Is there hope for Russia after Putin?

Quite how and when Vladimir Putin will lose power is unclear, but the inevitable event will offer Russia another opportunity to break with its Soviet past.

View of the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin, Moscow. Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo.
View of the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin, Moscow. Credit: Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo.

It is perhaps a mark of Vladimir Putin’s apparent endurance — after 22 years directly and indirectly ruling Russia — that there is such an appetite for claims of his imminent departure. He has blood cancer or pancreatic cancer, and will be dead within six months (we’ve been hearing such tales for years now). He will shortly be toppled by a palace coup. He is about to anoint a successor. And yet he remains stubbornly in place.

Nonetheless, he is now 70 years old, is dogged by persistent suggestions of health issues (if not necessarily the fatal ones so often suggested), and perhaps most importantly, has dragged Russia into a disastrous war that will define its relationship with itself and the outside world for at least a generation. While it is impossible meaningfully to predict quite when and how Putin will leave office, the only certainty is that he will, somehow and some day. What then, though? In many ways this has become a political Rorschach ink blot test, a question whose answer is determined by people’s assumptions about Russia.

There are those who believe that authoritarianism is in some ways — or at least for the foreseeable future — part of the country’s destiny, if not DNA, such that Putin will either be succeeded by another Putin, or else that whoever becomes the new master of the Kremlin will inevitably have to become a Putin, shaped and compressed by political culture, the interests of the elite, and the circumstances of the time. After all, Putinism did not spring from nowhere, and his neo-imperialist project does have deep social roots. One of the best ways of answering this is to consider whether Ukraine is Putin’s war or Russia’s? On the one hand, it is undoubtedly Putin’s. He made the decision to invade not only without consulting outside his closest circle, but also freely, under no discernible pressure to take such a step from his public or his elite. The invasion, as well as the disastrous way it was executed, was a product of his unrealistic assumptions about Ukraine and its will and ability to resist. At the same time, one cannot argue that Putin’s attitudes are entirely out of step with those of many of his fellow citizens. They may not have been calling for an invasion, but nonetheless, they have expressed beliefs which — to a vastly less pyrotechnic degree — resonate with Putin’s hawkish messages. While polling demonstrates that apparent enthusiasm for the war is much less firm and unconditional than headline figures may suggest, there is nonetheless a substantial body of supporters.

Beyond the effects of over a decade of increasingly xenophobic propaganda, one can argue this is in part because Russians never really came to terms with the end of empire, and indeed of great power status after 1991, although Russia retained its vast nuclear arsenal. The irony was that the relatively peaceful manner in which the USSR was dissolved allowed many Russians to believe that they were generously granting a boon to the other successor states, not bowing to political necessity. The implicit corollary was that they were due a debt of gratitude. I remember an otherwise-thoughtful Russian diplomat, after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, arguing ‘we let the Ukrainians run Crimea and they neglected it, they simply didn’t care for the territory and its people, Russian people. So, of course we had to take it back.’ The Russians were also able to sidestep dealing properly with their Soviet legacy. To be sure, all the states which emerged from the former Soviet Union were at once its victims and accomplices, beneficiaries and casualties. To call the USSR a ‘Russian empire’ is a crass over-simplification, but it was the Kremlin’s empire, to be sure. Even before Putin began his deliberate and comprehensive rewriting of Russia’s past to suit his vision of its present and future, Russians had at the very least an ambiguous attitude towards the sovereignty of their former Soviet neighbours.

Thus, there is the argument that the end of the Putin era will also be the end of the Russian Federation in its current from. Like the USSR before it, the country will become a failing state, with the centre unable to manage the country properly — ripped apart by power struggles or otherwise debilitated — leaving regions forced to fend for themselves or able to act on long-held dissatisfaction with their status. Again, for some this is a dream of a rightly ‘decolonised’ empire, for others a nightmare of feuding and unstable successor states and proliferating military muscle. In fairness, though, outside the North Caucasus there is little sense of any desire for independence, even within those few regions and constituent republics where the titular local ethnicity is in the majority. To wish ‘decolonisation’ on them willy-nilly is, in its own perverse way, a deeply imperialist act. Still, while there are those who may seize independence, others may have it forced upon them by circumstances. More likely in this scenario would be a renegotiation of power between regions and centres, perhaps even making the Russian Federation a genuine federation in more than just name, which might prove a very positive development, creating a situation in which it might matter rather less who succeeds Putin and what they want and believe.

It is also possible to imagine a more optimistic trajectory. Putin and those generally characterised as his ‘cronies’ or his ‘inner circle’ are strikingly similar: all men, generally aged between 68 and 75, most having had careers in the KGB. Very few came from higher-up nomenklatura families, the established Soviet Communist Party elite. Instead — like Putin himself — they were often arrivistes, men who had finally made it into the power structures, only to see them undermined and then overturned. It is not just that they are true representatives of Homo Sovieticus, ‘Soviet Man,’ it is that they are suffused with a clear sense of resentment with a world — and a West — they feel betrayed them, denying them and their country the status both deserve.

The emotional dimension of politics is too often overlooked or underplayed, yet the roots of the current crisis are found less in the specific wording of NATO communiques or Ukraine’s fateful Association Agreement with the European Union, so much as how they were interpreted by a cabal of leaders already predisposed to see slights, threats, and conspiracies all around them. Likewise, Putin’s notorious pseudo-historical essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ was not simply a political gambit to prepare the public for future war, it was much more a statement of personal credo. His unhedged claims that Russians and Ukrainians ‘are one people’ reflected a long-standing belief that, as he told George W Bush in 2008, ‘Ukraine is not even a country,’ and an anger that this non-country was, in his eyes, ‘betraying’ Russia.

For Putin and his ilk, there is little hope of epiphany, but while a majority of Russians, especially within the power elite in general and security apparatus in particular, may share certain nationalist assumptions, they do not necessarily hold them in the same way and to the same degree as Putin’s cohort. As the scholar Gulnaz Sharafutdinova argues, today’s Russians — rich and poor, powerful and marginalised — are no longer Homo Sovieticus. On a purely subjective level, my own interactions with officials and officers in their 50s and early-to-mid-60s have not suggested the same emotional baggage as Putin’s people. They consider themselves patriots (even as they embezzle from their nation with abandon and, largely, impunity) and often betray ingrained racism towards the people of Central Asia and the North Caucasus, as well as assumptions of superiority over Ukrainians. However, they also tend to be pragmatic, acquisitive, increasingly nostalgic of the ‘good old days’ of Putin’s early years, when the funds accumulated from stealing at home could freely be banked and spent abroad. The latest iPhone, the Western luxury car (and now the spare parts to repair it), the skiing holidays in Courchevel, the pied a terre in London, and the opportunity to send your children to a British or American university: these were all considered the essential perks of their position.

For them, this is an inconvenient war. It is locking them away from these perks, and raising the spectre of public unrest, even systemic collapse. Already, there has been an upsurge in intra-elite divisions over shrinking resources, especially evident in ‘raiding,’ a very Russian form of theft, using the courts and the state to appropriate assets, as well as the kind of violent struggles over companies reminiscent of the so-called ‘wild 90s.’ As one source reportedly close to Putin’s inner circle put it, ‘it’s started to dawn on people: we’ve lost the real war. People are starting to think about how to move forward, what position they’d like to take in the future, what bet to make, what hand to play.’

These are in no way natural democrats, but the war is bad for business (theirs, in particular), and so is trying to maintain a heavy-handed police state, which risks further destabilising and debilitating the country they intend to rule. Besides, the longer Russia is isolated from Western technology and investment, the greater the risk that it simply becomes a satellite of China. A widespread view amongst these powerful — but not powerful enough — figures is that things have gone too far and the need is for some kind of return to ‘normal politics.’ After all, Russia’s historical pattern is that particularly authoritarian leaders’ successors tend to ‘compete among themselves to liberalize the regime,’ as Andrei Kolesnikov has observed, and in the words of one Moscow-based analyst who still hobnobs with some of these grandees, ‘they don’t think that Putin is Stalin, but they do want a Thaw,’ citing the limited liberalisation that followed his death.

Of course, quite which of these potential trajectories proves closest to reality depends on a host of variables, not least what happens in the war, the means of Putin’s departure, and Western policy before and after the transition. It is hard to see Ukraine not winning, in the end, but what does ‘victory’ mean? Will it mean Russia losing Crimea, a territory most Russians regard as rightly theirs? National humiliation is a powerful catalyst for change, but an unpredictable one. It could lead to a further explosion of nationalism and revanchism, or prove cathartic for the Russian people as a whole, forcing them to begin to question imperial assumptions.

Secondly, how does any transition of power take place? A coup or an assassination can never be ruled out, but would be very difficult to organise, not least given the proliferation of security forces, organised in part precisely to watch and counter each other. In such an environment, it would likely require some catastrophic crisis that made the choice between their survival versus Putin’s. A political coup is perhaps even more implausible. No one can mobilise political support openly, and there are no bodies such as the Soviet Party’s Politburo and Central Committee to articulate elite consensus, as happened in the successful ousting of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. The constitutional mechanism for removing a president is complex and intentionally difficult, requiring majorities in parliament and the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, all carefully packed with Putin’s people.

So far, at least, there is no sign of mass public unrest, and if it does emerge it will likely, at least at first, be driven by economic rather than political concerns. Thus, it may need to be Putin’s decision, debility or death that, as for so many Soviet leaders, decides the outcome. If he gets to pick a successor, then it will likely be someone he feels he can trust with his life and his legacy. One of his former bodyguards, now governor of Tula region, the 50-year-old Alexei Dyumin, is frequently mooted as a possible heir. So too is the minister for agriculture, the 45-year-old Dmitri Patrushev, son of one of Putin’s oldest, closest (and most hawkish) allies, Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev.

Much of Putin’s power is not institutional so much as rooted in his relationships, his longevity, and his personal authority. Whether appointed by an outgoing president or through haggling between powerful interests because of a sudden vacancy, any successor would inevitably be more dependent on the wider elite. In some ways a parallel can be drawn with the so-called Varyagi, ‘Varangians’ — outsider regional governors appointed by Moscow. Their loyalties may well be to the Kremlin but they find themselves relatively isolated, dependant on local elites with their own interests, circles of corrupt self-interest and social connections. The most successful of them — like Dyumin, for that matter — quickly learn to adapt, appreciating that championing regional interests and forging ties with the people who actually run their territory on the ground is essential to achieving anything. The result is a delicate balancing act, meeting enough of the Kremlin’s demands to remain in post, while appeasing local interests enough to be able to accomplish anything.

A new president would be the ultimate Varyag, in charge according to the constitution, but in practice relying on others to turn orders into action. Even a chosen successor will, in due course, emerge from their predecessor’s shadow, especially as the remnants of Putin’s ‘team’ die or retire. (Putin between 1999-2000 was not today’s secular monarch, in power or policy, after all). Even in the best case, the next political leader is unlikely to be a democrat or a reformer: the experience of Gorbachev’s quixotic era, in which he inadvertently reformed the Soviet Union to death, has become a powerful cautionary tale for many. Likewise, they will probably not be a warmongering ultra-nationalist or ideologue. The bulk of the elite — including the siloviki  (‘men of force’) — are essentially kleptocrats; ruthless pragmatists, interested in preserving the system that enriches them and regaining the old opportunities for fully enjoying those ill-gotten gains.

Of course, while it is ultimately Russians who will shape their country’s post-Putin fate, the West will also play a role. In the 1990s, an historic opportunity to create a true partnership and encourage genuine democracy in Russia was squandered, not least by short-termism, supporting Boris Yeltsin when he essentially stole the 1996 elections, as well as when he shelled his own parliament into submission in 1993, because his Communist and nationalist opponents were so unpleasant. What was understandable in the short-term was disastrous in the long-term, furthering cynicism about a still-emerging democracy and creating conditions propitious for the rise of a revanchist nationalist and statist like Putin. It may be that the Ukrainian disaster will be a second chance for both Russia and the West.

Author

Mark Galeotti