? There might be other ways of fomenting internal conflicts inside Russia – for example, disseminating fake news about some officials or oligarchs communicating with Western spy agencies about Russia's future. These and other nonmilitary means of undermining Putin's regime should not be ruled out.


In order to end Russia's war against Ukraine, Russia's war within itself must be ignited – a war of all against all, in which no one knows their real friends or enemies. To do this, the West may send fake signals, both officially and unofficially, suggesting that some of the Russian elite had changed sides and betrayed President Putin. No one in the West should care whether it's true or false, as long as it is convincing.

As Jesus said, "If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand" (Mark 3:25). So why not try to divide Putin's house? These days, the West has many ways of doing this safely and unilaterally, without even needing to seek support from within Russia...


*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor, and Founder and Director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.


[1], August 7, 2023.

[2], August 6, 2023.

[3], August 6, 2023.

[4], August 7, 2023.

[5], August 8, 2023.

[6], June 5, 2023.

[7], April 13, 2023.

[8], May 12, 2022.

[9], April 28, 2023.

[10], March 26, 2022.

[11], May 25, 2022.

[12], June 28, 2023.

[13], June 2, 2023.

[14], July 11, 2023.

[16], March 8, 2022;, February 22, 2023.

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