With Vladimir Putin set to easily win upcoming Russian elections, it might seem odd to start talking about a post-Putin Russia, but that is exactly what Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, and Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Russia Institute, do in a new policy brief for the European Council on Foreign Relations. After all, they explain, that is what Putin himself is up to these days. Whether he stays in office for his next term or for far longer, he knows that he won’t be in power forever and that “the absence of any vision of the country’s future without him could dramatically weaken his standing in the eyes of ordinary Russians.”
But don’t rejoice quite yet. Westerners who believe that a post-Putin Russia will be an anti-Putin Russia, Krastev and Pavlovsky warn, are mistaken. He remains incredibly popular, which means that his vision for the future carries a lot of weight. The first part of that program, they write, is the idea of Fortress Russia, which will still need to defend itself in a hostile world. For that, Russia will need to be a “mobilisation society and a mobilisation economy in which even private companies — if they are large enough to matter — defer to the interests of the state.” Second, they explain, Putin believes that post-Putin Russia should not buy in to Western institutions and that, third, it needs to focus on developing new technology to maintain the country’s competitiveness. The fourth part of Putin’s vision is the idea that he should not have a single successor, but a whole generation of them. This next circle of leaders, mostly drawn from the offspring of Putin’s current coterie, has come of age during Putin’s rule and, unlike previous successor generations, have tended to work in Russia — many for the state — after graduation. Even if they do ultimately decide to part ways with Putin in practice, they will have to defend his legacy in theory for many years to come.
Even as Putin prepares Russia for a future without him, he will still dominate foreign policy, Krastev and Pavlovsky argue. And because of the way he sees Russia’s place in the world, he will continue doing the best he can to secure his country’s status as a global power, whether that be by maintaining the deadlock in Ukraine, remaining active in Syria, or working more closely with China to pressure the West. As Krastev and Pavlovsky see it,
the major challenge in policymaking on Russia will be that, while the arrival of the post-Putin era will reshape Russia’s domestic politics, it will do little to curb the country’s aggressive behaviour as an international actor. Moscow will likely maintain its current foreign policy objectives even after Putin’s eventual exit from the Kremlin. But without him Russia will probably be a weak international player: it is Putin rather than the Russian state that has regained the status of a great power.
Krastev and Pavlovsky’s analysis is sobering. Yet I wonder if they’re right to assume that Russia’s emerging strategic alliance with China will prove durable. For now, Putin and his disciples see China as a partner that can help Russia preserve its global influence. Will that seem quite as plausible a decade or two from now, when the Chinese might want more control over the Russian Far East than Moscow will be prepared to concede?