05.06.23 Future Review

If Not Putin, Then What: What could Russia be like after the war?

In the event of Putin's departure, Russia is likely to remain an authoritarian country in the near future — this is an opinion that is becoming increasingly popular in the West. Trying to imagine 'Russia after Putin,’ the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, has outlined a number of possible scenarios for the evolution of the Russian political system after Russia's defeat in Ukraine and the subsequent change of power in Moscow. According to the Chatham House report, even under the most optimistic circumstances, the Russian political regime will retain its repressive nature and anti-Western orientation within its foreign policy.

One possible scenario is that, in the second half of 2023, the Russian army suffers a series of heavy defeats in Ukraine, and no later than mid-2024, the parties sign an agreement under which Russia withdraws its troops from all occupied Ukrainian territories, including Donbas and Crimea. This defeat strikes a blow to Putin's domestic legitimacy. The 'siloviki' (members of the security forces) with the support of 'technocrats' initiate the process of 'early termination of powers' of the president. His duties are temporarily assumed by the prime minister. The elites negotiate and compromise on a successor, for whom Russians will vote in early elections, but the initial phase of the post-Putin regime (before and immediately after the elections) represents an uninstitutionalised collective leadership. This means that decisions are still primarily made through informal channels. At the same time, Russia and Ukraine remain unable to conclude a peace treaty: Russia's unwillingness to pay reparations and to prosecute those whom Ukraine and the West consider war criminals remains a stumbling block within negotiations. As a result, much of the Western sanctions remain in place.

Duncan Allan, a visiting scholar at the British Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, addresses this possible scenario and attempts to model the most likely 'Russia at the end of 2027' in a new report. When trying to envision future scenarios for Russia today, analysts and experts fall into two camps: 'personalists' and 'structuralists.' The former believe that with Putin's departure from power, the contours of Russian domestic and foreign policies could change dramatically, as the next leader will not be burdened by Putin's 'complexes.' The latter argue that it is 'not about Putin.' The Kremlin's foreign and domestic policies are determined by structural factors: changes at the global and regional levels, the established system of patron-client relationships, and institutions. Therefore, even the departure of the regime's leader from the political stage would not promise a change in the political course.

According to Allan, whoever succeeds Putin will inherit a highly authoritarian political system. The forces capable of opposing this and demanding change in Russia are currently too weak. Thus, the post-Putin era will consolidate power within an authoritarian framework. However, future developments could follow two different trajectories.

The first scenario assumes that the new leader will strengthen their position by further centralising power, aided by a weak system of checks and balances. The security forces will not only retain their influence but also enhance it. The policy of 'tightening the screws' will continue. This could include further expansion of state control over the economy, persecution of 'loyal' opposition figures, eradication of remaining islands of freedom in the information space, increased control over Russians' travel abroad, continued anti-Western propaganda, and the imposition of 'traditional' values, including the restoration of the death penalty and the criminalisation of 'non-traditional' relationships.

However, as the experience of post-Soviet authoritarian states has shown, in Allan's hypothetical scenario of power transition from one personalised leader to another ('successor'), many influential figures within the previous dictator's security apparatus may lose their positions and even end up in prison, yielding to individuals who are personally loyal to the new leader. The new leader will be interested in strengthening their personal power, rather than 'preserving' the legacy of their predecessor.

The second scenario looks a little less bleak: the new regime will evolve towards more active consultative and collegial interaction between the president, government, and parliament, with the involvement of both formal institutions (such as a revamped Security Council) and informal 'networked state' structures. 'Authoritarian modernization' is also possible, with a gradual reduction of state intervention in the economy, an easing of pressure on civil society, and a review of politically motivated cases. By the end of 2027, Russia's political model will still be considered authoritarian by Western standards but will more closely resemble the system that existed during Putin's third presidential term (2012-2018).

However, it is possible that elite groups may enter into confrontation with one another, and marginalised groups dissatisfied with the defeat in Ukraine may mobilise against the new leadership. In an attempt to overcome these destabilising circumstances, the post-Putin authorities may resort to repressive methods, which could provoke a slide towards an even more rigid political system.

The economic prospects of the new regime depend on which sanctions are lifted. Some revival of economic relations between Russia and the West may occur, but it will be limited in its scope. On the one hand, by that time, EU countries will have significantly reduced their dependence on Russian hydrocarbon supplies. On the other hand, Western companies will be reluctant to return to the country due to an unfavourable business climate and the high risk of instability. Against this backdrop, Russia's economic ties with Asia, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and Turkey will expand by 2027, but these will be unable to replace relations with the EU, neither in terms of the volume of oil exports nor in terms of technology imports. Even if Russia avoids an economic crisis, its economy will remain inefficient in any case. The decline in living standards and the reduction of rents obtained by the elites may eventually contribute to increased political tension.

Russia's ability to project power and influence beyond its borders will significantly weaken. It will almost certainly continue to defend its rights to its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space (excluding Ukraine, which it has already lost) and will continue to expand its contacts with countries in the global South. However, it will no longer be able to achieve its former position in the West. Its influence in other regions will be constrained by the low attractiveness of Russian 'soft power' and its modest economic potential. As a result, Moscow will be forced to further align itself with China, albeit as a junior partner. The restoration of Russian military power will also be limited by economic constraints, so the Kremlin will attach great importance to nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence and as a symbolic attribute of great power.

Thus, the main features of today's Russian state system will largely persist to the end of 2027. However, as the author of the report acknowledges, even a managed succession of post-Putin leadership will create significant uncertainty. Russia's state system will continue to pose a strategic problem for the West because, even in the most favourable scenario, it is unlikely that the future government, in which intelligence services and resentment stemming from the defeat in the war with Ukraine will still occupy a prominent place, will consign its anti-Westernism to the dustbin of history.