Putin is Here to Stay, and the Russian State Will Die with Him
Vladimir Putin arose to power in Russia when he was 47 years old. He is now 66. Putin's first two terms in office were generally successful: he presided over an expansion of the Russian economy; the military was modernized; and he even – more controversially – had successes in Russia's longstanding conflict with Chechen rebels and with NATO observing member Georgia. All of these actions, taken together, made Putin a popular leader among the Russian electorate. He was, to play on a popular phrase, making Russia great again after the chaotic decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, in the immortal words of The Dark Knight's Harvey Dent, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." This is precisely what has transpired in Russia today (though, in this case, the term "hero" when describing Vladimir Putin is entirely subjective). Putin could have left office in 2008 as a generally good leader (according to Russian standards, at least). Yet, he transmogrified himself into a steely autocrat. Putin temporarily removed himself from the presidency to become prime minister. But this was less out of a Washingtonian sense of fidelity to the constitution and more of a Machiavellian move to trick foreign observers, and to allow for him to rewrite the constitution.
Putin once again returned to the Kremlin in 2012 – after a terribly contentious election, in which large swathes of Russians (backed by Western non-government organizations, in many cases) protested Putin's return. Since that time, Putin has been on the warpath. He has aggregated increasing levels of power toward himself and his allies in Moscow; he has engaged in an overtly antagonistic military campaign against the West (again, the West is not entirely innocent in the creation of these circumstances); and he has systematically crushed all domestic opposition.
In 2018, Putin was elected again to the presidency. Under the current Russian constitution, President Putin must leave office by 2024. By that point in time, Putin will be 72. Despite the fact that the average lifespan for a Russian male today is 66, Mr. Putin appears to be in perfect health – a notion reinforced by Putin's incessant need to ride bareback in the Russian Far East and to display his judo skills at the drop of an ushanka.
In other words, Vladimir Putin will likely be alive and well in 2024 – and quite possibly ready to stay on for another term as the president of Russia. Besides, even if Putin did not want to stay, it is unlikely that any potential successor could keep Russia together. Even today, as Putin increases his grasp on power, the country continues fraying along its periphery. It is only the silnaya ruka – the iron fist of centralized power – that keeps the vast expanse known as the Russian Federation together. Increasingly, that centralized power is Vladimir Putin's.
Putin's reign has long emulated the reign of fellow post-Soviet leaders, such as those of neighboring Belarus and Kazakhstan. Following the autocratic ethos of one-man rule, Putin has purged Russia of any potential successors to his reign. The one time he attempted to choose a successor – Dmitri Medvedev – he was deeply disappointed. Viewing the young Russian attorney as far too friendly toward the West, by the middle of Medvedev's single term as president, Putin had hollowed out Medvedev's power.
Not a Deep Bench
Looking forward, Russia is in a difficult position in terms of presidential successors. The younger generation of leaders are all Putin lackeys. Like Medvedev, they are unimaginative, and, aside from holding power in Russia, these folks are unexceptional. The same was said by many of Vladimir Putin when Boris Yeltsin chose Putin to be his successor. However, the difference is that Yeltsin was a weak and somewhat benign leader, whereas Putin is an autocrat who jealously guards his power. Whatever might be said about the system under Yeltsin, it allowed for some leaders to rise. Putin's autocracy has neutered Russia of any competent leadership for after he leaves office.
The closer we get to 2024, I expect Putin to alter the Russian constitution as he did before the 2012 election, allowing for him to remain in office indefinitely. Once that occurs, you can start timing how long it will take for Russia to move toward collapse. After all, whatever comes after Putin will not be a democracy as we understand it (any more than post-Saddam Hussein Iraq became a democracy). Given the weakness of potential autocratic successors to Putin, Russia will likely break up along its constituent parts. It will become a chaos state, armed with stores of nuclear – and other – weapons of mass destruction.
Not only are the younger Russian leaders likely incapable of keeping all of Russia's constituent parts together in a post-Putin political system, but the older generation is as well. They are either too brutal or will simply be too old when Putin leaves office.
Dear Pentagon: Prepare for Russian Collapse and Loose Nukes
Therefore, I propose that the Pentagon and America's allies begin planning for the point when Putin is no longer in power. How would Western officials secure potential loose Russian WMD? After Putin, it is unlikely that Moscow will be able to maintain central control over its military.
The Pentagon needs to start working out loose nuke scenarios today – how to contain them, whom in Russia to secretly buy off to stop WMD proliferation, etc. Washington's priority must be to prevent widespread proliferation of WMD from Russia.
From there, European leaders will have to contemplate how best to respond to the inevitable refugee flows that will emanate from a completely collapsing Russia. Meanwhile, Asia will have to brace for the time when China takes the lion's share of natural resources and land from Russia's Far East. At that point, China will not only be an economic juggernaut, but will overnight become a natural resources superpower, thereby making it a true challenger to the United States.
World leaders should begin courting the leaders of the various Russian oblasts, so as to have direct linkages with those who would likely arise to rule whatever new states grow out of the ashes of a disintegrating Russia.
The United States cannot hope for the best in Russia. Policymakers must assume that Putin will retain his grip on power and continue atomizing Russian society. If that's the case, then the Russian state will die with Putin.