Politics
Operation “Successor”
October 13, 2022
Abbas Gallyamov
Independent political consultant

Abbas Gallyamov believes that military failures in Ukraine, along with the huge price that the Russian economy is already paying for the war, will weaken Putin's position among both the ruling elite and ordinary voters. Who can succeed Putin?

The original text in Russian was published by Poligon.media. A shortened version is republished here with the author’s permission.
Putin will have to understand that the time given to him by history to choose a successor isn’t infinite. The weaker he is when he announces his replacement, the more likely that some elite groups won’t accept him or her.

Meanwhile, Putin has bet on the energy crisis in Europe. In fact, it’s his last hope. If freezing Europeans force their governments to change their current course to one that is more favorable to the Russian regime, the Kremlin will have a chance: Europe will force Ukraine to the negotiating table with Russia, or at least reduce the amount of aid to Kyiv. The plan isn’t without reason, and the last hopes of the regime will be invested in its realization. Yet this is precisely the main problem: the stronger the hope for a miracle, the bigger the disappointment when it turns out that no miracle happened. Next spring – when it will have become clear that the winter bet didn’t materialize – Putin's stock will fall sharply. It is then that the succession project can come into being.

What is laid out above is a conservative scenario. Depending on the situation on the battlefield, the course of events could accelerate dramatically. If the Russian army fails to stabilize the front and the Ukrainian army continues its offensive, the issue of succession will be on the agenda this year. Another contributing factor could be the suspected sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines. Regardless of who organized it, not just the pipes were blown up, but also the hopes that by blackmailing Europe, Russia would once again assume its familiar and very lucrative role as a key gas supplier to European markets. Now it will not.

There are a number of ways for the issue of succession to emerge in the political space. For the time being, it makes sense to state the general criteria that a successor must meet and list people who seem to be the most likely candidates for the job.

Criteria

A successor candidate must meet the following criteria:
  • Putin must trust him;
  • he must be trusted by the silovik corporation (firstly the FSB);
  • he must be able to build relations between elite clans so that none of them consider themselves completely left out;
  • he must have a low disapproval rating;
  • he must be ready for public office;
  • he must have a more or less convincing record of successes and achievements (this criterion isn’t required, but desirable);
  • he shouldn’t be a completely hackneyed figure (this criterion isn’t required, but desirable);
  • he should be younger than Putin (preferably at least by a few years, but better around 20 years younger).

The first two criteria – the trust of Putin and the trust of the Chekists – seem to be the most important from the standpoint of the current system. There is an inverse correlation here: the stronger Putin is, the more he can afford to ignore the opinions of his former colleagues; the weaker Putin is, the more he is forced to consider their point of view. Given the current situation, it can be assumed that the Chekist corporation can veto a successor candidate.

Overall, the main goal of “Operation Successor” will be to reduce the pressure on the country's political system. The successor will have to remove some of the accumulated negative energy, which threatens to bring down the entire structure. Thus, the nomination of a successor with a similarly high disapproval rating as Putin seems rather pointless.
Nikolai Patrushev. Source: Wiki Commons
CANDIDATES

Dmitri Patrushev, Minister of Agriculture; son of Nikolai Patrushev, Russian Security Council Secretary

The biggest plus of Dmitri Patrushev is his combination of silovik and civilian. Thanks to his father, the Chekist corporation will perceive him, if not as completely "their own,” then "socially close.” At the same time, most of society – tired of militaristic rhetoric and the endless hunt for enemies – won’t be frightened by his "epaulettes.”

Much more problematic is the host of corruption scandals following the minister, as well as his image as a "fortunate son." The issue of social injustice is one of the weakest points of the regime, so the combination of these two problems could significantly complicate the younger Patrushev’s candidacy.
The abovementioned image problems of the younger Patrushev could be compensated by the country's agricultural achievements – he has been working in the industry for a long time, so the sector’s recent growth could realistically be attributed to him.

A serious problem, however, is his lack of political experience, which could prove fatal in the current situation where the political system is in the midst of a storm. Putin most likely understands this. That said, it is precisely this fact that Putin might consider a plus (“Dima won’t fledge soon, so until then he’ll need my advice”).
Denis Manturov. Source: Wiki Commons
Denis Manturov, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Industry and Trade

Like the younger Patrushev, Manturov successfully combines silovik and civilian. Among the security forces, he has a solid reputation as a “Chemezov man” (referring to Sergei Chemezov, the long-time head of the Russian defense industry and a KGB veteran).

Also like the younger Patrushev, Manturov has a lot of skeletons in the closet in the form of various corruption scandals that could complicate his candidacy. Still, these problems don’t seem insurmountable. The main thing is that Manturov hasn’t directly taken part in the current military-patriotic orgy.

As in the case of Dmitri Patrushev, Manturov’s prospects are considerably dampened by his lack of political experience. His apparatchik background within a stable bureaucratic system is hardly applicable to managing political life in a period when the regime is collapsing. However, it’s not a fact that Putin understands this. Manturov knows how to charm him with stories about the bright outlook for industrial development, import substitution and so on, so Putin could reason that Manturov could fool the mass audience just as easily.
Sergei Kiriyenko. Source: Wiki Commons
Sergei Kiriyenko, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential
Administration

The best attribute of Kiriyenko is the network of powerful high-ranking bureaucrats who are loyal to him. At least half of regional governors owe their jobs personally to Kiriyenko and look to him for guidance. The same applies to about a quarter of deputy ministers. During the transition of power, when the system will shake, these connections can help Kiriyenko steer the ship. Moreover, the political sphere has long been under his control, while the media largely takes its cues from him, at least the online media. In this regard, it stands to mention the media holding of Yuri Kovalchuk, who is an ally of Kiriyenko. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic possibilities of such an influential partner as Kovalchuk shouldn’t be discounted either.

Still, too close a connection between a successor candidate and Kovalchuk could turn out to be a disadvantage in Putin’s eyes as well. The obvious dominance of one player is fraught with danger for the entire system of balancing clan interests, which is quite complex and very fragile.

Another serious problem for Kiriyenko is that he is a complete stranger to the siloviki. The silovik bloc remembers both Kiriyenko's liberal past and the default of 1998, when he was prime minister.
For the liberals themselves, Kiriyenko has long been an absolutely unacceptable figure. Meanwhile, the mass voter was always indifferent to Kiriyenko at best. Kiriyenko's entire biography suggests he is among the opportunists and accommodators without any convictions of their own who are most disliked by voters.

At the same time, as the regime weakens, the importance of Kiriyenko's office will decrease. An increasing number of politicians will begin to do their own thing, while the space controlled by the Kremlin's internal political bloc will shrink.
Sergei Sobyanin. Source: Wiki Commons
Sergei Sobyanin, Mayor of Moscow

Sobyanin’s soft spot is his lack of ties with the siloviki. He never really had direct confrontations with them; meanwhile, he was too influential to fall under their influence. He is pragmatic, so all the current "patriotic" obsessions like concern about the advancement of NATO to the East, rivalry with the US and the fight against "Ukrofascism" are alien to him. Nevertheless, thanks to his impressive track record, the lack of silovik connections doesn’t look like an insurmountable problem for Sobyanin.

Sobyanin seems to be the ideal candidate for normalizing relations with the outside world, removing the excessive ideologization and hysteria from them without doing anything that could turn the majority of the “patriotic” public against him.

The Russian provinces are so desperate for an actual revitalization that the idea of the Moscow mayor as the leader of the entire country would make them salivate. Muscovites – always grumbling about the corruption that accompanied their city’s revitalization – would generally support Sobyanin's candidacy.
Dmitri Kozak. Source: Wiki Commons
Dmitri Kozak, Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration

The main argument in favor of Kozak is that Putin can rely on him. Kozak is stubborn, which is why out of all the successor candidates listed here, he is perhaps the most reliable in terms of his unreadiness to extradite Putin to The Hague amid potential calls by the world community. The future ex-president most likely understands this.

Twenty years ago, Kozak overcame the resistance of the siloviki and pushed through a reform by which the right to sanction arrests was transferred from the prosecutor's office (which previously had combined the functions of “prosecutorial oversight” and investigation) to the courts. Perhaps this was the only positive reform carried out during all the years of Putin's rule, and Kozak was its author. Of course, later the siloviki took over the courts, though that was not the fault of Kozak (besides, he had been transferred by that time to another area).

Of particular importance now is the fact that Kozak opposed the invasion of Ukraine and tried first to prevent it and then to negotiate a peace. That is why he has now fallen from grace.

As a technocrat without any special ideological quirks, Kozak is entirely acceptable for the West, while thanks to the strength of his character, he won’t thoughtlessly give away Russian positions at the negotiating table.

It is also important that he is a loner, equidistant from all the main clans. From Putin's point of view, that is a big plus. At the same time, “equidistant” from everyone doesn’t mean “conflicting” with everyone. Without necessity Kozak doesn’t take part in bureaucratic wars.

Kozak is a stranger for the siloviki – he can’t count on their support. That is his main problem. Thus, when it comes time to choose a successor, the heads of the silovik agencies could try to block this appointment. If Putin does opt for Kozak, he may need to purge the security bloc first. From a political point of view, that wouldn’t be difficult to do. The siloviki higherups have discredited themselves in the eyes of both liberals and "patriots," so replacing them would bring nothing but dividends to Putin.
The selection of Kozak as successor would be a special operation that could only succeed if Putin completely leaves the stage – like Yeltsin did – and doesn’t get up to mischief like Nazarbayev did in Kazakhstan.
Dmitri Medvedev. Source: Wiki Commons
Dmitri Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Chairman of United Russia

By meekly returning the throne to Putin, Medvedev proved his loyalty. No other member of Putin’s inner circle could outdo him in this respect. Unfortunately for Medvedev, his strengths end there. The liberals have long ago and definitively given up on him, the siloviki haven’t fallen in love with him and the mass voter considers him “weak.” Medvedev's team has been nonexistent for a while – some are behind bars, others have run away.

The patriotic fervor that Medvedev has demonstrated lately might also work against him: it could well be read as readiness to play any role just to please the leadership. When it was advantageous, he was a liberal, reset relations with Washington and sold out allies to the US; when the situation changed, he restyled himself as a patriot and said "I hate all of them.”
Andrei Turchak. Source: Wiki Commons
Andrei Turchak, First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council; Secretary of the General Council of United Russia

Overall, Turchak might be left off the list of successor candidates were it not for how much Putin values personal relations. He is the son of a longtime Putin friend and is said to have "grown up on Putin's lap." That is where his strengths end, however. The younger Turchak never demonstrated any political talent and hasn’t built up a record of big successes as a manager.

Of course, Putin could consider the weakness of a candidate as an argument in his or her favor: “if he’s weak, it means that he’ll need my advice.” However, the time has already passed when power could be transferred to a lightweight successor. It could have been done in 2008, when the system was in full flight, but not in 2024, when it’ll be so stormy that it could fall out of the sky at any second. In the current conditions, power should be transferred to a new leader immediately, instead of trying to make someone a nominal figure while managing the processes behind the scene.

As for Turchak's outlook, keep in mind that his control over United Russia – a party with low ratings but the power to nominate candidates on behalf of the regime – is also worth something. In addition, Turchak is quite adventurous and narrow-minded – an ideal combination for decisive action in the face of a systemic breakdown.
Ekaterina Tikhonova. Source: VK
Ekaterina Tikhonova, Putin's daughter

Strictly speaking, there are no formal grounds to assert that Putin is preparing his alleged daughter to succeed him, but two factors make us to mention her. Tikhonova is slowly but surely trying to create a public image – for example, in July she became "cochair of the Coordinating Council for Import Substitution at the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs,” i.e. for no apparent reason she took on the most politically important issue in the country's main business association. The second factor in favor of Tikhonova is the dynastic precedents across the world in previous decades: the Kims in North Korea, the Aliyevs in Azerbaijan, the Assads in Syria, the Berdimuhamedows in Turkmenistan, etc.
Mikhail Mishustin. Source: Wiki Commons
Mikhail Mishustin, Prime Minister

The prime minister must be included in the list at least because of his position. Institutionally, it is Mishustin who is now closest to the president. And though Russia is a country where formal institutions matter very little, amid a collapsing system it is the institutional factor that could prove decisive. If Putin waits until the last minute to appoint a successor, then for example by reaching an agreement with Volodin and/or Turchak and securing a majority in the Duma, Mishustin could outmaneuver all the other players.

Shortly after the appointment of Mishustin as prime minister, it seemed that his position was strengthening: just six months after his government was formed, Mishustin managed to have representatives of some oligarchic clans that had been imposed on him dismissed, including Dmitri Kobylkin (former minister of natural resources; Gennady Timchenko's man), Yevgeny Dietrich (former transport minister; Arkady Rotenberg’s man) and Yuri Borisov (former deputy prime minister; Sergei Chemezov’s man).

While doing that, Mishustin didn’t seem to spoil relations with any members of the president's inner circle and turned out to be nonconfrontational and capable of reaching compromises. Overall, that is a rather rare quality for Russian politics, hence the prime minister could be a good successor candidate. In the current situation, however, such flexibility is likely to work against him: Putin and the siloviki will demand "hawks,” and there is no room for "doves.” At least for now. In addition, note that recently Mishustin has completely immersed himself in routine and hasn’t been active politically.

There is another strong factor in favor of Mishustin that could raise his stock in the eyes of the president: a close relationship with the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service Sergei Naryshkin. The latter has been very close to Putin and, if not for the awkward scene at the historic meeting of the Russian Security Council in March, he himself could be in the race to succeed him. Though Naryshkin has practically no electoral prospects, he could increase Mishustin's chances by acting as a kind of guarantor within the elite.
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To the list of possible successor candidates could be added Alexei Kudrin, chair of the Accounts Chamber, and German Gref, the head of Sberbank. Given their liberal backgrounds, they don’t fit into the current trends at all, which makes them unlikely to continue “Putin's cause." Putin probably already understands that some changes are inevitable after he leaves, though he is unlikely to want the system to be dismantled quickly and to the ground. Still, were the current course be completely and definitively discredited and trust in the siloviki dry up, Putin could bet on the liberals. In the end, the main thing for Putin is security for himself, and he could definitely entrust it to Kudrin, for example. The latter has repeatedly demonstrated his principledness and ability to withstand pressure, so Putin can expect that when building a new model of relations with the West, Kudrin will be able to secure his – Putin's – interests.

In addition to the abovementioned federal-level candidates, three regional governors should be noted: Alexei Dyumin (Tula Region), Anton Alikhanov (Kaliningrad Region) and Igor Babushkin (Astrakhan Region).

The first two are very close to Chemezov in particular, while Babushkin has many connections throughout the silovik corporation as a whole. At some point, Putin singled them out as "young guns" who should become the elite of the future. None of them can be considered a truly effective public communicator, though they aren’t completely hopeless in that sense either. Each of them has some achievements that can be passed off as a "success story.”

In conclusion, note that many of the problems with the abovementioned candidates aren’t insurmountable. The sense that the current course is a dead end, along with the growing weariness of Putin, means that people will be ready to vote for almost any alternative – it will be enough to offer one. At the same time, for the fatigue factor to work, elections should be held as soon as possible: the interval between the date when “Operation Successor” is announced and the day of voting should be minimal. If the process drags on, then the positive emotions associated with hope for change will gradually recede and people will begin to reflect on the pros and cons of the successor, as well as discuss alternatives. That could weaken people’s readiness to vote for the proposed candidate (“thank God it’s not Putin”) and increase opposition to the system as a whole.

As news appears about “Operation Successor” – changes in the backdrop, the beginning of negotiations, the emergence of new candidates, the disappearance of old ones – the author will update this report.
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