Veterans of War Against Ukraine Become New Russian Elite

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 39


Executive Summary:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin asserts that participants of the “special military operation” should be viewed as the new elite of Russia and participate in the governing the country to sustain support from those on the front.
  • The Kremlin will be forced to show successful examples of turning the military into “elites” while periodically sacrificing part of the “old” elite to demonstrate the continuing “cleansing of Russia.”
  • Under this propagandistic scheme to manipulate the Russian population, the actual participants in the war against Ukraine, who have no real connections with politicians, will remain unwanted and make up the bulk of future societal discontent.

In his message to the Federal Assembly on February 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “participants in the special military operation must be viewed as the elite of Russia” and participate in the country’s governance. In his words, former front-line troops should take on leading positions in youth education and “be leaders in [their] regions.” Putin noted that the idea of an “elite” has “in large part been discredited” and should not apply to those who received rights and privileges “due to all sorts of processes in the economy of the 1990s” (, February 27;, February 29; see EDM, March 4). To keep the loyalty of regular Russian citizens, the Kremlin aims to produce the image that the veterans of the war in Ukraine are a “new” elite while cleansing Russia of the “old” elite.

Representatives of the Russian opposition view these statements differently. Former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky suggests that Putin is trying to “cajole” the radical patriots upon whom he is forced to rely in conducting the war. Russian publicist Vladimir Pastukhov believes that words alone will not be enough to “appease” pro-war radicals. Pastukhov argues that Putin will have to “become a traitor to his class.” In his opinion, the Kremlin leader will be forced to “surrender” some of the “Orthodox chekists” close to him and bring the most active front-line troops closer to save himself and enlist the support of the military (, March 6).

The Kremlin has thrown some cultural elites to the wolves to demonstrate that Putin “listens to the voices of the common people” (see EDM, January 17). Putin’s strategic priority, however, has always been to strike a balance between various elite groups to prevent them from gaining too much power. For a decade, the Russian leader has created the image of an arbiter trying to prevent the excessive consolidation of the elite and has played on its internal contradictions (, August 21, 2012).

Putin may sacrifice part of the “old” elite—as he has done periodically—to demonstrate the ongoing “cleansing of Russia” resulting from the war. Popular demand for such a cleansing has existed for some time, but the war in Ukraine has transformed it into state propaganda. A year ago, Russian propagandists wrote that “thanks to the special military operation … the word ‘elite’ began to regain its true meaning” and that front-line troops should become the new elite (, April 9, 2023). Six months ago, propaganda television channels reported about the “front-line exploits” of the Russian military as “the new elite of Russia” (Rutube, September 13, 2023). Under such extensive propaganda, the government is obliged to demonstrate to the population successful examples of turning the military into “elites” so that the people who shed blood on orders from the Kremlin do not feel deceived.

Putin also realizes it is crucial to retains the support of the old guard. This is necessary to prevent himself from becoming overly dependent on the military and to preserve the image of an internal enemy that he can blame for all of the Russia’s problems. Today, propagandists say that Russia cannot adequately repel the West from war because Western elites lack legitimacy and effectiveness in conflict. Western elites are not needed for victory in battle, and some are still engaged in “sabotage” (, March 4). The Putin regime has adhered to this policy for decades, blaming a “sixth column” of traitors—who have allegedly infiltrated the power structure—for all of Russia’s failures (, August 6, 2014). Putin is unprepared to abandon this policy now and take responsibility for his political shortcomings.

“Systemic liberals” and other representatives of the “old” Russian elite must accustom themselves to the fact that, though the system will hardly decide to get rid of them entirely, some of their representatives must be sacrificed periodically to satisfy “popular anger.” The most active war propagandists are demanding more such victims. The persecution of Russian celebrity Nastya Ivleeva and the guests of her “Almost Naked” party held in December 2023 was replaced by calls to punish the participants of a BDSM party in Yekaterinburg in February, declaring the partiers to be hidden opponents of the war and enemies of Russia (see EDM, January 17; Meduza, February 4;, March 3).

The “heroes” of the war against Ukraine hint that, “among the Russian fighters, there are future governors, senators, and heads of municipalities” (Readovka, February 29). The government must meet their expectations by showing “success stories” of former front-line soldiers. Independent observers, however, believe this will not help placate the growing discontent among former military personnel. An author at Novaya Gazeta, Valery Shiryaev, believes that only “ambitious people who do not have special recognition among front-line soldiers” will successfully emerge from the “Time of Heroes” personnel program announced by Putin. Simultaneously, real veterans will remain out of work, as was the case for veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War (, March 6).

The profiles of “veterans of the special operation” already trying to enter politics substantiate this conclusion. Serviceman Aleksandr Trushakin decided to run for the mayorship of Novosibirsk (, March 4). As Novosibirsk political scientists explained, however, Trushakin is not known for “exploits at the front” but rather for many years of scandalous participation in local politics, including unsuccessful campaigns, trials, and frequently changing political parties (, March 5). The image of another former soldier who decided to use the “Time of Heroes” program, Andrey Kolotovkin, is also far from that of a “simple Russian soldier.” Kolotovkin is an army general with 30 years of military experience. His wife, Yekaterina, is one of Putin’s confidants for the 2024 presidential elections (, March 4).

Another “tribute to fashion” among government officials has been wearing military-style clothing as an ostentatious sign of support for soldiers at the front (Verstka, March 6). However, against the backdrop of this performative dressing, the real participants in Russia’s war against Ukraine, who have no real connections with politicians, will remain unwanted and neglected. They will likely make up the bulk of future discontent in Russian society.