Ever more people in both Russia and the West are recognizing that Vladimir Putin will not be in power forever. While he could remain in the Kremlin for another decade or two, he may decide to leave earlier or be compelled to do so by those around him. That is the defining reality in Russia today, and it is something that Western policymakers need to focus on to develop policies for dealing with Russia during this transition, however long or short it may be, as well as to contend with the Russia that will emerge after Putin leaves the scene. Neither of these tasks is likely to be easy, given all the uncertainties involved; but both are critical for the defense of the interests and values of the West.
That is the central message of an important recent book by Herman Pirchner, Jr., the president of the American Foreign Policy Council. His study begins with the acknowledgement that no one knows or can predict when Putin will depart or who will replace him. Yet the book argues that enough is known about the current power arrangements within the Russian elite as well as about past Russian and Soviet transitions to make crucial predictions. Namely, Pirchner writes that an understanding of the present relationships among the elites and historical precedent allows for the construction of a matrix about what key players are likely to do, how their actions will affect Moscow’s approach to domestic and foreign policies, and what the West should be preparing for and how to respond. That matrix, thus, explains far more than just the approaching transition.
Pirchner’s book is entitled Post Putin: Succession, Stability and Russia’s Future (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019, 118 pp.); but despite its title and relative brevity, it is really about the Russian political system as a whole and recalls in its approach the works of Nathan Leites like The Operational Code of the Politburo (Santa Monica, 1951), which helped to define how an entire generation of Western Sovietologists understood and approached the issue of relations with the leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the last four generations of its existence. Pirchner’s book is set to play a similar role for the last years of the Putin era and the first years after his departure from power.
The longtime American specialist on Russia devotes the core of his book to a discussion of how long Putin is likely to remain in office, what institutional players matter in his regime, what conditions might lead to his exit, and how a new leader will emerge, with a consideration of the problems he will face in consolidating his power and directing Russian policy. In addition, Pirchner includes an addendum detailing past succession struggles in the USSR and Russia and two appendices, one prepared by his AFPC colleague Amanda Azinheira. The first appendix is on the fate of dictators who have ruled countries with 10 million people or more since 1950. While the second lists international treaties the USSR and Russia have entered into that, in many cases, Moscow is now in violation of and the status of which a new Russian ruler and the West will need to consider.
Putin has worked hard, Pirchner argues, to “ensure that no effective opposition to his rule would come from either government institutions, such as they are, or from Russia’s private sector.” That limits the ability of anyone to organize against him and means that it is impossible to say who will, in fact, succeed him or to exclude the possibility that someone as yet unknown may take over. Nevertheless, he argues it is possible to specify what the institutional interests of such an individual would likely be—Pirchner devotes most of this essay to that question—and to conclude that “the person who succeeds Putin will likely be 1) a governor or hold a major office in Moscow; 2) have been appointed with the approval of Putin; 3) either have an FSB [Federal Security Service] background or be acceptable to that organization; 4) have wealth as a result of his participation in Russia’s kleptocracy; 5) be under 70; and 6) be a man.”
According to Pirchner, there are four obvious scenarios for Putin’s departure, each of which entails its own implications for how his successor will behave. Putin may voluntarily give up power, he may die of natural causes; he may be assassinated; or the internal political situation in Russia may force him to leave office. It is also feasible to see some combination of these, either sequentially or at the same time. In addition, Putin may choose to leave the presidency and occupy a position in which he would give up day-to-day rule but still make all the major decisions. That possibility, too, has policy implications, although it is not technically a transition to a post-Putin future.
Once Putin does leave the scene, however, it is likely that any new leader will require a more-or-less lengthy period of time to put his house in order. And either immediately or over time, he will seek to solve “Russia’s longstanding internal political tensions” by repression or through serious reform. Repression has worked for Putin and should not be discounted as a strategy, although it precludes the kind of development at home and relations with the West that a new generation in power undoubtedly prefers. At the same time, reform carries with it real risks: no new Russian leader will have forgotten that it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort at reform that led to the disintegration of the USSR. What may be most likely is that both strategies will be employed but neither carried out in an effective manner, thus delaying rather than solving Russia’s problems.
Pirchner concludes by reiterating that “it is not possible to know when or how Russia’s leadership will change. Nor is it possible to know what their policies will be or how competently these policies will be executed. However, at some point, and perhaps with little notice, the United States will have to decide how to engage a new Russian leadership.” The American foreign policy expert expresses the hope his new study “can provide an ongoing context by which government analysts can formulate appropriate responses to such possible changes.” Both his overarching arguments and the details he provides about the Russian political system justify that hope.