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Can anyone be worse than Putin? The question isn’t just theoretical. As policymakers and analysts in Russia, Europe, and the United States contemplate possible scenarios of Vladimir Putin’s departurefrom office, the question of his successor naturally arises. It’s important for obvious reasons. If his successor is likely to be worse, then we should avoid policies that threaten Putin’s rule. If alternatively, his successor is likely to be better, it just might make sense to hasten his demise.
Plans to Address Putin’s Successor
It would be absurd to suggest that we can predict who Putin’s successor might be, but we can imagine what range of politics his potential successors might pursue and try to determine who—a radical Russian imperialist, a Putin clone, or a quasi-democrat—would be more or less likely to make things better or worse for Russia and its relations with Ukraine and the West.
The Ideal New Leader
No one disputes that a democrat or quasi-democrat would be the optimal scenario for everybody concerned. Chances are that he—and it would, of course, be a he—would roll back Putin’s fascist innovations, seek to end the war with Ukraine, try to build bridges with the West, and reintegrate Russia into the global economy.
Such a leader will not enjoy the support of Putin’s closest entourage, but he should be able to appeal to Russia’s educated, professional, urban classes and the young. We don’t know whether that will suffice to produce a stable regime—probably not—but it should suffice to enable quasi-democrats to emerge from the underground and put an end, even if temporarily, to the worst excesses of Putin’s rule. At this point, a counter-revolutionary backlash is sure to occur.
Should We Expect More of the Same in a New Leader?
A Putin clone would be less preferable to a quasi-democrat but would at least offer the prospect of a continuation of the status quo. Just as today, some Russians will be enthusiastic, others will be distraught, while the elites are sure to be relieved that major changes are not in the offing.
And yet, a Putin clone will suffer from a fundamental defect that will undermine his rule: he will not be Putin. After all, Putin has spent over two decades building a hyper-centralized regime with himself at its core. Putin, the hyper-masculine embodiment of a vigorous Russia, is essential to the stability and legitimacy of the regime. Remove Putin and replace him with a clone, and you diminish the clone’s ability to continue with Putin’s policies.
A Putin clone is, thus, sure to be weaker and less legitimate than Putin. Weakness may open the door to instability, power struggles, chaos, and civil strife, at which point either the clone will stabilize his rule, or he will be replaced by a quasi-democrat or a radical Russian imperialist.
Would a radical Russian imperialist—say, someone like Igor Strelkov, the war criminal who initiated the war in the Donbas in 2014—be worse than Putin? It’s hard to see how.
Preparing for a Possibility
For starters, it’s important to remember that Putin is a mass murderer, a war-monger, and an imperialist who destroyed Russian democracy, replaced it with fascism, and embarked on genocide in Ukraine. Tens of thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians have been killed; Ukrainian cities have been leveled. Scores of his political opponents have been assassinated; hundreds of Russians were killed in apartment bombings in 1999, intended to serve as a pretext for a renewed assault on Chechnya. Just what, exactly, would a successor have to do in order to be worse? Use nuclear weapons? But almost all analysts agree that Putin could easily resort to them if the mood strikes him.
James Fallon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, has called Putin a psychopath and compared him to Adolf Hitler. The comparison begs a similar question: could anyone have been worse than Hitler? Would Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, or Reinhard Heydrich have invaded more countries? Killed more Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians? Exterminated more Jews? Would their version of Mein Kampf have been even more unhinged?
Can Someone Who is Not Putin Really Replace Putin?
But whoever Putin’s radical successor might be, he will, like the clone, have one fatal flaw: he won’t be Putin. As a result, he’ll lack Putin’s popularity and legitimacy with the people. He will also lack Putin’s ability to balance radicals and moderates within the political elite.
A radical will therefore be weaker than Putin, far less capable of enacting his policies, and far more likely to fall victim to power struggles, palace intrigues, and widespread opposition.
This brings us to an interesting conclusion. A quasi-democrat may be better for Russia, while a clone and radical would herald a continuation of business as usual, but all three would usher in a period of substantial elite infighting and systemic instability.
Putin’s departure would thus be good for Russians, Ukrainians, and the West. A less stable, more uncertain, and more chaotic Russia will be in no position to wage a major land war, suppress dissent and democracy, and sustain an imperialist agenda. Perhaps only in the short term, but given the horrors of the Putin regime, even a brief respite would be something to be thankful for.
Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”