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Russia after Putin: When and how it might happen — and how dangerous it might get

The conversations about a post-Putin era have begun. Will it be a peaceful exit — or the “Game of Thrones” variety?

Russia was the runaway winner — with 21 percent of the vote — in the category “most likely to become a failed state.” (Afghanistan, at 10 percent, was a distant second). Forty percent of respondents forecast a Russian revolution, civil war or other cataclysm. Interestingly — and perhaps as distressing as any of the findings — more of the experts (14 percent) believed Russia would unleash a nuclear war than that it would become a democratic country (10 percent).

The opening line of the entire report? “Prepare for Russia’s coming crack-up.”

In 2021, six months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I launched a similar, if less comprehensive, research effort of my own. It was a YouTube project I called “After Putin,” in which I discussed the future of Russia with Russian politicians, economists and various media influencers with a focus on what would happen after Russian President Vladimir Putin left the Kremlin. I pitched it to a popular liberal media platform, but even they were reluctant to run anything about a post-Putin Russia.

Back then, talk of a “crack-up” or post-Putin future was more like science fiction. Putin — already in his 21st year in power — wasn’t going anywhere. Regime change seemed a naïve or fantastic proposition.

But along with everything else that the war in Ukraine has changed, it has changed this conversation completely. “After Putin” may still be a naïve dream for Russians and others who wish him gone, but it’s not some wild fiction anymore.

“Planning for the future after a traumatic present is one of the most effective ways to get out of depression,” said Irina Livanova, a psychotherapist from Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, who spoke on the condition on anonymity using a pseudonym. “And in 2022, depression reached a huge number of people [in Russia]. Now my clients are more interested in future forecasts than ever before.”

So are a growing number of political observers and analysts, and would-be contenders for the Russian presidency. The after-Putin conversation is happening.

Inside Russia, the conversation itself is a dangerous business. But it’s also increasingly relevant, as the war grinds on and Putin and his army have little to show for all the blood and soldiers lost.

If Putin leaves, how might it happen?

The “life after Putin” question begins with the circumstances under which he might leave the Kremlin.

Abbas Gallyamov thinks he knows the answer. From 2008 until 2010, Gallyamov worked as a Kremlin aide; among other things, he used to write speeches for Putin. Today, Gallyamov is a political scientist in exile, and he’s confident that support from Europe and the U.S. will ensure Russia’s defeat in the war. And that, he believes, is what will drive Putin from power.

In Gallyamov’s scenario, after Russia’s humiliation in Ukraine, Putin’s entourage of aides and close friends will suggest that he leave, and doing so will constitute his only safe “exit strategy.” And while many analysts believe the war will drag on longer, Gallyamov expects all this to happen in 2023.

Ekaterina Shulman has been thinking about these scenarios as well. Shulman is one of Russia’s most popular and respected political scientists; she is an associate fellow at Chatham House, associate professor at the Moscow School for the Social and Economic Sciences, and her YouTube channel has more than 1 million subscribers. She left Russia after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and now lives in Germany.

A similar view is shared by Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Russia’s most popular opposition radio station, Ekho Moskvy, which was banned by the Kremlin shortly after the outbreak of war. Not long ago, Venediktov was on speaking terms with Putin and close to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Unlike others quoted here, he still lives in Russia.

Then there is the well-known political scientist and lawyer Vladimir Pastukhov, a senior fellow at University College London who served as counsel to the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, the Russian parliament and the Moscow mayor’s office, and was forced to leave Russia after facing politically motivated charges in 2008.

Pastukhov believes that while Putin may survive for a while longer, Putinism — the ideology that blends authoritarian rule with a nationalism that seeks the creation (Putin himself would say “restoration”) of a broad Russian sphere of influence — is doomed. Pastukhov also thinks some kind of “crack-up” is likely. He sees two ways forward for Russia: either a “decentralization” of power that “guarantees that one day it will not turn into such an imperial-messianic monster,” or a more violent “disintegration.”

“It will be a two-step process. Putin’s conditional departure, a transition period of six months to three years, and after that the decision point is either decentralization or disintegration.” he said. “This will be decided by the elites, and everything will depend on their maturity, responsibility and ability to reach an agreement at least once in their lives.”

If Putin leaves, who and what might follow?

What would happen in the Kremlin if Putin retired tomorrow or was driven from power?

In the first scenario — a softer, quieter exit — many believe that the most likely day-after-Putin scenario is that a protégé of Putin’s comes to power. In my view, much will depend on the mood of Putin’s close entourage. If these people are motivated by a wish to recoup the yachts, ski resorts and real estate they have lost due to Western sanctions, they will want to improve relations with the West. And to do so, they will have to put a compromise figure in the Kremlin.

Gallyamov, the former Kremlin speechwriter, believes that a post-Putin candidate will be chosen from those who have participated only minimally in the high-octane, militaristic nationalism of recent years. Such figures may include Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin or the deputy head of the president’s office, Dmitry Kozak. All three might be described as managers or technocrats rather than hard-line “patriots” or demagogues.

“The successor must be more liberal and more democratic than Putin,” Gallyamov said. “But at the same time, not so liberal as to cause a fundamental resentment of the security forces.”

In the out-of-the-box category, Gallyamov thinks Putin may turn to his family for a successor — specifically, to his youngest daughter. In July 2022, Katerina Tikhonova was named co-chair of the coordinating council for import substitution at the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Not exactly a critical post, but Gallyamov thinks the appointment may have been an effort to launch her political career.

Other analysts believe that if Putin leaves voluntarily — again, the “softer” version of regime change — his team will look for the weakest possible person to take the reins.

“If I were a representative of one of the Kremlin towers, I would say: Let Dima [short for Dmitry] reign again. As long as he is weak, he will not execute anyone, he will not be thrown from the towers, he will have to compromise, and then we will figure it out.”

Shulman agreed with Gallyamov that if the system is fortunate enough to pull off a clean version of what she calls the “successor operation,” the next president will be taken from the ranks of less hard-line civilian officials. A young governor or minister might fit the bill.

“People will want a peacetime leader who will heal wounds, listen to everyone, understand, restore peaceful life,” she said.

But then Shulman added a cautionary note: If Putin leaves anytime soon, she said, “everyone, except the dead, will be in the game.”

A Russian “Game of Thrones”?

What if — as many believe — a “successor operation” isn’t “clean” at all? Then what?

Roman Anin is editor-in-chief of the Vazhnye Istorii (Important Stories) media project, which the Kremlin labeled as an “undesirable organization” and banned in March 2022. He now lives in exile, dividing his time between Europe and the U.S. and reporting and writing investigative pieces about Russia.

Anin believes that the private military group PMC Wagner and other lesser-known armed “gangs” have begun the fight for future power in Russia. And nothing he said suggests a “soft” transition if Putin were to leave power; he compared this looming battle to “Game of Thrones.”

According to Anin and others, the clans share one thing in common: “They are all subject to no law.”

Who wins in a contest of these competing clans?

Today, the Wagner Group and Prigozhin are — almost as much as the Russian army — the war’s main protagonists. Prigozhin recruits fighters from prisons. He has tens of thousands of these freed criminals at his disposal.

Spend some time on various Russian online platforms and you get the sense that many Russians aren’t interested in what Shulman calls a softer, “peacetime leader”; they dream of an even stronger hand than Putin’s at the till. It’s probably naïve to believe that a post-Putin democratic election — assuming a free and fair election can happen in today’s Russia — will bring to power a figure who will quickly remake the country into a stable, predictable democracy. Putinism, in other words, may live on.

When the Kremlin loses its monopoly on violence

As they do battle with one another, the leaders of those groups — “clans,” “gangs,” whatever one calls them — have begun to criticize publicly the decisions of the Ministry of Defense and the Kremlin. Some have gone so far as to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence.

Such episodes have led some observers to think that political change will come sooner rather than later.

“The collapse of the state’s monopoly on legal violence is one of the signs of the collapse of the state,” said Shulman. “Any government will hold on to this monopoly with all hands and feet. … No one but the state should be doing this. If the leader tolerates this, then it becomes very dangerous.”

Life after Putin

He may be right; “Putinism” may have a long life. But I am not so sure.

Many smart observers believe that before any Russian revival there will have to be a Russian collapse, a version of that “crack-up” the Atlantic Council’s experts imagined. In this view, the dream of a quick Russian renaissance is fantasy; just as Japan and Germany were crushed before they were reborn as democratic powers, Russia must be torn apart before a new and truly post-Putinist nation rises in its place.

“There is an opinion that it’s necessary to disarm everyone to the last degree,” said Shulman, “like Japan after the war, like Germany, that there must be a demilitarized Russia.”

As for my own view of Russia’s future, I am a realist, after 25 years spent observing the country’s politics.

Today, on the one hand, I still hope for a relatively peaceful transition of power in Russia, one that might go like this: A group of elites, those who have not actively and loudly supported the war (perhaps Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor, or Kozak, the deputy head of the president’s office), having gotten rid of Putin and restored relations with the West, will reform the country, step by step. Slowly, a set of rules and a more stable system of governance will come into play, one that will allow a transition from personality-based rule to rule by law. That’s my hope, and I think there’s a chance it could happen.

Sadly, I think a worst-case scenario is more likely: Putin and his commanders will attempt to win the war in Ukraine at any cost, and after failing to do so (unless, of course, the West suddenly leaves Kyiv to do battle alone), that “Game of Thrones” scenario will come into play. A protracted internecine war might easily lead to the collapse of the country.

Any true Russian rebirth will require rebuilding the state system and legislative bodies, rebooting the economy, and repairing the judicial and prison systems. An international court cannot be avoided, as well as the payment of reparations to Ukraine, if Russia wants to become a full-fledged member of the international community.

But I also think that the most important and most difficult thing will be to give the Russians the right to choose — even given the reasonable fear that when they go to the polls, the people of Russia may elect someone just like Putin. Or someone even worse. This, after all, is how democracy works.

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