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Russia after Putin

Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

You might call it wishful thinking. Or you might call it scenario planning, a “What if?” exercise practiced by intelligence agencies the world over as a way of preparing for various contingencies.

I suggested recently that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to fall, because of his disastrous handling of the war in Ukraine and its ruinous consequences for Russia. If that happens, what’s likely to occur after Putin leaves office? Much of the answer depends on how Putin leaves. There are two possibilities: the Khrushchev variant, named after the Soviet Party leader who was ousted in 1964 in a coup organized by his political cronies, and the Yanukovych variant, named after the Ukrainian president who fled abroad in the aftermath of the 2014 Maidan Revolution.

{mosads}In the Khrushchev variant, Putin’s closest advisers would, together with influential oligarchs, end Russia’s descent into oblivion by arresting Putin. Given the likelihood of his organizing an opposition movement, they might execute him. If that happened, both his supporters and opponents would take to the streets and violence would ensue. Bereft of their leader, however, Putinites likely would lose and withdraw.

In the Yanukovych variant, some random outrage could trigger mass demonstrations involving large numbers of economically impoverished Russians tired of a war-turned-quagmire and the flow of body bags. Putin’s elite supporters would distance themselves from him; sensing that the jig is up, he might be lucky enough to escape capture and flee to some outpost in Siberia. In this scenario, as well, his supporters and opponents would clash violently in the streets.


Both variants end up in the same place: elite betrayal of Putin, mass mobilization, violence and chaos. The key difference is that, while the Khrushchev scenario would see limited street violence followed by a likely reimposition of some order, in the Yanukovych scenario Putin might mobilize his supporters among the population, secret police, and army and launch a civil war.

In both cases, instability in Moscow caused by Putin’s departure probably would lead to a power struggle among his successors. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, both of whom are most directly implicated in the Ukrainian disaster, likely would be ousted. The remaining members of Putin’s inner circle would jockey for power, try to end the war in Ukraine, and repair relations with the world. Thousands of shell-shocked soldiers returning from the front would not help to stabilize conditions.

In either scenario, the power struggle would enable Russia’s democratic opposition to re-insert itself into politics and possibly gain control of the Kremlin — especially if the street supports them and not the plotters. But the power struggle also would embolden Russia’s aggrieved non-Russian minorities — in particular, the Chechens, Ingush, Daghestanis, Crimean Tatars, Yakuts, and Volga Tatars — to strive for autonomy or independence. Anti-Russian violence would be unavoidable.

Outside Russia proper, Belarusians might take to the streets and succeed in ousting Alexander Lukashenko. Moldovans could conclude that the time is ripe for annexing the makeshift Transnistrian republic. Ukrainians might cast their eyes on Crimea and the Donbas.  

{mossecondads}Whether the Kremlin would be able to satisfy the demands of demonstrators, minorities and neighbors is anybody’s guess, but the resultant disorder likely would persist for several years. And the disintegration of Russia is entirely plausible.

A doomsday scenario becomes especially feasible in the Yanukovych scenario. If Putin were to escape the clutches of his opponents and organize a significant fighting force, Russia could be plunged into a frightful internal war. Russia’s minorities would head for the exit even more quickly, its neighbors would rush to assert themselves, and the rest of the world would look on in terror as millions of refugees fled Russia’s battlefields for Europe and China — and the danger of “loose nukes” once again reared its head.

Neither scenario is encouraging. In both, the core of the problem is Putin and the autocratic system he built — and which the world tolerated. Without him, that system likely cannot be sustained and will disintegrate with potentially horrific consequences for the Russians who sustained Putin in power for over two decades.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction.

Tags autocrats Kremlin Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian oligarchs Vladimir Putin

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