As Ukraine war falters, Russians ask a risky question: Could Putin fall?

By | October 8, 2022

The Washington Post reports:

When President Vladimir Putin yelled, “We will win!” at a Red Square concert to celebrate his illegal annexation of Ukrainian lands on Friday, he projected the hubris of a man who cannot accept defeat.

Putin has said Russia will not lose in Ukraine. But multiple battlefield defeats and national fury over a botched military mobilization have broken a taboo in Moscow on discussions about what would happen if Putin did lose — not just the war, but his seeming bid to be leader-for-life, according to four members of Russia’s business elite. Kremlin-watchers, in and out of the capital, are asking: Who might come next?

The possibilities range from the obvious — Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is legally first in the line of succession — to the utterly unpredictable: Some Putin supporters fear the country could break apart without his authoritarian hand at the helm.

Putin, who turns 70 on Friday, came to power himself through a quasi-legal succession process — appointed as deputy prime minister and then acting prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin, who resigned within five months, catapulting his handpicked successor into the presidency.

It remains to be seen whether Putin will enjoy a similar opportunity to orchestrate his own succession. And if Mishustin, a former director of Russia’s federal tax service, ever becomes president, he is widely expected to be a short-term placeholder.

Names mentioned as potential successors include the Security Council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev; former president Dmitry Medvedev; longtime Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin; and Patrushev’s son, Dmitry, now agriculture minister.

Speculation about Putin’s theoretical downfall has grown as the president has been squeezed from abroad, by international condemnation of his war in Ukraine and at home by rising pressure from pro-war hawks and pro-Kremlin propagandists irate over military losses.

There are also rising squabbles among the elite. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, have bitterly attacked Russian military commanders for the failures in Ukraine, triggering open speculation that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, once tipped as a likely Putin successor, will be replaced.

Neither Kadryov nor Prigozhin is seen as capable of marshaling the support across Russia’s powerful security services or in the broader elite to claim the top job. But they are reminders of how much worse than Putin a future leader could be if the Kremlin loses control, yielding a chaotic, brutal power struggle instead of a carefully manipulated succession in the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. [Continue reading…]

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