Military reversals in Ukraine, political uncertainties at home and questions about his health have weakened the Russian strongman
ByMark Galeotti. 4 June 2022 •
Vladimir Putin has given no sign of being willing to stand down, but even if he is not thinking about his succession, many in Russia are. Military reversals in Ukraine, political uncertainties at home and questions about his health all mean that the elite are quietly discussing something that just a few months ago would have been unthinkable: What might life after Putin look like?
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is spinning for all it is worth, painting Putin’s “special operation” as meeting its objectives, but it is important to distinguish between what the wider population is being told and what the elite know. His reputation has suffered serious damage. Even if Russian forces are making modest gains in the Donbas at present, there is no escaping the abject failure of his initial strategy, with its ambitious goal of seizing Kyiv and imposing a puppet government.
Putin may hope the West will lose its enthusiasm for supporting Ukraine, but even if sanctions are lifted tomorrow, the damage already done means the Russian economy will take years to recover. Sanctions have helped push inflation up to nearly 18 per cent, and by autumn this, coupled with rising unemployment, will become a serious problem. Meanwhile, the army is having trouble finding men to replenish its ranks and the generals are fuming about Putin’s dithering about mobilising the reserves.
Furthermore, the persistent rumours about serious health problems – speculation ranges from cancer to Parkinson’s – contribute to a sense that Putin’s time is coming to a close. (It also helps explain why the Ukrainians are so keen to spread these tales).
There is little likelihood of Putin being toppled imminently – he is protected by a powerful security apparatus that depends on setting multiple agencies to watch and counter each other.
But sooner or later, his health may well falter, or the situation in Russia will become so difficult that some crisis pushes enough of the elite to turn against him.
Then the million-dollar question becomes: Who will replace him?
If Putin gets to choose, then he is likely to pick someone whom he thinks he can trust with his security and his legacy. This might be someone like Alexei Dyumin, one of his former bodyguards and now governor of the Tula region. However, it is questionable whether the rest of the elite would accept another strongman.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu – one of Putin’s closest allies – once looked like a plausible alternative, but his star has been tarnished by the poor performance of the military. However, he is a wily survivor and still cannot be ruled out.
If Putin does not get to choose, it is likely that the succession will be shaped by behind-the-scenes deals between the elites. They will try to ensure whoever emerges as the new president will be much less personally powerful than Putin became. The issue is that there is no single dominant power bloc ready to impose its candidate when the time comes.
He – and it probably will be a he – might be a sharp-elbowed chairman of the board, someone able to broker consensus within this ruling coalition of spooks, generals, businesspeople and bureaucrats. This could be a technocratic figure like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin or Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
Alternatively, it might be a mere figurehead, a puppet whom no one really fears. Erstwhile president and prime minister Dmitri Medvedev is currently trying to reposition himself as a tough guy, but is still a lightweight figure who might suit such a role. So too might deputy presidential chief of staff and top spin-doctor Sergei Kiriyenko.
Whatever happens, that different candidates are – albeit cautiously – being discussed at all suggests even Moscow’s elite circles don’t think Putin will restore his effortless authority of old. One way or another, his days are now numbered.
Professor Mark Galeotti is the director of consultancy Mayak Intelligence and author of The Weaponisation of Everything.