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Toward 2024 and Beyond: The Fate of Vladimir Putin’s Reign, Part II

Toward 2024 and Beyond: The Fate of Vladimir Putin’s Reign, Part II

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In Part I of this essay, I examined the current state of affairs in Russia and Putin’s vision of the future of the country. In Part II, I look at prospects for Russia after Putin and offer some possible scenarios that Russia could face when the reign[1] of Vladimir Putin comes to an end.


“What Is to Be Done?”

In his famous pamphlet by the same name, Vladimir Lenin in 1902 posed this proverbial question in response to the Russian revolutionary movement’s quandary about how to bring about change to Russia. In his answer, Lenin insisted that an elite vanguard party had to direct the Russian masses (in his day, the workers and peasants), that the people could not expect change to occur spontaneously, and that change would occur only if the revolutionary movement were led by an elite group of radicalized intellectuals.

Today, a different Vladimir—Vladimir Putin—together with Russia’s elite and Russian society, faces a similar quandary: “What is to be done?” But today, with public discontent growing as the country faces myriad political, economic, and social problems and is on the verge of a critical succession challenge, the authorities have no answer to this question. In fact, “they do not even raise the question, not seeing any need for it,” says Denis Volkov, Deputy Director of the independent polling agency the Levada Center. No one, except possibly some small fringe groups, is calling for revolution, but few would deny that change is needed, whether to improve citizens’ standard of living, raise the socio-economic conditions of the country, or even to ensure a more secure position for the elite in the power structure.

“No one among the authorities is even asking the question: What is to be done?” Volkov stressed. By failing to ask and respond adequately to this question, the authorities could face a dangerous, even an explosive, situation. Russian history should serve as a warning that when cries for change are ignored for too long, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the lid on Russia’s boiling socio-political kettle.

But this reluctance to consider the need for change is neither surprising nor unexpected. Putin’s spokesman, Peskov, maintains that Putin is “happy with the system in place,” but many others observe that Putin has become increasingly aloof from society and has reached a dead end on efforts to motivate society and improve people’s lives that would earn him and his regime their support. Moreover, United Russia, Russia’s “elite vanguard party” that controls the legislature and most of the regional administration and should be leading the effort to improve people’s lives, garners only minimal support in the country and lacks fresh ideas to move the country forward.

As economic stagnation increases and uncertainty about Russia’s future intensifies, many doubt that “Putinism” will survive long after Putin leaves the scene, in 2024 or later. Meanwhile, the longer Putin remains president, the more tensions will rise and demands for change will mount, and controlling these challenges will eventually be out of his hands. Determining Russia’s future path will fall principally to the power elite, but society, spearheaded by leaders within civil society, will also play an important role.

The Power Elite

Although most of the focus on how long Putin will remain in power centers on Putin himself, another institution will play a major role in determining the course of Russia’s future: the power elite or siloviki. This is an amalgam of the military, security, and law enforcement services. It is not a unified elite, but rather a fractured, yet powerful segment of the most influential elements of the Russian bureaucracy. These forces interact as both allies and competitors to ensure their supremacy in the Russian power structure.

Indeed, one of Putin’s greatest achievements in his more than 20 years as president has been to rebuild the power elite after many of its elements were decimated or severely weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thanks to Putin, the intelligence and enforcement bureaucracies once again play a dominant role in Russian society.

There has always been a delicate symbiotic relationship between the Russian ruler and his enforcers in the power elite. Maintaining the superior role in this relationship has often been challenging for the ruler, and any sign of weakness can imperil the relationship and threaten the security of the ruler’s dominance. There are many historical examples of what can happen if the ruler fails to maintain control over the power elite. It is not surprising, given the nature of Russian autocracy, that a powerful, dominant leader is essential to sustain authoritarian rule in the country. At the same time, the ruler, however warily, must rely on his power elite enforcers to safeguard his authoritative position. The enforcers are both his pillars of support and a potential threat to his power. How he manages this complex relationship is one of the ruler’s biggest challenges. As for Putin, once he is gone or is in the process of departing the scene, the power elite will undoubtedly play a dominant, if not a defining, role in determining the succession and in the evolution of the Russian state in the post-Putin era.

The siloviki derive their power and influence not just from their dominant institutions as enforcers, but through allies among the most conservative elements in Russian society, among which are the Russian Orthodox Church and certain influential politicians in the Russian legislature and regional positions of authority. To date, the siloviki have remained loyal to President Putin, and they continue to enjoy a mutually beneficial, yet still tenuous, relationship with him. Some prominent Russian observers see this relationship intensifying following the recent changes to the Constitution. Stanovaya, writing for the Carnegie Moscow Center, asserts that “by rewriting the constitution and reshuffling the government, Putin did far more than throw most of the Russian elite off-balance. Putin’s efforts signal that he is building a new political regime that will be more conservative, more ideological, and more anti-Western in its outlook.” We see evidence of this already in new legislation that is imposing more and more restrictions on civil society and expanding the definition of “foreign agent” beyond nongovernmental organizations to include individual Russian citizens. The informal alliance between the most powerful, repressive institutions and conservative ideologists not only strengthens the hands of those who want to impose stricter controls over civil society but also fortifies their already influential role in the succession battle that will inevitably ensue when Putin leaves the scene. It also puts them in direct conflict with professional technocrats who are, theoretically, politically neutral and whom Putin has put into senior political, economic, and social posts in his government to make it run more efficiently and produce results.

The Technocrats

The technocrats are a growing influential class within Putin’s power structure. If the siloviki are the enforcers, the technocrats are the policy wonks. They are supposed to be the motor of an effective bureaucracy if they are not stifled or made ineffective by the rampant corruption that permeates the country or intimidated by the enforcers. In any well-run government, the technocrats would play an essential role in developing policies and implementing the decisions of senior leaders of government. In the power structure of Putin’s Russia, the technocrats are among those struggling to maintain their position and striving to be an influential force in determining the nature of a post-Putin Russia.

But being a prominent technocrat does not necessarily make one an influential player in a future succession process. One must also have political ken and experience. Stanovaya refers to those with such qualifications as political technocrats. She describes them as not close friends of Putin and not politicians with their own ambitions and agendas. Rather they are individuals “who have earned their political status as the result of being handed a ‘political mission’—a task that is personally important to Putin.” They have earned Putin’s confidence, not because of friendship, but because of their competence and skills in successfully carrying out the missions Putin has assigned to them. These political technocrats are, as Stanovaya describes them, “young, extremely loyal, discreet, diligent and highly efficient.” They are totally beholden to Putin for their position, but Putin owes them nothing. Among the most prominent political technocrats in Stanovaya’s view are Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Anton Vaino, and First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko. These men occupy powerful positions in the Russian government and enjoy the confidence of President Putin. As long as Putin continues to serve as president and these officials perform to his satisfaction, they will remain important players in Putin’s circle.

When Putin leaves office and the struggle for succession intensifies, the ability of these officials, who lack a political and, in most cases, an institutional base of support, to remain important players could be quite tenuous. More powerful individuals and institutions from the darkest corners of Russia’s netherworld of enforcers who view themselves as the protectors of Russia against all forms of evil, whether from the West or from challenges within the country to Russia’s predominantly conservative ideology, will struggle fiercely to protect their interests and assert their power and influence to determine the nature of post-Putin Russia.

The Oligarchs

During the early years of post-Soviet Russia, a new class of individuals known as the oligarchs arose. They were businessmen who amassed great wealth by taking advantage of the chaotic transition from socialism to capitalism to acquire control over many of Russia’s natural resources. Not only did they quickly become billionaires in a country that had sunk into widespread poverty and destitution, but they also became extremely influential politically. In his battles with rival political factions, most notably the Communists, President Boris Yeltsin relied heavily on the financial and media support of the oligarchs. In this process, Yeltsin became beholden to the oligarchs who had taken control over much of the economy and the communication networks.

When Putin became president, he was faced with the daunting challenge of wrestling power away from the oligarchs and reasserting control over the economy and the media. Within a short time, President Putin was able to accomplish these goals. He did so by intimidation and force. Some oligarchs had their assets seized and were forced to flee the country. Others were arrested, and some, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, were given lengthy prison sentences. Those who remained were stripped of their political influence and were forced to submit to the Kremlin’s will. The rule of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs came to an end. The survivors were no longer a political force; they were reduced to compliant businessmen who were allowed to retain their wealth but had to serve the interests of the state whenever called upon.

In place of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, a new class of wealthy elite emerged under President Putin. These individuals are, in most cases, personal friends of the Russian president whose shared roots go back to Putin’s years in the KGB or his days in early post-Soviet St. Petersburg where he served as deputy to Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Putin has placed many of them in positions where they have amassed great wealth. Unlike the Yeltsin-era oligarchs, Putin’s rich associates are not in a position to exercise political power or challenge the authority of the Kremlin. Instead, they serve Putin’s interests and carry out assignments he orders, such as overseeing major construction projects and high-profile events like the Sochi Winter Olympics. In turn, they reap great financial rewards from these activities. There is much speculation that this circle of close friends serves as a conduit for the monies Putin personally receives from undisclosed sources. No one knows how rich the Russian president is, but there is speculation that his fortune is in the billions of dollars. Once Putin is no longer president, the personal relationship between him and his wealthy friends will certainly change. Infighting will intensify as the wealthy elite scrambles to establish new relationships with the emerging center of power in post-Putin Russia.

Society

The media devote much attention to the role the siloviki and the political technocrats may play in determining the nature of a post-Putin Russia. Indeed, they are powerful rival forces that will most likely dominate the process of choosing a successor to Putin and framing the initial post-Putin years. But there is another element that could be a decisive factor in determining Russia’s future, and that is the attitude and role of Russian society. Society’s role will likely increase if conditions in the country further deteriorate, the government fails to address society’s needs in an even more egregiously negligent way than at present, and the protest movement grows throughout the metropolitan centers and into rural areas of the county. This could result in the political technocrats, who are reportedly growing increasingly disillusioned with Putin and Putinism, joining forces with some civil society leaders to attain a leadership role in charting Russia’s future in the initial post-Putin years. But such a situation would require the consent, or at least the tacit acquiescence, of important elements of the siloviki. Without their support, there is little hope that such a scenario could materialize.

The ability of society to play a decisive role in influencing the succession process is further complicated by the fact that society is deeply fractured and does not know what it wants in a future Russia. Like the governing elite, society is not sure what should come next.

The independent Levada Center recently analyzed this situation and presented a fascinating report. In a recent article in Intellinews, Ben Aris discussed the center’s findings. Levada Center Deputy Director Volkov reported that they conducted a survey with three focus groups that they termed “loyalists” (those who want Putin to stay in power after 2024), “traditionalists” (those who represent both extreme right and extreme left views), and “liberals” (those who oppose Putin staying in power after 2024 and want a Western-style government). Volkov framed the setting in which these three groups find themselves. He noted that much has changed in Russia since Putin assumed power more than 20 years ago. Attitudes have changed, but the Kremlin has not kept up with these changes. A new middle class has formed that is generally satisfied with their lives and fears any threats that could deprive it of its gains. Moreover, an entirely new generation has grown up that only knows Putin as president and has no ties to the former Soviet Union. This generation differs significantly from that of their parents. They get their news from the internet, not from state TV. They travel freely around the world, speak foreign languages, see how others live, and want the same for themselves and their country. At the same time, Russia is still plagued by economic stagnation, deep social inequities and hardships, and profound feelings of resentment and hostility toward both the authorities and foreigners.

Within this context, Volkov presented his findings. Before getting into what divides these three groups, he noted that all three shared a pessimism about the future of Russia. They also favored the idea of a welfare state that protects less fortunate citizens. They shared a disdain for the cumbersome, corrupt bureaucracy and a belief that the authorities should listen to, and work for, the people.

In defining what they would like Russia to be in the future, the “liberals” described a democratic, free Russia and often cited Russia under President Yeltsin as an example of what they would like to see. The “loyalists” and “traditionalists” sought their model for the future of the country in its historical past, with many expressing nostalgia for the socialist experiment. All three groups noted the uncertainty of attaining these prospects.

“Traditionalists” and “liberals” were united in their opposition to President Putin but for very different reasons, citing fatigue with the president as their common connection. “Traditionalists” and “loyalists” shared a common aspiration for a greater role for the state in the economy, up to the nationalization of all enterprises. They also favored a more aggressive foreign policy and the restoration of the territories lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. They were nostalgic for statism and the extreme manifestation of paternalism that existed in the Soviet Union.

The “liberals’” view of a democratic society, Volkov asserts, is acceptable to most Russian citizens. This view includes “a free, competitive economy, an independent court, a friendly business environment, fair competitive elections, a free civil society that is separate from the state, and openness to the world.” The role of the state, the “liberals” believe, should be one of arbiter and a provider of services. The division of society into these three groups illustrates the fractured nature of Russian society and the difficulty society faces in rallying around “a unifying idea about the character of social-political processes which are taking place in the country,” according to Volkov.

A poll conducted by the Levada Center in September 2020 shows that “the share of Russians who think that their country is becoming more authoritarian or a dictatorship has risen from 9 percent in 2015 to 17 percent now. At the same time, the portion of those who believe the country suffers from a loss of order has gone up over the same period from 28 percent to 38 percent.” Russian journalist Konstantin Remchukov described the tense feeling in Russian society about its current state and where it might be going as follows: “It’s like you lack oxygen. You’re in high altitude with little oxygen. There is no ideal of what other path Russia should follow: not America, not Ukraine, not China. [Instead,] Russia sticks to its old, anti-Western way, which is close to Putin’s ideal.” This is an ideology and a policy prescription that finds support among the “traditionalists” and the “loyalists.” Russian journalist Kseniya Kirillova argues that “many who object to the Kremlin leader’s approach may, in fact, want to see him replaced by someone even more authoritarian and hostile to the outside world.”

The fractured nature of Russian society is mirrored in the extremely divided political opposition within civil society. Opposition leaders, who are expected to rally and unite the general public to their cause, are themselves deeply divided. Although opposition leaders reflect the spectrum of political views in the country, the most vocal and most prominent are the liberal opposition leaders, but they, too, do not share a common program or approach to opposing the Putin regime.

Most recently, the liberal opposition has united around Alexey Navalny following his poisoning by the security services and his arrest immediately upon his return to Russia after recuperating in Germany. Support for Navalny from civil society and the general population has increased, but Navalny’s rise in popularity is more in response to the vile manner Navalny has been treated by the Putin regime and the utter corruption of the authorities than an endorsement of Navalny’s political views.

It is hard to predict how long the current effort at unity will last and if it can be transformed into an effective political coalition. Many doubt that it will. Two prominent Russian sociologists, Sergei Belanovsky and Anastasia Nikolskaya, are concerned about this problem. They contend that

[T]he Russian opposition may fragment if an opportunity to democratically transform the country suddenly presents itself. This breakup could, in turn, lead to a stream of insoluble political conflicts that will again revive a desire within Russian society to return to the idea of a “strong hand” that will restore order.

This inclination to support authoritarianism may be viewed as the “lesser evil” compared to the possibility of anarchy.

A very important segment of Russian society is its youth. It consists of several generations of young people who have grown up in post-Soviet Russia and have, in many respects, a very different outlook on life, on Russia’s political structure, and on hopes for the future than their parents and grandparents who, for the most part, still carry the burdens and bear the indelible imprint of life in the Soviet Union. It is to Russia’s young people that the opposition and even some in the ruling regime turn to as they look to the future of the country.

Russian youth, like society as a whole, reflect a great diversity of views. Although they share many of the universal characteristics of young people around the world—aspirations for a better life, frustration with the authorities and the governing of the country, interconnection among themselves and the world through the internet, development of their own unique culture, etc., they also manifest these characteristics within the framework of their Russian environment, history, culture, and life experiences.

The Levada Center conducted polling over the past several years on the attitudes of Russia’s youth. It is not surprising that their findings indicate that young people are the most dissatisfied with Russia’s political system. One study, published on October 2, 2020, concluded that younger Russians are most likely to participate in activities that oppose the Putin regime. They share many of the complaints of the older generations: a falling standard of living, a decline in real income, a stagnating economy, and the unpopular hike in the retirement age. They are also frustrated with the many roadblocks in Russia to realizing their aspirations and dreams. Russia’s youth tend to be more entrepreneurial, pro-Western, and tolerant of others than are the older generations. Young people are deeply immersed in social media where they share their views. The voices of independent journalists, political opposition figures like Aleksey Navalny, the popular video blogger Yuri Dud, and influential platforms such as YouTube, Telegram, and TikTok offer channels for amplifying communication among Russia’s younger generation that could in tense times be used to send out calls to action to those opposed to the regime. The widespread use of the internet by young Russians combined with their growing opposition to the authorities could contribute to the erosion of Putin’s power over the long term. This does not go unnoticed in the Kremlin, which has already taken steps to restrict and control the internet and would undoubtedly implement more restrictive measures in the event of what it perceives as a direct threat to the regime.[2]

The data in the Levada Center report are quite revealing about the lack of support among Russia’s youth for Putin and his regime. According to the polling,

[I]n June and July, 18- to 24-year-olds were the group most critical of Putin’s rule (49–50 percent disapproved). And in a July study, 62 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds thought that Russia was heading in the wrong direction (as opposed to an average of 40 percent across other ages). According to the study, only 7 percent of young Russians named Putin among politicians they trust (as opposed to 23 percent of the population on average). And in August, only 23 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 31 percent of 25- to 39-year-olds surveyed said they would vote for Putin if the elections were to take place the next Sunday, as compared with 40 percent of the population in general.

Russia’s youth may appear to be a potential powder keg and, given the right circumstances and the emergence of a strong, popular leader, they could become an explosive force in a future succession crisis. Perhaps that will be the case, but the situation is much more complicated than that. The same Levada Center study points out that because of a low birth rate over the past decades, the percentage of young people to the rest of the population is quite low. The authors of the report speculate “there simply may not be enough young people to successfully push for fundamental change.” Another important observation in the report is that, although quite critical of the Putin regime, “many younger Russians refrain from actively participating in politics and only grow more politically engaged as they enter their early 30s.”

Estonian journalist and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations Kadri Liik studied the views of young Russian foreign policy professionals. These are the young men and women who represent the future of Russia’s foreign policy establishment and can be counted among the important class of aspiring political technocrats. Their voices will be increasingly important and influential as they progress in their careers to positions of responsibility within the foreign policy community. In this capacity, they will represent many of the views and aspirations of their generation.

Liik’s study reveals that the cohort of young foreign policy professionals she surveyed are more conservative and cautious than many of their peers, but they did share a common sense of bleakness and pessimism about the future of the country. Although they agreed that “some changes to the political system are necessary,” they believed that those changes should occur gradually and should be based on “continuity with what exists today.” Their cautious approach is based on their assessment that Russia has a “low level of political culture.” They also point to the large size of the country and argue that “with such a size, there should be fewer rights [for the population]. We are too big for too many rights.”

Such a passive, almost fatalistic, approach to the future of their country would be surprising in other countries where youth represent dynamism and aspire for change, even radical change if they feel the system is not working for them. But this is not necessarily so in Russia. Although Russia has experienced instances of dynamic youthful protests and even participation in rebellions in the past, there is also a strong tendency to accept the norms dictated by the authorities and conform to the system as it is despite all its negative and abusive aspects. Such attitudes are usually attributed to the older generations who have experienced the worst of past autocratic rule. It is concerning that an influential segment of Russian youth also shares these views. Liik explored this issue with these young professionals who are already working in state institutions and are experiencing the stagnation and inertia that prevails in them. Liik says that “waiting it out” has becomes a survival strategy for many of them. One young government official told her that everyone is tired, including the people in power. The regime is incapable of changing. “Under these conditions,” he said, “it is quite useless to try to explain or propose anything to anyone. Better to be silent.” Such an attitude of passive acceptance does not demonstrate leadership and argues against this cohort of young Russians being at the forefront of those championing for change in the future.

Youth alone, even those most fervently committed to pursuing change and aligned with more mature opposition figures in civil society, are currently no match for the power elite in determining the outcome of the struggle for power that will inevitably ensue in a post-Putin Russia. How that struggle will play out, no one knows. Much will depend on the “correlation of forces,” to use an apt Soviet expression, as the various power centers seek to emerge dominant, acting either alone, or more likely, in temporary alliances with rival forces. One can anticipate that these alliances will shift repeatedly as the power struggle plays out. It is also quite probable that the initial victor may not necessarily be the final one. Russian history is replete with such instances. There is no reason to exclude the possibility that history may repeat itself when Putin leaves.

Scenarios for a Post-Putin Russia

The transition of power has always been consequential in Russia. Putin has been in power for more than 20 years. He is now 68 years old. With each passing year, speculation increases about how long Putin will remain in power, when he will end his “reign,” how the transition of power will take place, whether there will be a struggle for power, who might emerge on top, and what type of regime will rule post-Putin Russia. No one has the answers to these questions, not even Putin. But this does not deter journalists, pundits, soothsayers, shamans, television mystics, and courtyard babushkas from offering their vision of what will happen when Putin’s rule ends. Many of the predictions are pure conjecture devoid of any realistic assessment of political reality. Some made by foreigners are based on their own logic and frame of reference and lack sufficient understanding of the convoluted Russian political scene. But some are worthy of serious consideration. They take into account both objective possibilities based on the Russian historical experience and the distinctive features that characterize the Russian political and social environment.

The Most Popular Scenarios

The first set of scenarios are among those most frequently cited. They offer a vision that can be accepted as reasonable, logical, and within the realm of possibility, given Russia’s current political scene. They are not mutually exclusive, and a combination of these scenarios could occur.

  1. Putin decides not to run for president in 2024. He selects his successor from among the most trusted political technocrats. His successor is duly elected, and the country continues along the same general path of Putinism and stagnation. Putin retires and does not play an active role in politics.
  2. Putin decides not to run for president in 2024. He selects his successor from among the most trusted political technocrats. His successor is duly elected, and the country continues along the same general path of Putinism and stagnation. Putin becomes head of the State Council and plays a rival, perhaps dominant, role in the political life of the country. This complicates the political power structure and exacerbates instability in the country.
  3. Putin decides to run for president in 2024 and is re-elected. When his term ends in 2030, he faces the same dilemma about running again for re-election by extending his term to 2036, at which time he would be 84 years old. At this point, conditions in the country have further deteriorated because the Kremlin has failed to implement major political and economic reforms to address the deep-seated problems facing the country. As stagnation deepens, unrest grows. This forces either a dramatic change in government policy (less likely), or pressures Putin not to run for re-election in 2030 (more likely), or leads to a coup d’état reminiscent of the failed coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 (not out of the realm of possibility), or erupts into a violent revolution—a modern-day version of 1917 (highly unlikely but not impossible).
  4. Putin’s power base weakens and the elites surrounding the president become increasingly more independent and powerful. Putin is less able to act as an arbiter between the rival factions. The Kremlin as a center of power becomes less consequential. Power devolves to emerging regional centers that are in alliance with individual members of the power elite. Putin remains as a convenient figurehead and is allowed to run for re-election, in 2024 or 2030, depending on the timing of this scenario. The centrifugal forces that have always been present in Russia, but often in the background when power is concentrated in the center, become dominant. The power dynamic splinters. The center holds together but only in a weakened fashion. Separate regional power centers emerge, potentially in concord or conflict with each other. The possibility of Russia following its predecessor the Soviet Union by fracturing into autonomous or even independent entities cannot be excluded.

Three Contrasting Scenarios

The following three scenarios by prominent Russian political observers exemplify the conflicting views about Russia’s future. They illustrate the difficulty of reaching a general understanding, much less a consensus, about what a post-Putin Russia may look like and, consequently, the difficulty of working in concert to achieve a common goal.

The first scenario paints a dark picture of Russia’s future and predicts a more authoritarian and chaotic rule for the country. The second scenario presents an optimistic portrayal of Russia becoming a democratic country. The third scenario offers little hope for change; it sees some improvements in the country but a continuation of authoritarian rule.

A Dystopian Future for Russia

Russians are not lacking for gloomy, depressing visions of their country, whether of the present or the future. Fyodor Dostoevsky portrayed Russia in the darkest terms, and his pessimism about life has been shared by other writers, film directors, and political and social commentators for more than a century. Their depiction of the struggles and misfortunes of the Russian people reflects the reality many in Russia have experienced in the past and continue to endure today. It is not surprising, therefore, that grim scenarios about Russia’s future are popular and readily accepted by many Russians.

One of the more radical scenarios has been proposed by Aleksey Shaburov, editor of the PolitSovet portal in Yekaterinburg. As reported by veteran analyst Paul Goble, Shaburov posits that if and when the Putin regime collapses, power will fall into the hands of “bandits,” whom he called Putin’s “pseudo-Cossacks.” According to Shaburov, these are state-armed groups over which the state does not have full control. He claims that these so-called Cossacks, which he distinguishes from real Cossacks, “are situated on the border between two political groups: the official powers-that-be and ‘bandits.’” Shaburov expects that these groups will play a role in the transition of power, most notably by unleashing violence against minorities they do not like and furthering chaos in the country.

Others, such as Alexander Dugin, an ultra-right-wing commentator—some call him a fascist—are convinced that if Putin is further weakened, or when he is no longer president, the country will likely fall apart as did the Soviet Union in 1991. It is only thanks to Putin and his “tough line in the cause of Russian sovereignty” that the Russian Federation remains a unified state. To avoid a disastrous collapse of the country, Dugin argues, Russia will need a super-Putin “in which all his best heroic features will be continued, but his weaknesses and mistakes will be overcome.”

Russian analyst Kirillova worries that if Russia enters another “time of troubles”[3] after Putin leaves the scene, radical-left populists, who are becoming more popular in the country, could emerge as a powerful force in the transition of power. With their Bolshevik-type ideology, repressive policies, opposition to pro-Western forces in the country, and “imperialist and isolationist vision of the world,” they could be instrumental in installing a leader who could be even worse than Putin “with regard to Russia and its relations with the West.”

A Bright Future for Russia

Others are more optimistic about a post-Putin Russia and believe that Russia can adopt more democratic principles and institutions and achieve a rapprochement with the West. Advocates of such views are not naive. They admit to Russia’s failures to properly embrace democratic reforms in the past but maintain the hope that under the right circumstances their vision is achievable.

One of the most prominent proponents of this view is the economist Vladislav Inozemtsev. He argues that “there is reason for long-term optimism.” He bases his cautious expectation on the fact that “the only limiting factor on the Putin regime is the lifespan of its creator. He will not live forever, and there is practically no chance that his system will be preserved after [he is gone].” Inozemtsev cites the deteriorating economic conditions in the country and predicts that they will continue to get worse. Demands for major change will increase. No one who replaces Putin will be able to continue his policies for very long. Once Putin is gone, “the current ruling elite will rapidly disintegrate.” Change at this point will become inevitable, and “the compass of Russian history inevitably will swing towards democratization and rapprochement with the West,” Inozemtsev concludes. But he warns that this process may take some time and will not “happen as quickly as many would like.”

For those who advocate adopting western-oriented democracy, political scientist Alexander Tsipko has a warning. In an op-ed on November 6, 2020, in the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, as reported by the Riga-based online newspaper Meduza, Tsipko acknowledges that Russia has had “many brushes with democracy throughout history,” but none has taken root. He is particularly critical of the Russian liberals who played a prominent role in the immediate post-Soviet years during the presidency of Yeltsin for “failing to build a lasting democracy.” There are many reasons for their failure, but Tsipko focuses on their “fundamental refusal to connect with the country's national past.” By this, he means “embracing continuity with the old Orthodox Russia.” He accuses the liberals of the 1990s of being “alienated from the ‘heart of the people,’ which prevented them from building the necessary linkages between the national past and their vision for the future. By failing to accept and incorporate the historical essence and unique spiritual identity of Russia into their plans for modernization and democratization, the liberals were doomed to failure because they alienated Russian society from its essence.”

Tsipko is also critical of the Yeltsin-era reformers for not being interested in true democratic reforms. He argues that Russia’s nascent democracy, which was born during Gorbachev’s era of perestroika, died in the 1990s because “the liberal elite refused to behave as democrats, rejecting free elections when they couldn't win,” and being less interested in actual reforms than in “transferring state property to private hands, in order to expand what they believed was their base of power.” Tsipko’s words should be viewed not only as a critique of the past but, more importantly, as a warning to those liberal-minded reformers and opposition leaders who aspire to transform Russia into a Western-style democracy in the post-Putin era.

Other experts, such as Liik of Estonia, share Tsipko’s warning but are more sanguine about Russia’s chances of embracing some form of democracy in the future. In a Carnegie Moscow Center publication on December 31, 2020, Liik writes:

Russia can still democratize, but the sources and nature of that democracy would be different. It’ll spring not from a desire to emulate the Western model, but from the homegrown realization that to function smoothly, a country needs to have some rule of law, some separation of powers, some legitimacy among the powers that be. Its agents will be found not so much among the liberal intelligentsia as among various professionals who have come to the conclusion that they need some rules to successfully do their work: a growing, though not yet too vocal social group in today’s Russia. Such a democratic (or maybe semi-democratic) Russia will not be Western-friendly by default: it’ll examine all its relationships in a critical and cold-blooded manner. But it could quite pragmatically cooperate with the West, if and when its interests dictate.

An Uninspiring Future for Russia

The third scenario is not provocative. It does not incite fear and anxiety as does the first one; it does not inspire hope, albeit guarded, as does the second. This scenario promises some glimmer of hope for improvement, but essentially it forecasts a continuation of the uninspiring policies of the Putin regime. One such adherent to this view is Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie office. He believes that a post-Putin Russia “will be different from what it is now, but hardly too different; it will be ruled by a new monarchical president.” He sees the nature of the economy as similar to what exists today with the Kremlin continuing “to play the role of an arbiter among the principal vested interests.” He anticipates that Russia’s society will mature but will remain focused on local issues and such socio-economic challenges as improving education and health care. Russia will not regain superpower status, but it will continue to resist what it perceives as pressure from the West and will play an important role in the world.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a former advisor to President Putin and now one of Russia’s most prominent political experts, offers two alternatives for Russia. One is based on Putin remaining in power at least until 2024, if not beyond, but to do so he would have to “adopt revolutionary changes akin to a more classical dictatorship—mass mobilization and repressions, purges of the elite classes, intimidation of society, and much more severe conflict with the external world.” As we look at the increased repressive steps currently being taken by the Putin regime, it is quite apparent that the Kremlin is moving in this direction, whether for the purposes Pavlovsky argues or for other reasons. In any case, such measures, Pavlovsky insists, will demand an enormous price on both society and the elite that have been supportive of Putin over the many years he has been in power.

Pavlovsky’s second alternative focuses on Russia surviving while Putin’s power wanes. Pavlovsky does not explain how this would happen, but he does argue that the increasingly conservative nature of the regime will somehow facilitate the process of “distancing itself from Putin and learning to function without his everyday involvement,” thereby accelerating the transition to a post-Putin Russia. Over time this process will accelerate, “even sometimes against the wishes of powerful political players.” In the end, Putin “will have to leave—to allow the system to move forward on its own.” Which of the two alternatives will prevail, Pavlovsky concludes, “we’ll see by 2024.”

The Vision of a Dreamer: A Post-Putin Russia as Imaged by Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a man on a mission. Once Russia’s richest man who made his fortune during the lawless early years of post-Soviet Russia, Khodorkovsky dared to challenge the power of President Putin and paid a terrible price. He was arrested in 2003 and served 10 years in prison on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and money laundering. When he was released, he left the country. He currently resides in London where he pursues philanthropic work through his foundation Open Russia, which works to bring about reform to Russian civil society, including through free and fair elections, political education, protection of journalists and activists, the rule of law, and media independence.

During his years in prison, Khodorkovsky transformed himself from an oligarch into a political prisoner and a self-styled “freedom fighter.” He has written about this transformation in numerous articles and interviews while in prison and following his release. He has now made it his life’s mission to bring change to Russia, to transform Russia into a democratic country. This is his commitment and his passion, and he and his supporters are working tirelessly toward this goal. The Economist magazine has described Mikhail Khodorkovsky as “the Kremlin’s leading critic-in-exile.”

There are few opposition figures inside Russia or in exile who have outlined a vision of Russia’s future and have dedicated as many resources toward realizing this vision as has Khodorkovsky. He has suffered greatly at the hands of a regime he despises. He has undergone a traumatic transformation from living life at the height of luxury with little care for the rest of society to hanging on to life in the sordidness and terror of prison where all the perks he enjoyed for decades no longer existed. In prison, his privileged past was a target on his back in a place where survival depended not on who you were but on how adept you were at fitting in and adjusting to an alien and terrifying environment. The transformation Khodorkovsky experienced could only occur to a man who had lost everything but dared to rebuild himself into a better person, a person whom he could respect, regardless of how others viewed him.

This is the Khodorkovsky we now know. Some say his vision of a future Russia is naive and unachievable. Others say it reflects a profound understanding of both Russia’s past and the weaknesses of the authoritarian regime of Putin. Regardless of one’s assessment of the possibility of transforming Khodorkovsky’s vision into reality, there is little doubt that he has profound insights into the reality of today’s Russia. For this reason, I quote the essence of his analysis and prescription below.

Khodorkovsky[4] begins with the premise that “all authoritarian regimes always come to an end because everyone commits critical errors.” In a democracy, errors can be corrected, and democracy can learn from these errors. In an authoritarian regime, “the result of a critical error is a change of government. Under authoritarian rule, it is the end of the regime as we know it.” If one accepts this premise, then there is hope that the authoritarian regime established by Putin will at some point come to an end.

Khodorkovsky, as well as many other critics of the Putin regime, argues:

Russia today finds itself at a crossroads. Society, the opposition, and even the authorities understand that the country cannot go on as it has, but no one understands what comes next. The regime does not have much time left—five, maybe 10 more years—but nobody knows how it will end.

“What is the Russia of my dreams?” Khodorkovsky asks.

It is a country with national interests that lie in a speedy integration into the world economic system with the opportunity to play a worthy role. It is a democratic state that observes the rule of law, firm in its civilizational unity at home, and based on the fundamental principle of freedom. It is…a nation of many cities that take power into their own hands.

What kind of democracy does Russia need? Khodorkovsky is not interested in building on the short democratic experiments of 1917 between the February and Bolshevik revolutions or of the 1990s. Instead, he proposes “building a solid democratic foundation for the first time in Russian history.” This new democratic foundation is based on what he calls a three-dimensional system: a “pyramid based on the key elements of strong local self-government; mega-cities as regional centers; and a strong central government. If one of these elements is not present, the entire system will invariably collapse, either into traditional authoritarianism or possibly the total disintegration of the state itself.” He sees local self-government, which has historical roots in Russia, asthe primary check against any backsliding of Russia towards the chasm of authoritarianism.”

Khodorkovsky believes in the decentralization of power and argues that “the development of federalism will supplement this as an additional driver of decentralization.” Moreover, he is convinced that “it is much easier to ensure public control over state structures if they are within walking distance. Russia’s citizens must learn to solve problems at the level at which they arise. No democracy anywhere in the world can exist without this basis.”

There is no doubt that civic activism on local issues is becoming more widespread in Russia. In some instances, particularly on environmental issues, local communities have been successful in their causes. But in many other cases, citizens have failed to achieve their objectives due to rampant corruption and the exercise of arbitrary power by the authorities. Khodorkovsky recognizes these problems and admits that change will not be coming soon. Most likely it will take several generations to build a new Russia. Khodorkovsky muses:

I do not exclude the possibility that the Russia of our children may be able to survive in something like its current form, lurching forward as a creaking, pseudo-imperial husk. But if we want to see a Russia for our grandchildren, then it is imperative that we build something else: a state founded on the wishes of its people to live together in a common cultural, linguistic, legal, and political space.

How does Russia achieve these goals? How does Russia “build something else?” Khodorkovsky’s answer is “by revolution.”

Revolution is not an alien concept for Russia. In fact, throughout Russian history, political change has been synonymous with revolution. Khodorkovsky is convinced that revolution in Russia is inevitable. “The regime is slipping deeper into repression,” Khodorkovsky argues, “driven by the desire to retain power at any cost. Having done much to turn the idea of revolution into a bogeyman, it is now reaping the backlash: many have begun to perceive a revolution as the most desirable outcome of the growing crisis.” He admits that revolution is a very heavy price for society to pay, but it will be inevitable if life under a regime becomes unbearable and refuses to change. For Khodorkovsky, “a revolution in Russia is only a question of where and when (and to a lesser degree, how).” He warns that revolutions should not be used as “instruments of settling scores and looting resources.” He cites the example of revolutions that have taken place in other countries of the former Soviet Union, which he acknowledges he admires but cautions that “one should not forget that their midterm results were far from the expectations of their inspirers and creators.” Therefore, he concludes that “the democratic movement must do everything possible so that the revolution does not become an end in itself.”

As a final plea, Khodorkovsky reminds the Russian people and all those who wish the best for the future of Russia that “it is impossible to stop despotism and violence with more despotism and violence. Nor should we lose sight of the main goal of revolution—to make society more humane, more tolerant, more free. It should be the work of all those who, having passed through the revolution, are morally cleansed and liberated—and such a revolution, despite all its costs, is beneficial to society.”

Conclusion

I began Part II of this essay with the proverbial question: What is to be done? It was a challenge made famous by Lenin over 100 years ago, but it could not be more relevant today. Russia again finds itself at a critical juncture as the era of Putin approaches its end. Russia must confront the challenge of finding a solution to the eternal quandary of how to manage succession when the current regime ends.

As we have seen in this essay, competing and conflicting forces are constantly in motion as they position themselves to maximize their power and influence in the impending struggle for succession. No one knows the outcome, but many are eager to offer their predictions, some of which I cited above.

If I were to venture my prediction, I would favor those who base their vision of a future Russia on its strengths, historical experiences, societal convictions and norms, and the essence of the so-called Russian soul, that is, a system of beliefs—both religious and secular—that distinguishes the Russian people from others. This leads me to the conclusion that whatever form a future Russia takes it will incorporate the best and the worst of what has been part of the traditional Russian heritage. In my view, this would favor a continuation of strong, centralized rule that would be more authoritarian than democratic. I recognize that Russia does have experience in the past with successful local self-government, but its last significant remnants were killed off many years ago. One could argue that these past experiences imply that institutions based on certain universally accepted principles of democracy are innate to Russia. Indeed, they may be. But when it comes to translating these principles into operating norms at the highest levels of government, Russia has consistently failed. Efforts to import Western democratic concepts and practices have been unsuccessful. From Catherine the Great’s flirtation with the ideas of Voltaire and other Western philosophers, to the programs of the so-called democratic revolutionaries at the end of the 19th century, to the abortive attempt to establish a democratic regime following the February 1917 revolution, to the hopeful days of the 1990s, Russia has seen one failure after another.

In retrospect, it has not necessarily been the concepts themselves that were rejected. Frequent polls show that Russians support the ideas of personal freedom and other basic democratic principles. Rather, it has been the implementation, or more correctly, the distorted implementation of elements of democracy by the authorities that has led to abuses and failures to bring a better life to the people. For the Russian leaders, it has always been about ensuring their power rather than caring for the wellbeing of the people. And the more power the authorities amass, the less they tend to the needs of society.

This has created a vicious circle over many centuries. The more power that is concentrated in the hands of a few, the more subjected the masses are to the arbitrary rule of an authoritarian regime. This continues until a breaking point is reached. That breaking point can manifest itself in a “palace intrigue,” at which time there is a change in leadership at the top (viz. the ouster of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964), or in full-scale revolution (viz. the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917). Another breaking point may soon be approaching. But perhaps Putin will be able to postpone it and prolong the life of his regime for some years to come. This does not mean that Putin will necessarily be able to significantly alter the nature of the eventual succession process. The process will play out at the appropriate time, and the result, as Trenin predicts, “will be different from what it is now, but hardly too different,” and post-Putin Russia will be ruled “by a new monarchical president.”

I greatly admire the convictions of Khodorkovsky and Navalny, and I know they will continue to fight for a better future for the Russian people. But to succeed, society—at least a significant segment of society—must join the opposition in fighting the same fight, in taking the initiative to change their own lives and the lives of their neighbors. As Khodorkovsky stressed: “Russia’s citizens must learn to solve problems at the level at which they arise. No democracy anywhere in the world can exist without this basis.”

Unfortunately, Russia is not there yet. I hope someday it will be.

Washington, DC
January 2021

[1] I used the word “reign” to note the protracted nature of Putin’s rule and the similarity in the way he exercises or fails to exercise power with the rule of some of Russia’s most notorious emperors. I believe that one can draw comparisons with two very different Russian emperors: Nicholas I (1825–1855)—the reactionary and repressive autocrat who was nevertheless responsible for significant territorial expansion, economic growth and industrial development; and Nicholas II (1894–1917)—the well-intentioned autocrat, who initially supported reform but in the end was unable to meet the challenges of the country.

[2] We have seen President Lukashenko in Belarus take such action in response to the popular demonstrations against him and his regime.

[3] The “Time of Troubles” was a period of political crisis in Russia that followed the demise of the Rurik dynasty (1598) and ended with the establishment of the Romanov dynasty (1613).

[4] Khodorkovsky’s ideas and citations are taken from his recent work entitled Gardarika – The Land of Cities.

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Possibilities for continuity and change in the 2009 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, based on the Obama administration's stance on arms control. (CNS)




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