In a speech in late March, U.S. President Joe Biden veered off script and said out loud something about Russian President Vladimir Putin that many were thinking privately: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” White House aides raced to walk back the president’s ad-libbed remark, emphasizing that the U.S. goal in Russia is not regime change. Intentionally or not, however, Biden’s quip reinforced the conviction of some in Washington that the simplest way to end Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine is to end his grip on power. As Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, tweeted in March, “the only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out.”  

There is no reason to think Putin faces an immediate risk of assassination. Nor does a coup or a popular revolution seem to be in the offing any time soon. But Putin is 69 years old and possibly in ill health. Russian investigative journalists have alleged that he may have had thyroid cancer. Whether he dies in office, is deposed, or willingly gives up power, Putin’s reign over Russia will end one way or another.

Far from a stabilizing event, however, the inevitable end of his rule will be an uncertain and likely perilous moment for Russia. For the last two decades, Putin has held on to power by weakening the country’s formal rules and institutions—removing the guardrails that would ensure an orderly transfer of power. As a result, the range of plausible scenarios for what would happen if he dies or leaves office is much wider than if a U.S. or even a Chinese leader were to do the same. Although Russia’s constitution spells out a process for electing a new leader, in practice, Russia’s next president is likely to be determined by a behind-the-scenes struggle between elites. By building a highly personalist autocracy, in other words, Putin has made it impossible to predict what will happen when the inevitable occurs.   

BY THE BOOK

From a legal standpoint, it is clear what should happen if Putin were to leave office unexpectedly: according to Russia’s constitution, if the president “is incapable of fulfilling his duties,” the prime minister becomes acting president for no longer than three months while elections are organized. Although Russia is not a democracy, elections there still carry formal procedural weight. The country has had nearly three decades of regular elections since 1993. These votes have become progressively more bogus under Putin, but electoral rules still determine such questions as timing, procedures, and term lengths. They do not determine who stands for office, however, or who gets the backing of the Kremlin. Those things are determined behind the scenes by Putin and a small coterie of elites.

For the last 20 years, Putin has kneecapped the country’s formal institutions and made himself the center of everything. He rewrote the constitution twice—first to extend the length of presidential terms and then to “nullify” his previous service so that he can potentially remain in office until 2036. He has also reduced the two houses of Russia’s parliament and the Constitutional Court to virtual Kremlin puppets and harassed, banned, imprisoned, or killed any opposition candidates capable of challenging him.

In the event that Putin dies or leaves office unexpectedly, therefore, alliances between elites will be at least as important as formal rules in determining who succeeds him. The most likely scenario is that Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin would become the acting president, as the formal rules dictate, and the upper house of Russia’s parliament would have two weeks to schedule an election. During that time, a fierce battle would take place behind the scenes to determine a consensus candidate from among the key players that make up Team Putin. The whole point of electoral authoritarianism, after all, is to know the winner in advance. 

The world could witness a Russian presidential election in which the results were not decided in advance.

As the incumbent—albeit, acting—president, Mishustin would have a big advantage in this succession struggle. He is one of a small handful of politicians in the second tier behind Putin in terms of public trust. He has had consistently high approval ratings, even before the war in Ukraine caused his approval ratings to soar. In some ways, he would be seeking to follow the same path that another colorless prime minister took to the presidency. On New Year’s Eve in 1999, Putin took over as acting president when Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned. Three months later, Putin was formally elected president, after other prominent contenders stepped aside and most elites coalesced around his candidacy.

Mishustin is a relative newcomer to the heights of Russian politics. Appointed prime minister by Putin in January 2020, he was previously the head of Russia’s Federal Tax Service. He was brought in to oversee economic issues and improve government efficiency, but he has forged ties to other key insiders and, according to the Russia analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, “increase[d] his political weight.” His lack of political charisma might be seen as an asset by other Putin loyalists hoping to control him as president, just as Putin’s relative inexperience endeared him to some oligarchs and officials who mistakenly thought they could control him. One thing that might work against Mishustin, paradoxically, is his relatively youthful age of 56. The old guard is in fact quite old, and many might prefer one of their own to a younger and potentially ambitious president.

Even if Mishustin wins the post-Putin sweepstakes, however, there is no guarantee that he will be able to hold together the fractious coalition of Kremlin insiders. Unlike most of Putin’s closest cronies, he is neither a KGB veteran nor a native of St. Petersburg. Members of both elite camps may fear that he will seek to erode their power and wealth, just as Putin did to some prominent Yeltsin associates after he took over. As a result, Mishustin may struggle to consolidate his authority, leaving open the possibility of electoral or even extralegal challenges down the road—neither of which would bode well for Russia’s stability.

UP TO THE CHALLENGE?

Mishustin would likely have the upper hand in any scramble to succeed Putin, but he is not the only candidate. Russia has no formalized chain of succession beyond the prime minister—a whopping legal gap. But others hoping to win enough allies to capture the presidency might try to do so from the Security Council, a body that brings together top political and military officials.

Although none of them is in the formal line of succession, possible contenders for the top job include Sergei Shoigu (the minister of defense), Dmitry Medvedev (a former president and the current vice chair of Russia’s Security Council), Vyacheslav Volodin (the speaker of the Duma), and Sergei Sobyanin (the mayor of Moscow). Given the fractiousness of the Russian elite and the low levels of public support most of these figures enjoy, however, it is difficult to imagine any of them outmaneuvering Mishustin to become the consensus candidate. More likely, all would conclude that a bid for power was too risky and that it was better to live to fight another day.

Still, it is possible that one of them might challenge Mishustin, either in the two-week period during which the Kremlin’s candidate would be anointed or in the subsequent special election as an independent candidate. In this scenario, Mishustin would have the advantage of controlling the presidential levers of power, including state television and the Central Election Commission. But if another Putin insider with national standing decided to compete openly for power, the world would witness something it hasn’t since 1996: a Russian presidential election in which the results were not decided in advance.

There is also the possibility of an extraconstitutional bid for the presidency. Multiple Russian agencies theoretically have the power to stage a coup—not only the military but the Federal Guard Service, the National Guard, and the Federal Security Service. But it is hard to imagine anyone being able to rally all those forces under a single banner, especially during wartime. Historically, Russian leaders have worked hard to avoid situations in which these forces might be employed to physically counterbalance one another. And perhaps more important, Russian military leaders have long deferred to civilian elites. It has been two centuries since the military made a bid for power when a ruler died in office, and a repeat of the 1825 Decembrist Revolt—which quickly collapsed—seems highly unlikely in today’s Russia.

One final scenario that could reduce uncertainty is if Putin were to make a planned departure—for health reasons, for example—and designate a successor. Moving a handpicked replacement into the premiership before leaving office would allow Putin to unify rival elite groups and thereby increase the odds of an orderly succession. It would also replicate his own path to the presidency. Should Putin opt for this route, there is little reason to think he would anoint Mishustin, who was widely seen as a technocrat when he was appointed prime minister.

THE AUTOCRAT’S ACHILLES’ HEEL

Most autocracies are surprisingly durable. Even after authoritarian leaders die in office, their regimes often survive for years or even decades. According to the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, who analyzed all succession events in authoritarian countries between 1946 and 2012, 87 percent of autocratic regimes were still in place one year after a leader’s death, and 76 percent were still in place after five years.

But not all forms of authoritarianism are equally durable. Kendall-Taylor and Frantz found that compared with monarchies, single-party regimes, and military juntas, personalist autocracies such as the one Putin has built are the most vulnerable to regime change. Seventy-eight percent of them were still in place a year after a leader’s death, but that number declined to just 44 percent after five years. In many cases, such as Syria under Hafez al-Assad and North Korea under Kim Il Sung, power passed directly to a family member, helping ensure the survival of the regime. But in Russia, Putin’s daughters are not being groomed for rule; the media are strongly discouraged from even talking about them.

Another source of regime longevity is the tendency of the regime loyalists to come together after a leader’s death in order to head off potential challengers and preserve their power and perks. Members of Putin’s inner circle will be incentivized to do this after he is gone, but without an obvious successor to unite around, they could be especially likely to succumb to factionalism. Infighting of this sort has dominated previous eras of Russian history. After Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, it took Joseph Stalin years to consolidate his position as the undisputed leader. A similar power struggle played out after Stalin’s death in 1953, when Nikita Khrushchev had to call on members of the military to arrest his rival, Lavrenty Beria, who controlled the secret police and the Kremlin’s security services.

Not all forms of authoritarianism are equally durable.

Succession is sometimes said to be the Achilles’ heel of autocracies, especially personalist ones. And indeed, a nontrivial share of them—56 percent, according to Kendall-Taylor and Frantz—experience regime change within five years of a ruler’s death. Even if Putin’s regime ultimately survives intact, Russia could be in for a chaotic and even violent period of transition.

Recent Russian history provides some clues as to what it might look like if things go off the rails. In 1993, a power struggle between Yeltsin and the leftover Soviet parliament yielded two weeks of “dual power” in Russia that ended with tanks firing on parliament. In 1999, the transition from Yeltsin to Putin coincided with the resumption of war in the breakaway region of Chechnya and a series of mysterious bombings in Moscow apartment complexes that killed hundreds. When Putin had to temporarily step away from the presidency in 2008 due to term limits, rival factions orchestrated the arrest of key figures from each other’s ranks—a form of political hostage taking aimed at gaining leverage in the succession struggle. In short, leadership transitions in Russia have the potential to be very messy.

Someday, somehow, Putin’s rule will come to an end. When that day comes, his inner circle will be strongly incentivized to cooperate to preserve his regime. As Benjamin Franklin warned in 1776, “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” But sometimes, those on the losing end of power struggles would rather fight back than give in. Most often, they grasp for economic and political weapons, but occasionally they use tanks and guns. And in the case of a nuclear superpower currently waging a brutal war against the second-largest country in Europe, even a modest chance of regime collapse is cause for global concern.

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