As Russian President Vladimir Putin approaches his 70th birthday and 23rd year in power, speculation about his possible successor has increasingly surfaced in newspaper articles, blog posts and even some official press releases (RIA Novosti, January 25; Meduza, April 7; T.me/CenterCounteringDisinformation, April 21). Predictably, most of the talk among Russian commentators centers around such heavyweights within the country’s leadership as Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev (who, incidentally, turns 71 in July), Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (56), First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko (59), and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin (64). An occasional pundit will pitch in with claims that only younger stars, such as Patrushev’s son Dmitry (44), who currently serves as Russia’s agriculture minister, Senator Andrei Turchak (46), or the 49-year-old governor of Tula Oblast (and former Putin bodyguard), Aleksei Dyumin, have a realistic chance of making it to the top.
With sanctions taking a toll on the national economy and concerns over bread-and-butter issues spurring fresh calls for a change of course, it is, perhaps, inevitable that the architecture of post-Putin Russia should become the talk of the town in Moscow. But Russians are not the only ones thinking about their state’s future. In fact, speculation about Putin’s successor has gone into overdrive in neighboring Ukraine since the re-invasion of the country four months ago; although Russia-watchers there consistently defy conventional wisdom.
Two months ago, the Ukrainian Center for Countering Disinformation (CCD), which operates under the National Security and Defense Council, published its own take on the most probable scenario for the succession and power transfer in Russia. “Today, many Ukrainian and Russian opposition analysts agree that [Chechen head Ramzan] Kadyrov has not only become one of Russia’s most influential figures in power but is also seen as a possible Russian president,” the CCD’s post to its Telegram channel said. The setbacks the Kremlin has suffered during the conflict in Ukraine, its miscalculations, repeated coverups, and the lack of coherent and well-articulated strategies has not gone down well in Russian society, according to the CCD. “The Kremlin’s current policy raises a lot of questions, that is why Russian society is seriously considering the Chechen Kadyrov as Putin’s successor,” the analytical group asserted (T.me/CenterCounteringDisinformation, April 21).
On the surface, it may seem counter-intuitive that a man sanctioned by dozens of states who runs a tiny region on the periphery of the Russian Federation should be viewed as a realistic candidate for the top job in the world’s largest country, but other Ukrainian observers concur and explain why. According to Channel 24 commentator Ivan Yakovina, Kadyrov (who is 45) is not only the most-influential but also the most-feared politician in Russia. “I am almost sure he will be Russia’s next president,” the Moscow-born expert, who lives and works in Ukraine, told the network (Channel 24, April 20). Ukrainian political scientist Taras Berezovets believes Kadyrov has enough clout and determination to launch a presidential bid should Putin’s hold on power falter. Kadyrov keeps upward of 3,000 loyal fighters in Moscow on a permanent basis, and that force could tip the outcome of any future power struggle in the Chechen strongman’s favor, Berezovets posited (YouTube, June 8). Rumors about Putin’s health have galvanized Russia’s political clans into a search for strong allies, and Kadyrov’s private army is the only “force that is capable of taking power,” another Ukrainian analyst, Colonel (ret.) Oleg Zhdanov, said (YouTube, June 9). Indeed, since the beginning of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian war, Kadyrov has met with both Patrushevs (twice, in fact, with the son), Prime Minister Mishustin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Federal Security Service (FSB) director Alexander Bortnikov, Kremlin Chief of Staff Anton Vaino, Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, and, of course, the president himself. While there has been extensive coverage of those meetings in the Russian media, little has been revealed about the issues discussed.
It might be tempting to dismiss such projections as an inconsequential byproduct of the ongoing war, an attempt to drive a wedge between the Kremlin and Kadyrov’s Chechnya, or an expression of atavistic fears on the part of a nation that believes it is under perpetual attack; but Russians, too, have contemplated such an outcome and concluded that it is not beyond the realms of possibility (Current Time, January 19, 2016; Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 28, 2016; Lebed.com, January 28, 2022). To begin with, Kadyrov represents a character that seems to have stepped out of ancient Russian chronicles: an autocrat obsessed with God, yet oblivious to all divine commandments when dealing with his enemies, who inspires fear through strength and pure aggression. With Russians feeling increasingly besieged and vulnerable, such brute strength may look appealing to many. Second, Kadyrov has recently become something of a leader and spokesperson for Russia’s proverbial “party of war,” earning the seal of approval from such influential propagandists as ِAndrei Karaulov, Vladimir Solovyov and Margarita Simonyan (T.me/karaulov_life, May 31; Kommersant, June 1; T.me/margaritasimonyan, May 17). Russian media has embraced the young and hyperactive Chechen strongman as a role model and example to other officials, while recognizing the need to cite his name to attract high viewership numbers. Third, Kadyrov, who frequently describes himself as Putin’s loyal “foot soldier” (see EDM, April 30, 2015) and defender of traditional values, is likely to be acceptable to those old elites and conservative strata of society that may want Putinism preserved even after Putin is gone.
Interestingly, speculation about the current Russian leader’s successor rarely obsesses about ethnicity, religion or geography. But that is precisely where Kadyrov’s weaknesses lie: he belongs to a much-maligned ethnic group and has long cultivated the image of a devout Muslim in a country that has never had a non–Christian Orthodox leader (if one discounts the atheist Communists). Kadyrov has never held a government job in Moscow either, although he is commonly seen as a federal-level politician. Nonetheless, in an increasingly nationalist, imperialist Russia, which is turning into an international law–breaking pariah state that ever more often spurns recognized norms and values, Kadyrov’s chances of becoming the country’s next president should not be underestimated.