The question of who will eventually succeed Vladimir Putin as the leader of Russia has resulted in a great deal of speculation. Because there is no handpicked successor that raises the possibility for conflict among the competitors for Putin’s position and the potential for civil war. The possibility of an internal conflict is a serious concern. There is historical precedence for this. While often forgotten, it was exactly a century ago that Russia was at the tail end of an extremely violent civil war that resulted in millions of deaths due to warfare, famine and disease. The stakes could not have been higher, with the Red and White Armies battling for control of Russia. It was a choice between communism and a return to Tsarist autocracy. The communists won out with major ramifications for Russia and the surrounding states which were to become part of the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that the same type of ultra-violent conflict will ensue in a post-Putin succession crisis, but this being Russia, anything is possible. Since there is no anointed successor in place, various factions will be vying to place their preferred choice in the presidency.
Beyond Putin – The Struggle For Survival
Putin’s total control of the country gives a false sense that Russia is united. The truth is much messier. Russia’s conservatives have factions representing ultra-nationalists, relative moderates, those who would like for the war in Ukraine to end tomorrow and those who counsel the use of nuclear weapons. There are economic nationalists, statists, and free marketeers. There is even a warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is bound to make like difficult for anyone who threatens his fief in Chechnya. Take Putin out of the equation and the infighting is almost certain to begin. His control over Russia extends not just to repression of those who disagree with his regime, but also to forces on the right that would threaten to overthrow a weaker president. Whoever follows Putin will struggle to survive if they are not a strongman.
The western world usually focuses on the main liberal resister to the Putin regime, Alexei Navalny, as offering an alternative to the hardline rule that now grips Russia. Navalny has next to no chance of getting control of the government. The best he can hope for is an early release from prison. That is unlikely while Putin’s prodigies fight for control of the country. While the succession for Putin’s replacement is widely discussed, much less talked about is the situation his successor will inherit. There seems to be the opinion that anyone is better than Putin. A successor could hardly be more hostile to the west, but that does not mean they will be much better.
Whoever takes over leadership of Russia will be defined as much by the situation Putin leaves behind, as they will by any personality trait or power base. Putin is setting up his successor for failure, which will be a recipe for internal unrest. Chaos in Russia could bleed over into its near abroad with unpredictable consequences. Imagine the criticism of any Russian leader who does not project strength. A show of weakness, such as ending Russia’s misguided military adventure in Ukraine, could lead to upheaval at home. At some point, whether it is Putin or the person who follows him as president, the war with Ukraine will conclude. That is when the most intractable problems for Russia will begin.
Negative Effects – A Loss of Influence
Imagine Russia after the war with Ukraine ends. The country will almost certainly be under international sanctions, external economic activity will be proscribed so that Russia can only sell its most valuable commodities, oil and gas, to China, India and a long list of third world countries. The days of flooding Europe with natural gas and oil will be at an end. Both China and India will be able to drive down prices (as they are now doing) for their energy purchases. Russia has lost its leverage by alienating European nations. Trustworthy customers such as Germany and Italy will be hesitant to ever again be held hostage to Russian energy. Going back to the status quo that existed prior to the war will be impossible. This presents an array of problems for the Russian economy which has been stagnating since Putin reassumed the presidency in 2012.
The economy will continue to ossify. Russia does not have a dynamic internal market. Competition inside the country is held back by corruption. Rent seeking is the norm and reform is a dirty word, one that carries the connotation of dissent, something that the Putin regime cannot afford to allow. Any successor is likely to continue along these lines. Growing the Russian economy while the nation is increasingly isolated in a globalized world will be extremely difficult. Their one reliable source of revenue, oil and gas, will drop precipitately. The outlook for the Russian economy is bad. It is likely to be stuck in recessionary mode for an indefinite time.
The heir to Putin will also inherit a security situation that offers major challenges on all fronts. While Russia’s situation with Europe has taken a turn towards the disastrous, its situation vis a vis China is almost as dire. The supposed “friendship without limits” that Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping declared in early February has been transformed by Russia’s poor performance in the war with Ukraine.
China can demand whatever concessions they want from Russia without many consequences. In Central Asia, countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are wary of dealing with Russia after seeing what happened in Ukraine. As for Europe, Russia faces a doubling in length of its border with NATO now that Finland will join the alliance. Even with a ceasefire, the situation in Ukraine will be fraught with danger. Russia could expend a fortune it does not have trying to hold on to its limited gains. No European nation is likely to trust Russia while a Putin inspired regime rules the country.
Future Shock – Increasing Isolation
Any post-Putin leader of Russia will be faced with constant difficulties and tough decisions. There are no easy answers for Russia’s political and economic problems. The more Russia withdraws from the world, the worse its problems will get. The opportunities for wider engagement with the world are minimal, while the risk of increasing isolation has grown. Putin has left a huge mess for his successor to clean up. It is unlikely they will be able to make the situation much better, without making it worse. Russia’s future looks bleak, with or without Putin.