Analysis | Putinism allows no rivals. What about an heir?

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Vladimir Putin has led Russia for almost a quarter-century. If he wins reelection for his fifth term as president Sunday, as is virtually certain, he will be eligible for another six years — during which his time in the Kremlin would become longer than Joseph Stalin’s Soviet leadership — and after that, another six-year term.

Putin, who is 72, will be well in his 80s if he serves out both terms. And there’s no reason to suspect he would step down at that point. The working assumption among most Russian watchers is that Putin will be ruler for life. This longevity may be both an asset and a weakness.

Putin, a former KGB spy, was just 46 when he was flung to the top level of politics in 1999, plucked from relative obscurity by an ailing Boris Yeltsin to serve as Russian prime minister and soon became acting president.

One reason he has survived so well is because his style of leadership allows no rivals. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s strongest and most charismatic opposition figure in years, died in an Arctic penal colony last month, having already survived a poisoning in 2020. Other potential rivals have been killed, like Boris Nemtsov, shot dead on a Moscow street in 2015.

It isn’t just liberals who face threats like this, either: Wagner chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an outspoken mercenary leader and former ally of Putin, died in flames two months after a short-lived military uprising last year.

Even his nominal rivals in this weekend’s election are, at best, state-sanctioned nobodies. The only two antiwar candidates, Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, were kept from the ballot on technicalities.

Putin’s long past, and likely future, in power significantly helps him in foreign affairs. When dealing with a country like the United States, where partisan shifts tend to happen every four or eight years, he can grit his teeth and wait for a friendlier leader. He doesn’t have the domestic pressures of his most prominent foreign foe, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, who has to stay popular to maintain his position.

Vladimir Putin, riding high before Navalny’s death, seems unstoppable

But what comes after Putin? If Putinism allows no rivals, there is little space for heirs, too. In an essay published in Foreign Affairs this week, Russia watchers Michael Kimmage and Maria Lipman considered whether Putin’s very strength could serve to be a weakness for the regime he has created.

“Forever Putinism has its vulnerabilities. Any regime that promises to live forever cannot let itself be perceived as failing,” they wrote. “Putin’s presentation of himself as an omnipotent savior — the only one who can steer Russia’s destiny — thus presents a long-term risk for the regime.”

Putin’s best-known disciple is Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia. Medvedev served as president of Russia between 2008 and 2012, while Putin served as prime minister — the “tandem” style of leadership designed to help Putin escape term limits. (He changed the law in 2021 so that he didn’t need to ride the tandem again.)

Medvedev was once seen as a potential reformer with a softer touch than Putin. Now he is best known for aggressive nationalism and mocking statements about Ukraine and the West. The unhinged nature of some of the messages often shocks, though some analysts say he plays a carefully designed role as the Kremlin’s “court clown” who can be used to make Putin look more moderate.

Since Medvedev’s initial rise, Putin has not publicly sought out a junior partner, leaving open the question of who he views as a replacement. Some of the obvious candidates, including Medvedev and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, seem to be long shots.

Military leaders like Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are well known, but their lack of popular support was laid bare during Prighozin’s Wagner rebellion. Pro-government politicians who have built up fanbases have to walk a tight line. Moscow’s popular mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, was the nominee for Putin’s United Russia party in his reelection campaign last year, despite running as an independent before — a move interpreted by critics as designed to stunt his political growth in a city where the ruling party is less popular.

Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s Security Council secretary, is considered highly powerful — but he largely stayed behind the scenes until the invasion of Ukraine, when his embrace of hawkish rhetoric made him a prominent voice. The governor of Russia’s Tula region, Alexei Dyumin, is also not well known in the West, but his background as a former personal bodyguard to Putin who was promoted to high military levels has led to speculation that he could be a favored candidate.

Though other strongman leaders often try to keep it in the family, it is unclear if Putin would follow them. Officially, the Russian president has two daughters. However, he speaks little about them. Though the pair are now referenced in Russian media — both are academics, one focuses on mathematics and the other on genetics — they are not publicly linked to him, offering no sign that either is being groomed for future leadership.

Russia’s opposition and Ukraine find it impossible to unite against Putin

With no real rivals and no clear heir, much of the speculation about Russia’s future instead focuses on Putin’s health. Last year, a rumor that claimed Putin had a heart attack spread from a popular Telegram account to major international news outlets, despite a clear lack of proof.

Even if only rumors, such stories reflect a basic fact: Unless something significant changes in Russia, Putin will die in office. As Robert Person, a Russia expert at the U.S. Military Academy, wrote this week, Putin could not “walk away from power and enjoy a quiet retirement even if he wanted to.”

Putin’s ability to play the long game has aided him in some of his defining foreign policy acts. While his initial invasion of Ukraine failed, Russia has been able to claw back small gains on the land through sheer persistence as a bloody stalemate fighting wore down Kyiv and its allies. The Russian economy has largely stabilized after the initial shock of Western sanctions.

Many predict that when Putin finally leaves office, there will be a bitter and chaotic power struggle. “The days, months and years after Putin’s departure may be even more turbulent than anyone expects,” Person wrote. But just because there is a power struggle, that doesn’t mean that the system will ultimately change.

In Foreign Affairs, Kimmage and Lipman theorize that whoever takes over from Putin will ultimately inherit the state he created, with its powerful security services and military. If they are a product of this system, would they really want to change it?

“They would not want to see internal strife imperil Russia’s geopolitical position, and they would not want to give up the ideological constructs Putin has assembled,” Kimmage and Lipman wrote. “Putin has done enough to ensure that whoever follows him is likely to be his heir.” As Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in November, Putin’s eventual successor may not change Russia that much.

They will be “the same,” Peskov told Russian television. “Or different, but the same.”

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