Kremlin Roulette: Preparing for the Post-Putin Russian Leadership (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Justin Mitchell, Spring 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

After a series of revisions to the country’s constitution and several decades of strategically consolidating power in the political system, Russian President Vladimir Putin has the potential to remain in power until at least 2036. President Putin’s departure from power could have serious implications for the stability of the Russian Federation and future relations between Russia and the Western powers, particularly the United States. When President Putin leaves power, how, and who will succeed him could have drastic impacts not only on Russia’s domestic politics but also Russia’s foreign relations. At the present moment, he faces little internal opposition and there are virtually no presidential candidates that are likely to defeat him in the upcoming 2024 election. Many Western leaders look forward to the day that Putin leaves office, ideally after a humiliating defeat in the war in Ukraine. However, it is strategically unwise to base future U.S.-Russian relations on the ouster of Putin and hope that liberal democracy will magically take root in the ashes of Putin’s reign. There are a variety of issues that will not simply vanish into thin air because of new management.

If it wishes to be prepared for even the worst case-scenario and come out on top, the United States must have a game plan – a series of game plans, if need be – for the inevitable departure of President Putin. Doing so will better acquaint U.S. analysts and policymakers with the actors and players in Putin’s Russia, specifically who they are, and what their politics are. Furthermore, the United States must be prepared for the countless scenarios of President Putin’s departure which can easily influence the direction of Russia and its relations with the world. While there is a chance that Putin’s regime could collapse within a few years after losing in Ukraine and facing growing pressure at home, chances are not assurances. And considering that there are political forces in Moscow more nationalistic, militaristic, and anti-Western than Putin, what leads him to cease being President of Russia is just as crucial as to when he departs. Mindful of these scenarios, the United States will be able to comfortably face a dark and unpredictable future with the Russian Federation.

This paper will make the case for why the United States should invest more resources and training in the sector of Russian studies, with a particular focus on Kremlinology. Despite all the challenges and setbacks facing him and his regime, many Russian scholars do not see President Putin going anywhere anytime soon, but that is not to say that he could not depart at any given time due to a variety of factors. Regardless, Putin is not immortal and one day he will leave office. The questions are when, how, and, perhaps most importantly, who could be next?