Following the "Post-Putin Russia" simulation, Wikistrat interviewed Russia expert Mark Galeotti to discuss the impact of a scenario of Putin’s death on Russia’s relations with China and the West, the war in Ukraine, and the potential impacts on Russia’s domestic affairs.
Mark Galeotti is a Senior Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
The first question I have for you, Dr. Galeotti, is how could Putin's death impact the Russian decision to continue the war in Ukraine, and in general Russia foreign policy?
Obviously, the immediate impact is likely to be relatively limited, as whoever replaces Putin establishes their power base. But in general, I think it's quite likely that the departure of Putin from the scene unlocks the way to a much more conciliatory approach to the West. We've got to realize that Putin and those people of his immediate circle are all basically 68 years old plus, they're very much still products of the late Soviet era, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so forth. If you look at the political generation below, who are more likely to be dominant in any post-Putin order, regardless of who's president, they are essentially pragmatic kleptocrats, for whom this war is — quite frankly — something of a disaster.
And if they have the opportunity, of in effect, blaming the conflict on Putin and trying to reach some kind of a negotiated settlement with the West that will allow them to continue in their usual route of stealing at home and banking and spending abroad, then that's probably going to be a good thing. So it's not that I think we're going to see any immediate shift to a more liberal or democratic Russia, but a rather more pragmatic one I think is entirely possible.
In case Putin is replaced after his death by a more hawkish leader, what impact will it have on Russia's relations with the West and with China?
Well, a more hawkish leader is really quite difficult to imagine. The only real person who fits into that category is Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council, and it would be frankly quite unlikely to see him elevated to this position. Firstly, because he's actually older than Putin. Secondly, because constitutionally, he has no particular standing. Thirdly, because he's not really been what we might think of as a coalition-building politician. I mean, he's very much the hawk whispering in Putin's ear. And as such, there's a lot of people who fear him, a lot of people who dislike him, and therefore I think his chances of actually being elected — shall we say — by the small numbers of people who will be making the decision, I think is quite slender.
But let's assume there is someone who is equally or more hawkish than Putin. I think in that case then relations with the West will continue on this current downward trajectory into a new Cold War confrontation. We're really heading for a late '70s or perhaps early 1980s, just after the invasion of Afghanistan, kind of situation. And in many ways that determines the relationship with China. If you are at daggers drawn with the west, then you need China.
And although Beijing has not at all been a particularly helpful ally — so much for the talk of the unlimited friendship — China hasn't supported the Russians, China makes it clear that it values its trade with the West and its access to international banking systems much more highly than goodwill from Moscow, but even regardless of all that, Russia will need China as a market, as a customer, as an ally, and as a route through which to be able to move monies back and forth to the rest of the world. So in that respect, it will be effectively forced to become an increasingly subordinate partner of China.
In a post-Putin scenario, if the war in Ukraine concludes with Russia withdrawing peacefully from Ukraine as a part of a peace agreement, how will that impact relations with China?
Well, from the Russians' point of view, any kind of a peace deal — and I see that you say maintaining control over Crimea — would have to be associated with some degree of sanctions relief. Otherwise, frankly, there's not much point. They can just simply freeze the conflict. So we'll have to assume there is a degree of sanctions relief, probably not total, but enough, you might say, to allow Moscow to begin to rebuild its relationship with the West, especially because there are many European countries that would very much want to take fullest advantage of this opportunity to reconnect with Russia.
That inevitably, first of all, takes away the initial necessity of sticking with China regardless. It means that Russia, once again, gains some degree of strategic autonomy. It has the capacity to make decisions about who it aligns with on different issues. And that will mean that it doesn't have to essentially follow China's line regardless.
Now, I don't think that this is going to anger China, or that China will turn against it. China has a strikingly pragmatic approach towards Russia. Basically, what it wants, it buys. And it will continue to do so. But I think the main thing is precisely that Russia will not, in those circumstances, be locked into becoming a near vassal of Beijing's.
In case Russia loses the war and is forced to withdraw from Ukraine, an Afghani scenario, how could that impact its domestic political situation?
Well, in that case, I mean it would be a devastating and disastrous loss of face. Now, of course, if that was in some way something that can be associated with, say, the death of Putin or whatever, that being another matter, but certainly whatever regime does that, especially if it's the same regime that actually sent the troops in the first place, will not be able to spin that. People will quite rightly regard this as a terrifying, catastrophic waste of resources, of lives, and of national prestige.
And not just for no gain, but actually for an outright loss. It will also, I think, be crucial in fragmenting the elite because we see at the moment that Putin is not only faced with technocratic and liberal criticisms but that there is also a nationalist critique of Putin. People who didn't necessarily have a problem with the idea of putting pressure on Ukraine to bring it back into Russia's sphere of influence, but who do have a problem with it being done so amateurishly, so badly, with such evidence of corruption.
And therefore I think Putin or whoever is in charge will actually find themselves precisely squeezed between those people who say this war shouldn't have happened, and a smaller — but in some ways, potentially more dangerous — group who say this war should not have been lost. Because that latter group also is disproportionately represented within the military and security forces.
So to be honest, I think it would be a mortal blow to any regime. Doesn't mean to say instantly, but I think precisely that the loss in credibility, the loss in resources, the situation which it'll find itself in, also trying to rebuild the country, I think all of those will pretty much ensure that regime is moribund at best.
Could Putin's death lead to internal instability and potential civil unrest, and how could such a situation impact its relationship with the West and with China?
I suppose, to a degree, it depends on how the death happens, and more to the point, whether it's manageable. I suspect that Putin's death will be treated by the elite in some ways a little bit the same way as Stalin's death was, in that they will feel the temptation to actually suppress the news until they have resolved their own wrangles as to what's going to happen in the new era. And that, in some ways, is a force for stability.
On the other hand, if it's something that can't be hidden, that it leaks quickly or it happens publicly or something else, then obviously all bets are off. We will see instability in the sense of, there will absolutely be a struggle for power. I do not believe it's the kind of struggle for power that is going to erupt into violent conflict or the like. It will instead be a whole series of interest groups trying to advance their own position, their own candidates, or just simply ensure that they have a say in what happens.
Now, anything that does this, in some ways it does unlock the potential for civil unrest because simply it creates distraction and division at the top of the system. And it very much depends, I would say, on what the current situation in the country is. I don't think we're likely to see particular nationalist unrest, in the sense of the various constituent nationalities, with the possible exception of Chechnya in the North Caucasus if Ramzan Kadyrov wants to throw his weight around to try and ensure that precisely he, or his interests rather, are addressed in the post-Putin settlement. But more broadly this is probably a point where absolutely there will be a sense that this is a chance also for the public to make their voice heard. And so whether it's in terms of the communists trying to raise protests, whether it's because of economic protests, which are very, very likely — Who knows what kind of different potential issues could cause some kind of civil unrest?
But again, I think this is not, it's worth stressing, geared toward the destruction of the Federation. This is not like the late 1980s. This will essentially just be different groups mobilizing, precisely to try and make sure that their interests are considered in the settlement. And in that respect, it's obviously not going to have a direct impact on foreign policy, and on the whole, people do not protest because of relations with other countries.
It is likely, depending on the current state of the conflict, to have an impact though on the war. Whether whoever succeeds Putin will feel the need for some kind of big statement, which could either be redoubling the war, or I think much, much more likely an attempt to extract Russia from the conflict and reopen proper negotiations with Ukraine. And that of course will affect its relations with the West. But it will be an indirect process rather than a direct one. And the West, if it has any sense about it, will want to quietly and carefully encourage a more conciliatory approach from Moscow, but not try to take advantage and push it in that direction, because that would be very counterproductive.
And in terms of China, generally speaking, China dislikes instability, and particularly dislikes instability on its own borders, and with a country that is an ally of sorts, a vassal of sorts, a producer and supplier of sorts. So I think that the Chinese will frankly welcome a quick resolution of any particular power struggles that take place. And beyond that, the Chinese will base their assessments on what the new leader or what the new government does.
But I think, again, we really have to understand the degree to which China is a lot more important to Moscow than Moscow is to China. Unless this new regime is suddenly — and I don't expect this for a minute — incredibly pro-Western, wants immediately to improve relations or whatever, barring that, frankly I think the Chinese would be quite phlegmatic. They feel they have time on their side, they have the money to buy whatever they want from the Russians, Russia's status in central Asia is already waning. For all of these reasons, I think that the Chinese, apart from being concerned about stability, but otherwise will be pretty relaxed.
Is there anything that you would like to add about the potential implication that Putin's death might have on Russian foreign policy?
Well, I did touch on it before, but I think the capacity for the West to — as it so often has in the past — really mess things up, should not be understated. If, for example, we saw excessive triumphalism from the West, if we saw the West as a whole or individual countries trying to meddle in the politics of the resolution of the power struggle that would follow Putin's death, or if the West thought, "Aha, this is now a chance to exploit Russian weakness” and, for example, make some big push on Ukraine, these are all exactly the kind of things that would make it more likely that a nationalist figure would emerge, or a nationalist government or at least a nationalist policy would be adopted by the new government, and essentially force the elite to maintain Putin's very harsh stance.
So as I said, that's my big concern, is that instead of sitting back and seeing what the Russians themselves do as a result of Putin's death, that the temptation to meddle might be too great, and the backlash of that distinctly problematic.
In June 2022, Wikistrat ran an interactive simulation exploring the various implications that post-Putin Russia would have for both the country and its foreign policy. To learn more about it, click here.