Argument

Time to Think About a World Without Putin

The Russian leader is contemplating his mortality—as are his backers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a video meeting of the Pobeda ("victory") organizing committee at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on July 2, 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a video meeting of the Pobeda ("victory") organizing committee at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on July 2, 2020. Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin has been the leader of Russia in one capacity or another since 2000, when he was just 48. He has been in place so long that an entire generation of young Russians are coming of age who have never known any other leader. Yet an aging Putin seems aware of his own mortality and is making arrangements to ensure the stability he brought to Russia outlasts him.

In the West, Putin is perceived as a ruthless autocrat whose sole goal is to secure personal power while enriching himself and his allies. The more assertive stance that Russia has taken under his rule both in its immediate periphery and internationally has been viewed as naked aggression, with the end goal of reabsorbing territories lost during the fall of the Soviet Union. There’s some truth in these perceptions—but also some distortion.

To be sure, Putin has utilized all tools at his disposal including intimidation, inquisitorial criminal prosecutions, and violence to secure his personal hold on power, and has accumulated an enormous private fortune in the process. But at the state level, these actions are a means to an end rather than the end itself. Prior to Putin’s rise during the 1990s, Russia was widely seen as a gangster state where competing oligarchs who blurred the lines between legitimate business and criminal enterprise made a mockery of the state and used their political connections to loot the economy. Putin did not end corruption, but he asserted the supremacy of the state and its interests over all else, including the goals of the oligarchs and the law itself. There is plenty of rent-seeking in Putin’s Russia, but territory is sanctioned and controlled by the people at the top, and infighting between oligarchs is managed and kept largely out of the public eye. Together with the boom in oil prices in the 2000s, the restriction of corruption and the restoration of business allowed for an economic boom that transformed the lives of ordinary Russians after the despair of the 1990s and built the foundations of Putin’s popularity.

Along with that has come a series of risky but sharply calculated actions meant to secure what Russia sees as its core security interests, including access to the Black Sea and hegemony in the Caucasus. This is not purely Soviet nostalgia; grassroots calls for a reunification of the Russian people in the Baltics and Central Asia have in fact been ruthlessly suppressed by the Kremlin.

Putin is not solely responsible for shaping Russia’s foreign and domestic policies, or the government structures that enact them. He heads a collective group of stakeholders, including business leaders, the siloviki (“securocrats”) of the armed forces and security services, and regional magnates. Putin and his network directly benefit from their positions of power, but the broader network of stakeholders also wants to remain in power and maintain their access to the state’s resources regardless of whether Putin is in command or not.

The Russian leadership, with Putin still serving as the main instigator and adjudicator, is thus looking to establish long-term political stability that would prevent future leaders from upsetting the balance they created. From Putin’s own patriotic perspective, this would spare Russia another weak leader like former President Boris Yeltsin who would allow the state to be weakened from within.

The main mechanism for securing this continuity is the recent slew of constitutional changes that are being enacted within Russia, which created a subtle yet significant shift of governance.

The main mechanism for securing this continuity is the recent slew of constitutional changes that are being enacted within Russia, which created a subtle yet significant shift of governance. Under the new constitution, for example, the Duma (Russia’s Parliament) obtains the sole power to appoint a series of cabinet members focused on domestic politics and economic policies, while the presidency obtains clearer powers in appointing the portion of the cabinet geared towards foreign policy and external security. Of similar importance is the rising role of Russia’s so-called Councils, including the Security Council (currently largely an advisory board to the president) and the Federation Council that represents the regions of the Russian Federation. New legislation is set to define the authority of these councils more clearly and will allow for a further separation of powers beyond the presidency.

Enacting these changes correctly will on paper lead Russia toward a form of leadership that relies on a consensus among the key stakeholders rather than having a single individual directing policy. Doing this effectively though requires not just changing the law but also changing political culture and thus needs a certain foundation of stability, rather than a system built around one man’s connections and charisma. This has meant a counterintuitive extension of Putin’s time in office to facilitate transition and reform towards a post-Putin era.

Previous attempts at depersonalizing and decentralizing Russian politics have generally been failures, and there are mighty challenges ahead that will strain the ability of the stakeholders involved to maintain consensus absent a single leading figure. Russia’s hydrocarbon-dominated budget will become even more stressed as domestic production is set to dwindle and global oil demand stagnates or shrinks. With the economy limited, popular discontent mixed with generational churn is likely to cause demands for liberalization. Demographic problems are likely to hit in the 2030s, adding pressure on the labor force and on supporting an aging population.

Given Russia’s history and the reality of its internal power dynamics, it is also entirely possible that Putin’s departure from the scene, whether by a genuine retirement or death, will unleash intense competition within Russia’s elites. Political leaders, oligarchs, and prominent security officials have jockeyed for power under Putin, but without his strong personality and the centralized power that he embodies, such conflict risks of dividing the Russian governmental bodies and resulting in deadlock rather than consensus.

Given the complexity of this political transformation, a lacking understanding of Russian leadership structures by western administrations presents significant challenges.

The West needs to start considering what a Russia without Putin will look like, dissecting the new system and watching for opportunities to cultivate and support people within these power structures who can steer Russia on a course more conducive to U.S. interest.

To that end, the United States also needs to be extremely calculating in its use of targeted sanctions against members of the Russian government, and be flexible enough to ease or eliminate sanctions as a sign of good faith. The application of sanctions has multiplied profusely in recent years, and risks alienating a future generation of leaders who feel themselves cut off from and alien to the West. The United States must be mindful that future shifts in how Russia is governed and who is leading it are at most two decades away, and work towards dealing not just with Moscow today, but with the leaders of the future.

Jeff Hawn is a Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Department of International History. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order.

Sim Tack is an analyst at Force Analysis where he studies strategic intelligence problems and monitors military capabilities and operations. He has a thematic focus on Russian foreign policy behaviour and capabilities.