The war in Ukraine is not going well for Russia and the regime of Vladimir Putin, who threw his country into the affair. The popularity of the Kremlin leader declined between September and October amid a chaotic partial mobilization and defeats suffered by his forces. Another effect of the war, greatly accelerated by mobilization, was the flight of an important part of the active and educated population, who not only paid taxes but also provided expertise in many fields. The latest statistics published by Rosstat confirm that the Russian economy is officially in recession. The main macroeconomic indicators show how Western sanctions have impacted different sectors of the economy, trade being the most affected. The economic crisis means that there will be less money for social policies, so the regime will no longer be able to “buy” the support of the disadvantaged.
For now, the population does not seem in a big hurry to take to the streets in massive numbers, and this is a sign that the average Russian can still tolerate a few restrictive decisions against their own freedoms and rights. The Russian elites, be they economic, political or in the power structures, seem to show signs of restlessness. One thing is clear: although Putin forced all his people to say in February 2022 that Ukraine must be destroyed, the final decision was his and he will answer for it, alone or with others. And that’s why many Western and Russian analysts started wondering whether Putin's “reign” is coming to an end and who might succeed him.
Intelligence officers and technocrats
One name mentioned by experts as a potential successor to Putin is the powerful Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, Nikolai Patrushev. Patrushev's big problem is that he is not a charismatic person, which means that it will be difficult for him to get the support of the population. Moreover, he seems more interested in propelling his son, Dmitri, to the highest office in the state. Dmitry Patrushev is 45 years old, has some political experience, and his most important quality is that he is the son of the former head of the FSB, so practically the legacy of the system that created and supported Vladimir Putin is not bound to erode. Under favorable conditions for the vertical of power, i.e. preservation of the current state of affairs, Putin's people will remain in control of the country's internal and external affairs.
Next on the list of those who want to stay behind the scenes of the Kremlin power game is Yuri Kovalchuk, who is said to be Putin's financial adviser. He does not aspire to the throne either. He is content to manage the treasury.
The name of Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, has also been mentioned, but with less emotion, by Russian experts. He is in Putin's entourage, but not the closest.
The technocrats Mikhail Mishustin, the Prime Minister of the country, or Sergei Sobyanin, the mayor of Moscow, seconded by Elvira Nabiullina, the governor of the Central Bank of Russia, have had a detached behavior towards the war in Ukraine and instead concentrated their efforts on keeping the economy afloat. They managed to create a false impression of stability at a time when the economy has been asphyxiated by the withdrawal of foreign investors. Sanctions, however, work and affect this strategy in the medium and long term, leaving without resources not only those responsible for social stability, but also those who openly supported the total invasion of Ukraine. Should the power structures fail, they are among those who could “humanize” the image of Russian leadership in the post-Putin era in the absence of a real opposition.
An opposition-initiated uprising - as unlikely as a military coup
There are no “boyars” to stand up to the “tsar”; and if there used to be, those who have not suffered any “accident” are in penal colonies or in exile, from where they cannot manage masses of people, or even stimulate and channel citizens’ grievances, though many are not happy with the partial mobilization. Under these conditions, the citizen prefers to remain silent and look for an individual solution that would ensure their escape. They are now alone, face to face only with the television that has been lying to them all this time.
The opposition representatives do not have sufficient resources to coordinate their actions, to agree on common goals, to initiate discussions with potential external partners. Furthermore, they speak a different language, one that the average citizen with other types of values does not understand. The misunderstanding comes from the simple fact that this citizen, who votes now and then, is not yet ready for more freedom, individual decision-making and critical thinking. They still need to be guided by someone in control of the state's resources.
A coup d'état doesn't seem like an option either because it's not clear who could organize it. The conduct of the war in Ukraine has undermined and continues to undermine the military. Moreover, the military leadership is used to distract the attention from the president as a person. The errors committed in Ukraine are presented exclusively as decisions made outside the Kremlin. The lack of resources for the army, the lack of advanced weaponry, the corruption in the system, the thefts – all these are not Vladimir Putin's fault. He and his entourage do not take responsibility for them, even if Vladimir Solovyov still asks, sporadically, rhetorical questions about the capabilities of the world's second army. This image of the infallible leader who fights the American hegemony and without whom the Russians would “perish” has been overworked. The elite created him for a purpose and will keep him there while they are still looking for a replacement fit enough to retain control of the state's resources.
Strong men with personal armies: Yevgeni Prigozhin and Ramzan Kadyrov
Yevgeni Prigozhin, the one who controls the Wagner group, seems to have best anticipated the erosion of Putin's power and is trying to position himself as high as possible, to be next to Putin, if he makes it, or next to the person who will take his place. Prigozhin is a mercenary entrepreneur, not necessarily a politician. He does not come up with proposals for public policies but imposes himself by force. He deals with the power by using his army of mercenaries to defy the system, to show effectiveness in the field and to instill fear among the elite close to the decision-making process. Until recently, only one character of this kind was promoted in the public space in Russia: Kadyrov. Now there are two of them, and it is not yet known if there is enough space for both in Russia. For atrocities in Ukraine, both are temporarily useful. But at the same time, their increasingly active presence further dismantles the myth of the greatness of the Russian army and shatters the illusion of the Russian generals that they could survive the official propaganda, which now has a different mission: to exonerate Putin from “the surrender of the Kherson” affair – a carefully prepared strategic decision to avoid an even bigger disaster.
Prigozhin and Kadyrov are two dangerous characters who currently lead the most feared part of the Russian army fighting in Ukraine. The two could form an alliance dictated by the context, not a strategic one. They have different goals, and if they overlapped, the clash between them could be extremely dangerous. Prigozhin knows that Ramzan Kadyrov is only acting with the intention of keeping control over Chechnya, so he will not be his competitor. The partial mobilization showed that there is a lot of discontent in the North Caucasus, as residents do not agree to be treated as cannon fodder and sent to Ukraine. In Grozny, things are becoming less stable for Kadyrov.
Yevgeni Prigozhin does not want to become president, but to control the president and his power, making him dependent on his resources, i.e. mercenaries. Prigozhin has many enemies among Vladimir Putin's entourage, who understand how dangerous he has become. He is complicit with the regime in atrocities, but at the same time he is co-opted in military tactical decisions. His public behavior creates difficulties for the military leaders because it makes them look insignificant. He is becoming the “authority” and the “war vigilante” who dares to publicly encourage the capital punishment, without any concern for the emotional impact on the Russian citizen.
The system supports Putin because it wants to survive
The conflict started by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine will deepen the gap between the elite in his entourage and the rest of the Russians, who are increasingly feeling the impact of the conflict - indirectly, through the effects of the economic crisis, or directly, when they themselves or those close to them are mobilized and sent to the front. It remains to be seen whether Putin will manage to survive the deepening crisis he has caused, whether he will go and the system he created will remain, or whether a deeper change will take place.
For now, the way the partial mobilization has played out, the reaction to the withdrawal from Kherson, and even the slow decline in Putin's popularity suggest that the competition between the elites around the president will intensify for dominance and supremacy, but by no means for the destruction of the system. Putin's men have only one mission: to save the system, and for now that can only happen by saving the compromised leader.