Most Russian officials have adopted a strategy of silence on the war in Ukraine. First of all – especially for those who privately oppose the war – this is likely due to a fear of oppression for their views, compounded by the mysterious spate of deaths among Russia’s elites over the past year and a half that some analysts have dubbed “sudden Russian death syndrome”.
But silence has been the prevailing strategy also for officials whose opinions may not pose a risk to their physical safety. On the one hand, this approach allows them to hold on to their positions in Russia’s government (by not condemning the war); on the other hand, it lessens their chances of ending up on Western sanctions lists (by not publicly expressing their support for it).
Yet, as the effects of the war seep into more areas of Russian society, silence has become untenable for some officials – and they are increasingly beginning to vocally back the war in Ukraine or demonstrate support for it through their actions.
This increased support for the war, despite the risk of sanctions, is the result of a rational decision-making process. That is, Russian officials have begun to find more benefits than costs in openly supporting the war. This happens generally when they are faced with one of three circumstances: the ideologisation of their spheres of work, competition for resources, or a need for recognition from the Kremlin. Large numbers of Russian officials will likely find themselves affected by these situations over the coming months, so the trend of more of them openly supporting the war will continue – unless Western policymakers can increase the costs of speaking up.
Risks and benefits
Firstly, some federal officials’ areas of responsibility are gradually becoming more ideologically charged due to the impact of the war, leading to a shift in their public stance.
For instance, Russia’s minister of sport, Oleg Matytsin, initially refrained from expressing his views on the war and responded with restraint to international sports associations suspending cooperation with the country. But, as more sports federations joined the boycott, and sport became another arena for ideological confrontation between Russia and the West, his rhetoric hardened. With the Kremlin’s support, the Ministry of Sport began to politicise Russian sports, condemning athletes who changed their citizenship or spoke against the war, urging athletes not to compete under a neutral flag, and planning the World Friendship Games – Russia’s equivalent of the Olympic Games, to which it cynically intends to invite Ukraine.
Since last year, the Kremlin has also been increasingly contrasting Russian “traditional values” against liberal Western values, for example through restrictions on its gender policy. In November 2022, the Russian government introduced the complete prohibition of public discussions of LGBTQ+ topics. In July 2023, it banned all gender-affirming care and changes of gender on official documents. Against this backdrop, health minister Mikhail Murashko, who had refrained from making public statements about the war in 2022, is gradually becoming a more active critic of the West, endorsing conservative positions. In April 2023, Murashko was one of the few federal ministers to visit the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories.
Moreover, in June of this year, education minister Sergei Kravtsov stated that the “information war waged against Russia by the collective West” was Russia’s primary challenge. Since the start of the all-out invasion, the ministry of education has conducted evaluations of Ukrainian textbooks allegedly found in the Kherson region, citing the “glorification of Nazism”. It has also actively promoted the ideologisation of Russian school education by adapting Russian textbooks to promote its view of the war and offering those who fought in Ukraine the opportunity to teach a subject at school. In August 2023, Kravtsov also paid an official visit to the occupied territories.
Secondly, some officials have remained quieter in public, but, following 24 February, on their own initiative assumed control over matters that directly support the war. Handling such issues allowed them to secure influence and resources previously held by other government bodies.
In July 2022, minister of industry and trade Denis Manturov was appointed deputy prime minister and with that role the authority to oversee defence spending, a responsibility previously held by another official. Russian experts have explained this appointment through Manturov’s longstanding efforts, along with the Rostec state military-industrial giant, to secure substantial budgets for military equipment for the Russian army. When the war began, it became evident that the government was inefficient in deploying these budgets. Leaders in the Kremlin, recognising Manturov as an effective manager during his tenure as trade minister, likely agreed to his appointment to enhance efficiency. Since then, Manturov has supplemented his role in military matters with public actions in support of the war, and even visited the occupied Kherson region in June 2023.
Another official who has expanded his bureaucratic responsibilities since the war began is digital development minister, Maksut Shadaev. Following President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilisation in September 2022, Russian leaders realised that military commissioners’ offices had been maintaining inadequate records of individuals eligible for military service. This hindered their ability to conscript men of the appropriate age and military qualifications. Shadaev, tasked with leading the digitalisation of military registration in Russia, proposed a solution to this problem: the creation of a “super register” containing extensive data on eligible Russians. This not only provides additional funding for the Ministry of Defence, but also enhances the ministry’s long-term status, granting it access to valuable data potentially useful to law enforcement agencies and others.
Finally, governors of certain Russian regions have found silence increasingly painful. Most regional governors typically steer clear of publicly endorsing the war, especially during election campaigns, as the public has grown weary of this agenda. But some are now leveraging their more open support of the war to curry favour with the Kremlin.
Oleg Kozhemyako, the governor of the Primorsky Krai region in Russia’s far east, made his first visit to the battlefields of Ukraine in April 2022. He has since repeated the journey at least ten times – more than any other regional governor. Kozhemyako likely seeks to gain political advantage in his longstanding power struggle with Yuri Trutnev, who serves as the presidential watchdog in the far east and has regular contact with Putin, unlike regional governors. In 2023, Kozhemyako was successfully re-elected, although this was accompanied by rumours of his resignation due to pressure from Trutnev – who wants to install his protegee as governor in the region.
A similar situation occurred with Valentin Konovalov, the Communist Party governor of the Khakassia region in southern Siberia. Konovalov secured victory in the 2018 election against the ruling party’s candidate, a move that soured the Kremlin’s attitude towards him. In 2023, a candidate from the ruling party, touting himself as a “veteran of the war in Ukraine”, was nominated against Konovalov in Khakassia. In response, Konovalov, who had previously steered clear of war-related topics, began actively supporting pro-war organisations and announced the installation of a monument honouring soldiers killed in the war. As a result, the government candidate was withdrawn from the election, but the Kremlin did not postpone or cancel the election, allowing Konovalov to be re-elected.
How the EU can shift the scales
The European Union and its member states should respond by quickly ramping up personal sanctions on officials such as these. Hungary, however, has already obstructed EU sanctions against, among others, Matytsin, Murashko, and Manturov. The EU therefore needs to start by aiming to secure consensus among member states on personal sanctions against this newly noisy type of bureaucrat. It should then establish clearer and more widely publicised criteria to place bureaucrats on sanctions lists, based on officials’ public support for the war through their either their words or their deeds.
A more imminent and certain risk of consequences would help to shift the balance of costs and benefits back towards silence, likely hindering the Kremlin’s ability to showcase unified support for Putin’s choice to wage war. This could even raise the – still improbable – risk of an elite split from the Putin regime, which could pave the way for democratisation.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.