Crunch time in the Kremlin

By Edward Lucas

(First Published in The Times of London)

As defeat for Putin looms it’s time to think the unthinkable. The next Russian ruler may be worse! And we are pitifully ill-prepared

Like an ageing mafia boss, Vladimir Putin exudes menace even as his power frays around him.

Make no mistake, the man who has ruled this vast country so ruthlessly for the past 22 years now has his back to the wall. Russians like their Tsars to be wise and all-powerful. Putin is neither. His botched war in Ukraine has shrivelled his reputation. He is out of time and out of options: “increasingly relegated to the past” in the words of Andrey Pertsev, of the opposition media outlet Meduza. 

As the analyst Tatyana Stanovaya notes, “belief that victory is inevitable is fading” among Russian elites. They do not share Putin’s obsession with Ukraine. They do not want nuclear escalation. They worry about their luxurious lifestyles. For years they have tolerated Putin’s bombast and corruption. But they do not want him to take the country over a precipice. 

Ordinary Russians are fed up too. They may share the Russian leader’s nationalist views. But the botched mobilisation has turned the war from a show on television to something that threatens their husbands, brothers and sons with hardship, crippling injuries and death. 

The Russian leader may hang on for days, weeks or months. But this is increasingly looking like his last winter in power. 

For years Putin has seemed irreplaceable. Grateful for order and prosperity after the chaos and humiliation of the 1990s, Russians gave him adoring support.

Even fierce critics like me must concede that no point in history has Russia enjoyed such a long period of relative personal freedom and stability. Russians can travel freely, invest and save as they wish, choose their place of work and where they live — all freedoms that were scarce or unknown under Communism or the brutal autocracy of the Tsarist era. 

For all the corruption, incompetence and brutality of the Putin years, many Russians felt Putin was the only man for the job. 

He was also an effective arbiter in disputes between Russia’s feuding clans. Industries, regions, government agencies and organised crime gangs are in ceaseless competition with each other for power and money. 

With the legal and administrative system plagued by bribery, it is by direct appeal to the top that powerful Russians have the best chance of protecting and enforcing their interests. 

Aloof, seemingly disinterested, and with all the ultimate levers of power in his hands, Putin decides who gets what, who pays what — and, for those who challenge his rule, who ends up in jail or exile. 

But for how much longer? Putin’s current term ends in 2024. Another six-year term is there for the taking — but he needs to look credible.

In Russia’s rigged election system, the winner must triumph over public apathy and cynicism, not political rivals. A botched election campaign risks sparking public protest. 

To put on a good show Putin must start politicking next year — and a failed war is hardly a springboard for a successful launch. 

So what comes next? Succession in Russia can be a messy business — Tsar Nicholas II was removed from power and murdered. Hardliners removed the reformist Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. A coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 led to the disintegration of the country. 

Until recently, control of the system was as solid as the secrecy at the top. 

The Russian leader accepts no outside advice, and shares his thoughts only with the tightest inner circle. 

If you think that the British government is made up of third-rate chancers, they seem like paragons of public-spirited virtue compared to the rogues’ gallery that rules Russia. 

We know that those who are even rumoured to pose a threat to the Russian leader — such as secret-police chief Alexander Bortnikov — fall quickly out of favour. But we can only speculate which of these insiders— grey-haired, grey-suited, men steeped in the greed and brutality of Kremlin politics — may wonder if they should wield the knife, and inherit the crown. 

For as Putin’s popularity and authority fray, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. 

How might a change of power play out? One option is that with disaster looming in Ukraine, an ageing and frail Putin decides that a managed departure from office is better than the alternative. The model for this would be how Boris Yeltsin in 1999 abruptly handed over power to Putin, at the time his prime minister for only four months. 

On paper, in the absence of the president the top job must pass to the prime minister. This rule is filled by the discreet and loyal bureaucrat, Mikhail Mishustin. But Putin would want real power to lie elsewhere — probably with his closest friend and ally, Kremlin insider Nikolai Patrushev. 

Hard though it may be to believe, Putin is by Russian standards not the most hardline leader. Lurking on the sidelines of Russian politics is a junta-in-waiting, comprising the thuggish Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and Evgeny Prigozhin, the sinister mastermind of the mercenary Wagner Group. 

The latest addition to their ranks is “General Armageddon” — Sergei Surovikin, newly appointed by Putin as commander of the Ukraine war. Accused of war crimes in Syria and elsewhere, he could be a potent threat to Putin, especially if he joins forces with other military rebels.As with the Roman empire two thousand years ago, legions returning from ill-conceived far-flung wars can wreak havoc in the imperial capital.

Also in this hardline camp are nationalist ideologues such as the wispy-bearded eccentric Alexander Dugin, and polemicists such as Igor Girkin, who pens blistering critiques of the Russian military’s corruption and incompetence. 

These people do not think the war was a mistake. They just think it has not been properly fought. Kadyrov explicitly advocates the use of nuclear weapons to crush Ukraine and to deter the West. General Surovikin was associated with the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. 

Under their rule, Russia would become a nuclear-armed rogue state like North Korea, bristling with weapons and determined to make trouble. It would also become a full-blown dictatorship at home. 

That could work for a while — but Russia is no longer in the mood to tolerate totalitarian rule. Millions of people would seek to leave for freedom and safety abroad, far more than have fled already. Maintaining effective repression across this vast country with its eleven time zones would be beyond the resources of the Russian state, with its feeble institutions rotted by corruption. 

A hardline dictatorship might last for weeks and months, but it would contain the seeds of its own destruction. This would not be the longed-for democratic revolution, in which jailed opposition figures like Alexei Navalny would receive their much-deserved vindication. 

More likely is that a post-Putin Russia would plunge into chaos as long-festering disputes boil over into armed violence. Regional chiefs who have long chafed at Moscow’s intrusive rule could all too easily try to assert their independence. 

The nightmare is a new Russian civil war — a breakup on the lines experienced by Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In those wars, around 130,000 people were killed and four million displaced. 

But a similar disintegration in Russia would be far worse, not least because the country is also home to the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. 

My prediction is that Russia will not break up — at least not yet. 

It is far more likely that the regime will hold on to power, even with Putin himself gone or sidelined. Even loyal Kremlin insiders would chuck Putin overboard to save their own skins. 

In that case the regime might scramble to find someone a presentable frontman. The popular mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, for example, could help defuse public anger with promises of ending the war in Ukraine and reform at home. 

Any truce, let alone a peace deal, will be painful — but at least Putin, out of office, will be a convenient scapegoat. 

The new guard will also seek to trade on western gullibility and good will. It is all too easy to imagine a new Russian leader telling the West that now is the time for a “reset” — the disastrous gambit pursued by the Obama administration in 2009.

Just drop the sanctions on Russia, arm-twist Ukraine into accepting the loss of territory, and the gas will start flowing again and life can get back to normal. Many pusillanimous European leaders would clutch at straws in the hope of returning to the comfortable world they once knew. 

That would be a terrible mistake. The truth is that our problems with Russia predated Putin. And they will outlast him. While imperialist delusions remain etched into the Russian public mind, the country will never be able to have normal relationships with its neighbours. Nor will it be able to treat its non-Russian linguistic and ethnic minorities with respect.

One thing in all this is certain — change will catch us flatfooted. Over the past 30 years I have watched in dismay and anger as our governments have systematically eviscerated this country’s once-great expertise in understanding Russia. 

Spies, diplomats and analysts with a lifetime’s experience in Kremlinology and other skills, honed by the terrifyingly high stakes of the cold war, were cast onto the scrap heap. Russia was now a friend, our pinstriped masters insisted. Focus on trade, investment and cultural ties if you like, but any attention to the dark side of Russia was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

How foolish that seems now. I can count on the fingers of one hand the experts in our government with serious, deep-rooted knowledge of Russia. I lecture to rooms in Whitehall where I am the oldest by 20 years or more. These bright youngsters with their rainbow lanyards do not lack enthusiasm. But without deep knowledge of Russia’s language, culture and history — and of the Soviet decades before 1991 – it is hard to makes sense of the twists and turns of politics in Moscow. 

And when it comes to dealing with the future of Russia post-Putin, the knowledge is even more threadbare. Who in our government understands the complex regional power dynamics outside Moscow? Who has taken the time and trouble to meet the upcoming generation of regional leaders? 

We need, but lack, a long-term strategy for dealing with a resentful Russia, traumatised by the loss of its empire and facing existential threats from China and domestic separatism.

I tremble when I think of Russia’s future. I tremble even more when I think of how badly we may mismanage it.

Alexander Bastrykin (69) — headstheState Investigative Committee, a blandly named supercharged law-enforcement body notorious for its corruption. A university classmate of Putin’s — and author of a plagiarised doctoral thesis. Hardline Russian nationalist, viscerally anti-Western. Spearheaded the illegal prosecution of Ukrainian prisoners of war. Survived a bomb attack in 2009. 

Alexander Bortnikov (70) — director of the Federal Security Service, the main heir to the Soviet-era KGB.. This sprawling agency has tentacles in every big business in Russia, with huge potential for corruption. Its main task is crushing dissent, and was responsible for the attempted murder of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and probably authorised the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko. Colleague of Putin’s since the 1970s. Named as a potential assassin of the Russian leader in a Ukrainian intelligence agency analysis in March. Not seen in public since. Key partner for former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich in a prisoner swap negotiated last month.

Arkady Dvorkovich — A token Western-educated liberal. Could be useful to give a new regime a veneer of reform

Alexei Dyumin Former bodyguard of Putin’s who claims to have saved the Russian leader from a bear attack, rewarded with plum post as regional governor.

Ramzan Kadyrov The thuggish Chechen warlord known for his grotesque cruelty and extravagance. Able propagandist for his crude nationalist views. Thought to have ordered assassinations of Kremlin critics such as journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. His fearsome militias are among the few dependable fighting forces at Putin’s command. But the hirsute tribal chieftain with a hair-trigger temper has expressed public criticism of the war’s conduct, especially long-serving defence minister Sergei Shoigu.

Dmitry Medvedev Once seen as a reformer when he stood in for Putin as president from 2008-2012. Now a splenetic anti-Westerner who calls Ukrainians “bastards and degenerates”. Says he will do everything to make them “disappear. Widely ridiculed for his lightweight appearance. 

Mikhail Mishustin — low-key prime minister, former tax official.  Highly competent by dire standards of Russian public administration, constitution says he takes over if President is “incapable”, could help stabilise Russia after Putin’s downfall. Could be used to “reset” relations with the West. 

Sergey Naryshkin — Russia’s foreign intelligence service chief. Publicly humiliated by Putin at the start of the latest Ukraine invasion 

Nikolai Patrushev. Security chief, and most likely to succeed Putin if he steps down voluntarily. Known as the “hawk’s hawk” for his ultra hardline views. Ex-KGB colleague of Putin’s (originally rather more senior), steeped in the xenophobic nationalism of the old Soviet secret police. One of the few people the Russian leader listens to — chiefly because his views chime with the boss. Like him mourns the Soviet collapse, ferociously anti-Western, and believes in outlandish conspiracy theories — for example that the West is plotting to break up Russia and steal its natural resources. Long-standing power-broker, now edging into the public eye with lengthy interviews outlining his views. Closed down investigation into the 1999 apartment-block bombings that fuelled Putin’s rise to power. 

Evgeny Prigozhin – Putin’s personal chef and boss of the paramilitary mercenary Wagner Group, a major part of the Kremlin war machine, responsible for atrocities in Syria and African countries. Now allied with Kadyrov, feuding with Shoigu.  Recently posted carefully staged videos highlighting his decisive, capable approach. 

Sergey Sobyanin — popular and competent Moscow mayor, has distanced himself from the war. Could channel anti-Kremlin discontent in the Russian capital.

Edward Lucas writes a column for The Times of London