05.10.22 Future Review

Russia After: amid Putin's failure in the war with Ukraine, experts and elites focus more on power transit scenarios and the search for a presidential successor

Russian elites and the population no longer perceive Putin as a guarantor of stability; on the contrary, he is becoming a factor of intense destabilization. Putin's series of failures in his war with Ukraine, the lack of sufficient support even from potential allies such as China and India, and the hopeless economic situation make experts think about possible scenarios for his departure and the configuration of "Russia after Putin" more often. Recently several articles on this topic have been published at once.

"Until this September, Russian elites had pragmatically chosen Putin's side as guaranteed against defeat. Now everything has gone so far they may have to choose between losing scenarios," Tatyana Stanovaya, a visiting expert at the Carnegie Center, writes. The elites do not understand why such sacrifices are being made because, unlike Putin, they do not perceive the problem of Ukraine as an "existential" one. The elites do not understand not only why Russia started the conflict with Ukraine, which is going even further, but also the exact goal of this conflict. No one but Putin knows which territories of Ukraine need to be seized and what to achieve to consider the task completed. "There is no official position or unity within the elite on what is considered a final victory," Stanovaya says. Putin's nuclear threats are another reason to detach from him. These threats look more and more like an attempt to turn his own mistakes into an exorbitant cost for everyone.

Considering the different "defeat scenarios," the current Russian elites could agree on a "successor" chosen by Putin, Stanovaya believes. But the time to decide on a candidate is limited: the weaker Putin is, the less likely the elites will accept his candidate without objection. Over time, there is a growing risk the elites themselves, without consulting the president, will seek and present their candidate to the public.

"Politico" goes through Putin's possible replacements, considering several transit scenarios. The first, "Operation Successor", implies Putin is playing a proactive role and, realizing the inevitability of leaving, chooses his successor (as Tatiana Stanovaya writes). In this case, "Politico" names Patrushev Sr (Secretary of the Security Council), Dmitry Medvedev, Alexei Dyumin, Putin's former bodyguard and appointed governor of the Tula region, and the "prince" Dmitry Patrushev, son of the Security Council Secretary who serves as Minister of Agriculture. The second scenario, "Kremlin conspiracy", gives the leading role to the "forces", but the leading figure of their coup could be Prime Minister Mishustin or Moscow mayor Sobyanin, Politico suggests. In the "Orange Revolution" scenario, the newspaper gives the central role to two opposition figures — Alexei Navalny and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Finally, noting that Russia does not have a tradition of military coups, the newspaper considers the "Troublesome Time" scenario. It would mean Putin's overthrow by the military and mentions General Mizintsev, the "butcher of Mariupol", recently appointed deputy defense minister, and the media militants Kadyrov and Prigozhin.

Russian political expert Abbas Galliamov analyzes the scenario of choosing a successor more profoundly and realistically. According to him, Putin's figure has lost its sacred character in the eyes of the elites, and the political and administrative machine may be unable to cope with his next re-election. Growing instability creates the danger of an "Orange Scenario," where the elites would lose the leverage to maintain the broader status quo. Therefore, the elites are interested in finding a "successor" whose main task would be to calm the political situation inside and outside Russia.

The essential characteristics of this successor should be personal loyalty to Putin, credibility with the "forces", and a minimal anti-rating in the eyes of the public. However, finding a candidate who will be relatively acceptable to the "forces", patriots, liberals, and the West and, at the same time, ready to defend Putin's interests is very difficult. 

In this context, Galliamov analyses the figures of four candidates — Dmitry Patrushev (Minister of Agriculture), Denis Manturov (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade), Sergei Kirienko (head of the internal political block of the Presidential Administration), and Dmitry Kozak, Putin's old ally, who has fallen into disgrace due to his efforts to prevent a war in Ukraine, but retaining, according to Galliamov, the highest level of trust. To avoid polarization and a split in the elites, Putin needs to choose a successor before the fall of 2023, and elections must be held as soon as he is presented to the public, repeating the scenario of Putin himself stepping into the presidency, Gallyamov believes.

At the moment, none of these scenarios look realistic and convincing, but the increasingly apparent military-political stalemate the Kremlin faces will give more and more weight to the search for a possible alternative to Putin.