As Ukraine War Rages, Russia’s Anti-Putin Forces Fractured By Mudslinging, Mutual Allegations

File Photo of Kremlin Tower, St. Basil's, Red Square at Night

(Article text Copyright © 2023 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036. – – Robert Coalson – March 9, 2023 – article text also appeared at

A major new investigative report by the team of imprisoned Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny charges that the Moscow mayor’s office has spent billions of rubles since 2018 through a “slush fund” to promote the image of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

But in addition to pro-Kremlin media personalities such as RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan and her husband, pro-Kremlin commentator and producer Tigran Keosayan, the report revealed that millions of dollars from the fund went to prominent figures in liberal Russian circles, including television personality and former presidential candidate Ksenya Sobchak and Aleksei Venediktov, the former chief editor of the shuttered Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Venediktov has confirmed that a company owned by him received about 700 million rubles ($9 million) from the mayor’s office to publish a series of magazines on the history of Moscow’s numerous districts. In a Facebook post on March 8, Venediktov wrote that the project was terminated when President Vladimir Putin’s government labeled him a “foreign agent” in April 2022, adding that “I personally did not earn one kopeck on this project, but I consider it an excellent educational initiative.”

“I leave all the insinuations, assumptions, and suppositions on the consciences of those who insinuate, assume, and suppose,” Venediktov wrote, noting that he had discussed the project in a BBC interview in April 2020.

However, the March 7 report by Navalny’s banned Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) alleges that the money from Sobyanin’s office was connected with Venediktov’s vocal public support for Russia’s electronic voting system, which opposition figures have charged is opaque and a tool of Kremlin election falsification.

The report provoked a strong reaction within liberal Russian circles, with people like Putin foe and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky accusing the FBK of launching a “witch-hunt,” and political analyst Kirill Rogov calling it a “vendetta” against Venediktov.

“It is good that by publishing today’s investigation, Navalny’s team has managed to get the liberals feuding,” political commentator Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter, wrote in a sarcastic Facebook post. “God forbid anyone should think they are capable of uniting!”

‘A Big Political Mistake’

On March 9, Venediktov returned fire and published a letter to European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell from top Navalny aide and FBK head Leonid Volkov requesting that the EU lift sanctions against prominent Russian banker Mikhail Fridman and his business partners in the Alfa-Group financial holding.

“We do not believe that they were somehow connected to the Putin’s regime [sic] or that they should be held responsible for his crimes,” Volkov wrote in the letter dated October 14, 2022.

Around the same time, Fridman — who has called for “the bloodshed to end” in Ukraine without directly blaming Russia — offered to transfer $1 billion of his personal assets to an Alfa-Group bank in Ukraine if the United Kingdom agreed to lift sanctions against him.

The previous day, Venediktov published the text of a letter signed by numerous Russian liberals — including Volkov — addressed to Borrell and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and making a similar request to lift sanctions against Alfa-Group managers. Volkov denied signing the letter, writing on Twitter that his signature had been “Photoshopped.”

Almost immediately after the October letter appeared, however, Volkov — who was designated a “foreign agent” by the Russian government on the same day in April 2022 as Venediktov — acknowledged he had written it and said it was a “big political mistake.”

Volkov announced that he was suspending his work with the FBK and his “public political activity,” and offered his apologies to Navalny and his FBK colleagues. He said he had “exceeded his authority” by signing the letter in the name of the FBK instead of in a personal capacity.

He added that he had taken the action in the hopes that the selective lifting of sanctions could create splits within Russia’s ruling elites and hasten the demise of Putin’s government.

“It is painful to see how this story is being used by Putin’s friends of all types to try to sully Navalny, who has been illegally held in prison under torturous conditions for more than two years,” Volkov wrote on Telegram.

“We must not forget about the main thing: for more than a year there has been a criminal, insane, full-scale war, launched by Putin, and there is nothing in the world more important than ending that war, which can only be done by defeating Putin,” he wrote.

Journalist Yevgenia Albats wrote on Twitter that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) must be enjoying the spectacle of the infighting from its offices on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.

“All of Lubyanka is watching from the stalls, reading the posts of Volkov, Venediktov, and [journalist Sergei] Parkhomenko while throwing in information, scandalous tidbits, and stolen letters,” Albats wrote. “Come on, liberals! There is a war. Kyiv is being bombed again. Eight people died overnight. Putin is going on the attack and the liberals respond by throwing crap at one another.”

‘Parks And Public Benches’

For the FBK report, Navalny’s team examined more than 100,000 bank transactions connected to a tax-payer-funded “autonomous noncommercial organization” run by Sobyanin’s office called My District (Moi Raion).

“Although it looks like a harmless municipal initiative,” My District is really Sobyanin’s “slush fund and a slush fund for United Russia in Moscow,” the report states, referring to the ruling political party that is a key element of Putin’s vertical power structure. “The mayor’s office transfers to it huge sums of money, almost 14 billion rubles ($184 million) just in 2021.”

My District money went to numerous projects seemingly aimed at promoting Sobyanin and connecting his name and face to many of the development projects being carried out in the capital, it says.

Commercial organizations controlled by Simonyan, Keosayan, and their relatives were allegedly given nearly 250 million rubles ($3.2 million) in 2021 to produce online shows that promoted Putin and United Russia, as well as the ongoing war against Ukraine, while serving as platforms for commercials advertising new schools, parks, galleries, and sporting facilities built under Sobyanin’s supervision, the records examined by FBK show.

Other pro-Kremlin media outlets such as LifeNews, the Telegram channel Mash, and the nationalist social-media network Tsargrad also received money from the fund for content promoting Sobyanin, the report alleges, including posts on Twitter, Telegram, and other social media.

The goal, according to FBK, was to create the “fiction” of a liberal flourishing under Sobyanin.

“Under the banner of reconstruction, cultural projects and various ‘incubators,’ they stole a lot of our money,” the FBK report claims. “And they spent it on completely destroying our elections, bribing so-called liberal journalists, and destroying our last political freedoms while diverting our attention with parks and public benches.”

Sobyanin’s office has not commented publicly on the report.

The FBK report comes as Moscow prepares for a mayoral election in September in which Sobyanin — a prominent member of Putin’s ruling elite and a top United Russia official — is expected to seek and be awarded a third term.

Navalny has been in custody since he returned to Russia in January 2021 following treatment abroad for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he says was carried out by Russian security agents at Putin’s behest, and is now serving a long prison term on charges he dismisses as politically motivated. He ran unsuccessfully against Sobyanin in 2013, receiving 27 percent of the vote in a count his supporters say was falsified.

Hundreds of millions of rubles went to various Kremlin-connected political consultants, purportedly for public-opinion polling on issues such as the extent to which Muscovites worry about tick-borne illnesses, the FBK report says. But in reality, it claims, the money was used to back purportedly “independent” candidates in Moscow’s 2022 municipal elections with the intent of creating an illusion of democracy while also fracturing the anti-establishment vote.