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The Day After Putin

Russia’s Deep State Holds the Key to Succession

Vladimir Putin ahead of a meeting with Kim Jong Un in Vladivostok, Russia, April 2019 Sergei Ilnitsky / New York Times

Who will rule Russia when Vladimir Putin is gone? The Russian president recently reignited speculation about his succession plans by proposing a series of constitutional changes, on which parliament will vote next week, and by installing Mikhail Mishustin, a near-anonymous technocrat who for years headed the country’s tax service, as his new prime minister. Some experts predict Putin will step down before his fourth and final term ends in 2024; others insist he aims to create a new position enabling him to evade term limits and rule indefinitely. Everyone wonders whether Mishustin is the cipher he seems or a successor in waiting. Nobody, to say the very least, has any idea.   

One reason so much analysis of Russia’s future reveals so little is that journalists, businesspeople, diplomats, and scholars—myself included—have too often asked the wrong questions. We focus too much on Putin himself, on his personality, his

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