Vladimir Putin in power has brutalized millions as he careens into tyranny.
Yet Vladimir Putin out of power will bring its own brand of chaos: a Shakespearean knife-fight for power; unleashed regional leaders; a nuclear arsenal up for grabs.
For now, few want to publicly talk about that post-Putin world, wary of the perception of meddling in domestic politics. But privately, western countries and analysts are plotting the scenarios that could unfold when Putin inevitably departs — and how Ukraine’s allies should react.
“I will be careful speculating too much about the domestic political situation in Russia,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week when asked how the alliance was preparing for the possibility of the Russian leader leaving office.
“Regardless of what different analyses may indicate, I think what we need to do at NATO is to be prepared for all eventualities and when it comes to Ukraine, be prepared to continue to support them,” he said.
One consensus: It won’t be a clean transition, posing myriad dilemmas that could strain Western allies. How much can — and should — they influence the succession process? What should they do if a Russian republic breaks away? What relationship should they pursue with Putin’s successor?
“We should put aside any illusions that what happens next immediately is democracy,” said Laurie Bristow, a former British ambassador to Russia.
“What I think happens next,” he added, “is probably a time of troubles.”
An explosive succession fight
For now, Putin is in a safe position. He still controls the state apparatus, and the military is executing his murderous orders in Ukraine.
But the Russian leader’s flailing invasion of Ukraine has diminished his position at home and deepened uncertainties over who would take over, and how.
“To manage a stable succession when the time comes — which will in Putin’s mind be a time of his choosing — then you need a high degree of elite consensus,” said Bristow, who served as the United Kingdom’s envoy in Moscow from 2016 until 2020.
“What they’ve done now is break that consensus,” he said, noting there is now more vying for power within the Kremlin.
That fighting could turn bloody once the Kremlin’s top job finally opens up.
“This could get very Shakespearean, think King Lear, or [the] Roman Empire, like I, Claudius, or Games of Thrones, very quickly,” said William Alberque, a former director of NATO’s arms control center.
Alexander Vershbow, a former senior U.S. and NATO official, said the most likely scenario was still a “smooth transition” within Putin’s current inner circle — but he conceded that toppling tyrants can beget turmoil. “There could be internal instability,” he said, “and things become very unpredictable in authoritarian systems, in personalistic dictatorships.”
Bristow, the former British ambassador, warned Western powers to stay out of such succession fights: “I think we have to recognize the limits of our ability to influence these outcomes.”
Although, the ex-envoy conceded, “we certainly have an interest in the outcome.”
Nukes = power
Russia is sitting on the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, featuring thousands of warheads that can each inflict massive destruction, death and trauma on a population.
The arsenal has long been a source of Russian strength on the world stage and a dominant part of its global image — for years, the possibility of a Kremlin nuclear strike dominated the public imagination in the U.S. and elsewhere.
In a period of leadership uncertainty, that arsenal could become a coveted symbol of power. That would put focus on the Russian military’s nuclear protector, the 12th Main Directorate, or GUMO.
“There’s a real possibility,” said Alberque, “that there would be deadly competition — competition to include people trying to rally different parts of the military — particularly the 12th GUMO that controls Russia’s nuclear arsenal.”
Put simply, Russia is the largest country in the world, stretching across 11 time zones and climbing from the Caucasus to the Arctic.
While Putin may seem to hold a despotic grip on that entire expanse, there are a number of Russian republics with more tenuous connections to Moscow — and some with ambitious political figures. A power vacuum in a faraway capital could present an opening for local leaders to seize more control.
While most analysts believe the Russian Federation would largely hold together through a battle for Kremlin control, they acknowledge the Russian government has long feared fragmentation.
In the event of such factional fighting, all eyes will be on Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal head of the Chechen Republic.
“Does he throw his weight behind a competing faction? Or does he say, ‘I’m good with a decade of massive Russian subsidies — now let’s break off, and I can probably rule Chechnya and Dagestan; I can have my own empire here’?” said Alberque, now a director at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine could also come back to haunt the Kremlin.
Vershbow, a former American ambassador to Russia, said there is a “low probability” of disintegration but noted that “ironically” Putin’s annexation of areas in eastern Ukraine “could be cited as a precedent by separatist leaders inside the Russian Federation, to say ‘borders are now up for grabs’.”
A return of the reset debate
Once a new leadership team is in place, that’s when the most bedeviling policy debates will begin for Western governments.
With Putin off the political stage, some officials — in particular in western Europe — may argue there is an opportunity to forge a fresh relationship with Moscow.
The U.S. infamously offered Russia a symbolic “reset” button at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, only to see relations deteriorate further. And Germany for years preached the gospel of economic engagement with Russia, only to declare a historic “Zeitenwende,” or turning point, after Moscow’s invasion.
With new leadership in the Kremlin, Germany may say “oh, Zeitenwende, never mind. Let’s push the U.S. to do another reset with the new Russian leader,” Alberque said.
Inevitably, NATO’s eastern wing would deplore such overtures. They’d argue “Russia never changes,” Alberque said, and lean on allies to not recede from the more assertive NATO stance adopted since the war began.
Polish Minister for National Defense Mariusz Błaszczak made exactly that point to POLITICO.
“Russia in a version with Tsar as a leader was the same like Russia in a version with a secretary-general of Communist party as a leader, and now it’s the same as Vladimir Putin as a leader,” he said.
“What is important from our perspective,” he added, “is to isolate Russia.”
For now, there is no expected Putin successor. But officials say they are expecting a regime with a similar ideology — or one even more extreme.
Jānis Garisons, a Latvian state secretary, pointed out that Putin has already jailed critics — and possible future leaders — like Alexei Navalny, and only more hardliners on the outside are ready to step in.
“The only people who criticize him” and not in prison “are from the right wing,” Garisons said.
“We should not fall victim to a junta or some group of people coming forward saying that they want a reset,” said Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, “if it’s still the same.”
One major difference this time around is that Europe is now less economically dependent on Moscow, reducing a key incentive to re-engage.
“We have gone a long way to stop buying from Russia,” said a senior EU diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That would leave only the issues of nukes — but that will largely be with the Americans.”
Another signal Western leaders can look for is whether a Putin successor cooperates with international organizations seeking to prosecute Russian war crimes in Ukraine — a possibility, of course, that seems remote.
“Only a Russia determined to cooperate, would not represent a threat to Europe,” said Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský.
Yet for all the assumptions that a cooperative Russia is far off, several current and former officials cautioned that western governments must combine deterrence with a longer-term effort to engage Russian civil society.
The Western alliance, said Bristow, must consider “how we reach out to Russian society beyond the Kremlin, to the next generation of Russian politicians, thinkers, intellectuals, teachers, businesspeople, to kind of spell out an alternative vision to the one they’ve got.”
“My sense,” he added, “is that quite a lot of people in Russia would like to do that.”
Paul McLeary contributed reporting