Since the beginning of 2015, many analysts began talking about Russia after Putin. Seriously. As Putin is developing the offensive, increasing levels of confrontation, each new day exposes more of the grave outlook: it’s only the collapse of the Putin regime that can put an end to the Russian war in Ukraine. Stakeholders interested in a change of government in Russia are increasing in numbers, and those include inter alia some members of Putin’s entourage. Too many people realize too well that the top person in Russia — implacable, inflexible and deeply wounded – is deliberately pulling the country into a catastrophe.
The Russian President, playing a cool-headed leader, replied with undisguised irony to a question from a far-sighted journalist whether he feared a possibility of a “palace revolution”. In fact, this had an effect of a perfect psychological operation; not quite a couple of weeks later, Putin’s heart failed him, making him scale back communication to an indecent minimum. The would-have-been emperor seems to understand better than others without waxing too poetic that something never-seen-before occurred in Russian history. As Russian author and human rights activist Victor Shenderovich put it, “The Russians have found themselves fallen out of the European civilization; actually not fallen out but, rather, threw themselves out – with their own proper hands and with the hands of the administration”. Just before the start of 2015, foreigners began fleeing from Russia, while the Ruble fell into a downward spiral in the wake of oil prices crumbling. Interestingly, former Russian deputy minister of energy Vladimir Milov argues that Russia’s internal holdings, including 400 billion dollars, exist on paper only. Interviewed by “Economicheskaya Pravda” in January 2015, he said: “Holdings exist only on paper. Frankly, the issue here is not even what will happen to the economy. The issue is how the people will respond, because people have gotten accustomed to sustainable economic growth over the past 15 years. Society was “lulled” by people who managed the economy and ensured the growth”.
Academics, journalists, authors – all those who have not forgotten how to think – describe Putin’s policy as becoming more deadlock and harmful for the country. “The collapse of Putin’s regime is likely. Most of our opposition politicians see their future with the so-called constitutional component and talk about the elections to the Duma in 2016, presidential elections in 2017,” Russian historian, philosopher and theologian Andrei Zubov said in February 2015.
Deterioration of the Putin-led Russia got so progressive by the start of 2015 that it made its self-isolation inevitable. As the Kremlin envoys are laying themselves out to search and find allies (and, miraculously, sometimes find them, as was the case with Greece and Venezuela in early 2015), global skepticism about Putin is gaining momentum. Expressed in the form of sanctions, this skepticism, in February 2015, grew to the level where the world is ready to demonstrate its unity and put the vain, stubborn man to where he belongs. It must be said that, by the start of 2015, the audacious arrogance of the Moscow emperor gave way to growing amazement and apprehension. Indeed, he still keeps an impressive arsenal of ‘last-resort arguments’ ranging from fighter aircraft and precision-guided missiles to the ‘nuclear button’. But the truth is that even his closest allies see the inadequacy of their boss even better than does the rest of the world, and the instinct of self-preservation will sooner or later show them the right way. Incidentally, it’s not a coincidence that the authoritative The Guardian newspaper wrote at the end of December 2014: “With oil revenues tailing off sharply, on the one hand it will expose how little has been done to diversify the Russian economy during the boom years, while on the other the amount of money to share among the group of billionaires around Putin will shrink dramatically. … If the economic situation continues to deteriorate, and the political turmoil continues, one school of thought suggests Putin could be in trouble from within his own inner circle… For those in the inner circle, sanctions have in some cases meant losing business, property and travel opportunities in the west… Even among those ideologically in tandem with Putin, if their vast wealth begins to be threatened their loyalty may waver”.
A broad consensus appears having been reached among analysts to the effect that Putin, as befits the man of fixed ideas, will stand his ground until the end. But this is what has recently made him vulnerable to his own allies. One thought has been increasingly heard from within the Kremlin; no matter how far assertive one man in the Kremlin will be, the economic downfall in Russia will inevitably kill the carefully built police-authoritarian regime. The architect of the Russian war in Ukraine is still being able to contain the Russian people without also solving their problems, but, instead, drawing their attention to the “American threat” by manipulating public consciousness by means of the well tuned propaganda machine. However, in February 2015, candidates for Putin’s final choice as his successor began to increase their media presence. Particularly in January 2015, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, during a visit to the Chkalov Proving Flying Center of the “Russian Helicopters” Holding, flew on a combat reconnaissance and attack helicopter Ka-52 “Alligator”. Such examples are aplenty, be it implacable Sergei Ivanov who arrogantly denied Western leaders’ statements as “idiotic”, or loyal Sergei Shoygu with his demonstrations of Russia’s “flexed nuclear muscles” or oversea voyages in search of new allies. But there are also other contenders for this role. For example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in late 2014, offered himself to be the leader of the “transitional government”. There is a growing trend observed that Putting should, if not fall into oblivion, at least give way to someone who will be able to rebuild the burnt bridges between Russia and the rest of the world.
Against the background of growing confrontation, every new counter-step by the West quietly tightens the noose around Putin. If the self-styled republics LNR and DNR are officially labeled terrorist organizations, the world could designate Russia as State Sponsor of Terrorism. There occurred kind of a chain reaction, which was excellently described by Ukrainian author and journalist Yury Shcherbak thus: “Putin will be accused of crimes against peace (planning, preparation, incitement or waging of aggressive war), crimes against humanity (murder, enslavement, persecution on political or ethnic grounds, theft of public and private property, destruction of towns and villages)”. Shortly afterwards, former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Paula J. Dobriansky wrote in The Washington Post on February 13, 2015 that Russia should be prosecuted for its crimes against humanity. She says ‘Russia’, but many hear ‘Putin”. A change of rhetoric is all about timing. In fact, Putin has become a threat to the Russians. Even the Russia-backed terrorist warlords in the Donbas (like a certain insurgent leader Igor Strelkov-Girkin) have come to take shots at the Russian leader. On 9 February, again, Rogozin emerged with a statement that Russia’s massive military modernization programs have fallen in jeopardy because of growing prices of defense industry products amidst ruble’s collapse.
It is also specific that the master of the Kremlin is progressively losing credibility. As Russian political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky put it, “Putin wants to don Stalin’s uniform and return to the Yalta-Potsdam world of 1945,” but this is “impossible because that world collapsed in 1989 along with the fall of the Berlin wall.” Even more pessimistic is Russian poet Igor Irten’ev, who, as early as in May 2014, spoke out prophetically, “I am very pessimistic about the future, foresee great upheavals in Russia when it runs out of oil money, which will run out very soon “.
The wait-and-see stance of Berlin and Paris, temporary weakness during the grueling Minsk negotiations on February 12, the snapping of toothy jaws in the US Congress amidst Washington’s hesitation and indecisiveness, the launch of a very dangerous idea of ??freezing the conflict in eastern Ukraine, see-saw battles amidst the growing battle experience of the Ukrainian military – these are all suffocating factors for the Kremlin intriguer. This is confirmed by synchronous statements made in January 2015 by philanthropic billionaire George Soros and the authoritative The Economist magazine. Words by the renowned financier and open society crusader came as a harbinger of Putin’s agony. The prominent expert in the nature of money stated in the middle of January 2015 that the sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and Europe for its interventions in Ukraine have worked much faster and inflicted much more damage on the Russian economy than anybody could have expected. The increased damage is largely due to a sharp decline in the price of oil, without which the sanctions would have been much less effective. An analyst at The Economist is writing the following, ” …as the oil price fell Russia has not (so far) become any friendlier to the West nor to its neighbors. Mr Putin seems determined to break that correlation. Indeed, he has offered the war and patriotic euphoria as a compensation for the falling oil prices and lack of economic growth. The only way to bend the trend is by escalating aggression. This year will see a contest between Mr Putin’s regime and the oil price. It will not be a pretty sight”. Well-known British expert James Sherr believes that Russian economy will collapse in two years at the latest: “When it comes to damaging Russia, time favors the West. Within two years, if not less, the prolongation of existing pressures will seriously impair Russia’s ability to pursue the course it pursues with such tenacity today. (“Mirror Weekly”, 13/02/15).
A similar view is shared by Russian oppositionist politician Boris Nemtsov: “The price of oil, in my opinion, will stay at a low level for a long time. In Russia, falling price of oil has invariably led to a change of government sooner or later. In the same token, if the current crisis drags on, a change of government in Russia is inevitable”. Nemtsov is confident that the current Russian crisis is a direct consequence of Putin’s war in Ukraine.
It’s my sincere belief that if sanctions continued during a full year, and the Russian economy remained under severe pressure of falling oil prices and sanctions, Putin will start pulling back forces from Ukraine, or the Russians will be looking for a new leader, said John Herbst, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and current Director of the Eurasian Center. Well, Putin, instead of a reasonable reset of relations with the West and the withdrawal of troops from Ukraine, made a reckless, albeit outwardly brave step: he has gone for all-or-nothing – launched an almost open offensive deep into Ukraine, having deployed enormous quantities of arms and military equipment in the Donbas regions [controlled by Russian forces], in addition to about a dozen thousand military personnel to help organize military action and reinforce local insurgents.
So, in January 2015, dissatisfaction with Putin’s policy course increased dramatically, even among his inner circle. In late January, Bloomberg, citing unnamed sources, reported that the dictator has narrowed his inner circle down to several military and security chiefs, and drastically reduced the amount of communication even with the people supposed to be his friends. Many media outlets quoted Olga Kryshtanovskaya, an opinion poll expert, as noting that Putin has run into a difficult time: “He is being criticized both by the liberals and the ‘hawks’”.
One way or another, but in the worst case it can be that Putin may hand over the reins of power to someone from the military and security establishment. Not improbably, this someone will be even worse than Putin – the hardline Ivanov or tight-lipped but quick-minded Shoygu. Another viable candidate is Dmitry Rogozin, a loyal vassal, who has grown sharp ‘political fangs’ over all his years of being besides Putin, and, also, has shown himself a decent enough actor. It seems that intellectuals and men of logics such as Chemezov, Surkov or Sechin, for example, are less suited for the ‘successor’ role. Rather, they will more likely be assigned the role of guardians of all life aspects of their current patron.
Softer, more positive scenarios in which power in Russia would come to someone from among oppositionist politicians, such as Nemtsov or Navalny or even Khodorkovsky, are less likely than “worse” scenarios. These are only likely under certain, extreme circumstances. For example, if the Russians rose in sufficient numbers in protest against Putin’s disastrous course of action in Ukraine. Not only is this very unlikely in conditions of a police-ridden state, but such protests can be easily stamped out, given the availability of a powerful repressive machine, supported by a horde of servant mass media.
Boris Nemtsov — an uncompromising critic of the current Russian regime, who has been so bold as to describe Putin’s international policy course as being “stupid”, and ascribed the current crisis in Russia to Putin’s cronies and their villainous state capitalism — has pretty better chances of winning. But the limits of his popularity can hardly be expanded to nation-wide proportions, especially if one takes into account that overwhelming majority of the Russians favor a strong-arm policy, even if this puts them in oppositions to the outside world. In Russia, the tradition to have a ‘czar’ as a ruler has gone nowhere. For this reason, the appointment to the successor’s role of one of military/security chiefs from among Putin’s inner circle appears to be more likely than selection of a level-headed adequate leader who would be able to mend fences with the West.
But even so, if Putin continued to persist and unwilling to show flexibility in relations with the Western world, his ousting from power will be programmed. Although the West seems to agree to a reasonable palliative option, it is Putin personally who can turn on ‘acceleration mode’ on the path to self-destruction. As things stand now, this scenario looks more probable than one in which the Kremlin czar would go for reasonable compromises or concessions. The timing of such a scenario is uncertain and depends more on whether the West is consistent enough in its consolidated effort to counter the Kremlin. This may take from several months to a few years in case the Western attitude is sluggish, lacking in coordination and consensus. For Ukraine, any scenario in which Putin is ousted from power would open a new chance. If the Ukrainian government is able to effectively take advantage of the confusion or realignment of forces in the Kremlin in order to create factors for strategic deterrence of Russia, a triumph in the battle for Ukraine will be virtually a done deal, likewise the international community’s struggle to advance democratic values.
As the decline of Putin’s era is inevitably forthcoming, it would be helpful to outline possible scenarios of how this could play out.
Scenario # 1: Revolution from within
This can be carried out in a latent form, resembling outwardly Yeltsin’s retirement from office in 1999, with the appointment of a credible successor supported by a massive PR campaign in the mass media, and subsequent legitimization of the successor through elections. The focus will be on the preservation of Putinism after Putin resigns from the political scene, meaning a continuation of the current policy of serving the interests of the Kremlin’s kleptocracy, preservation of the alliance between the big business and the military/security establishment, and the pursuance of the current neo-imperialist foreign policy strategy.
The most likely successors are Sergei Ivanov and Sergei Shoygu. This scenario calls for Putin to retire from big politics.
For Russia and for the whole world in the long term, this means the continuation of confrontation – by virtue of the very configuration of the Russian state as it has been created by Putin. It’s probable, however, that there will be some period of “thaw” both in the domestic and international policies, due to the overall fatigue from Putin, and the expectation of change. An inevitable result will come in the form of improving relations with the West, which could drive the post-Putin elite to do internal evolution and progressive liberalization with subsequent transition to true reforms. Similar scenarios of soft democratization have been successful in many totalitarian governments.
Scenario # 2. Reshuffle
A sub-variant of Scenario #1, this is possible in case Putin will “smell a rat” and decide to take the lead in pressing for long overdue change by picking somebody as he did with Medvedev. In this scenario, Putin would be awarded some sort of a symbolic position in the architecture of government, which, given the gap existing between official positions and their actual places in the current Kremlin hierarchy, will not prevent him to continue to be the “first among equals” in the shadow “Politburo”. This successor could be someone from Putin’s inner circle or a compromise figure such as Kudrin or, again, Medvedev. The probability is that there will be some sort of a last-minute variant involving a renowned oppositionist who will be ready to trade-off principles for the highest public office and an oath of loyalty to actual “masters of Russia.” One way or another, the role the President will be representative and symbolic only. As with Scenario #1, there will be little, if any, policy change, but “the effect of Putin’s retirement” will play into the hands of Russia.
Scenario #3. Nationalist Revolution
For Russia, this is the worst-case scenario with world-wide implications. This can be resorted to by radicals if they find Putin’s policies to be insufficiently sturdy, or in the event of a precipitous drop in public confidence in the Russian leader. Despite a dramatic rightward shift observed recently in Putin’s rhetoric and actions, and the effective policy of appeasement of radical nationalists being pursued via “hand-picked nationalist” Rogozin, there are many in the ranks of marginal and radical chauvinist parties who feel Putin’s regime to be insufficiently sturdy. The “threat from the right” will grow if there is little progress in the Russian offensive in Ukraine, if there is an aggravation of the internal interethnic situation, or if there any attempts to make the country’s international policy less aggressive. Still, the Russian military and security establishment are generally loyal to Putin, and they are well motivated and equipped to stamp out an insurgency effectively and efficiently should it occur. A true threat arises in case that there is an alliance of nationalists, liberals and part of the military/security establishment where nationalist sentiment has been traditionally strong. In this case, there is a hypothetical probability of the rise to power of ultra-conservative, radical forces hostile to the West, who are spiritually close to the despotic Islamic governments in the Middle East. This scenario offers a wide selection of potential leaders ranging from puppet nationalist-jester Rogozin to half-crazy ideologues of the Russian World, or even veterans of the ongoing war in Ukraine, many of whom are obsessed with extreme forms of chauvinism. In a nuclear-armed nation, the possible seizure of power by militant radicals (probably, following on the 1917 revolution model, with a short preceding reign of a weak liberal provisional government) will have unpredictable implications. The possibility and probability of a planetary catastrophe becomes pretty realistic with this scenario.
Scenario #4. Status Quo
There still remains a probability, albeit minor one, of preservation of the status quo for a long time. However, further continuation of the current architecture of government with Putin at its top will no longer benefit anybody, including to a large extent even Putin himself. Continuation of Putin’s tenure as the ‘czar of Russia’ will be conducive to stagnation in all spheres of life and to a gradual but sure deterioration of the political system that he built, which, as befits any vacuum-sealed political regime devoid of any possibility of change, will become progressively more decrepit and rotten from within – only to eventually explode and collapse as the USSR did in 1991. In fact, this will be simply a postponement of the inevitable, a precursor of any of the three scenarios described above. Each extra year of Putin’s tenure as ‘czar’ will add to severity of turmoil after his departure from the ‘throne’, which is certainly evident for his inner circle to see. What can make him step down are not plummeting oil prices, international sanctions or economic turmoil, but, rather, extreme fatigue of his darling political system. Russia is standing at ‘crossroads’ between liberalization and dipping deeper into nationalist obscurantism. But there is no room left for Putin in both of these sub-scenarios. Even if Putinism continues as a political system of government, the founding father has become superfluous in the system he created himself. Putin’s retirement would be beneficial to all stakeholders. Changes are progressing slowly, still they are progressing. Therefore, the sunset of the Putin era is around the corner.