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The Russian System Is More than Just Putin and Putinism

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Following the "Post-Putin Russia" simulation, Wikistrat interviewed Russia expert Mathieu Boulegue to discuss the potential implications in the case of Putin’s death on Russia’s foreign policy. According to Boulegue, if Putin dies in office, very little is likely to change unless there is near complete government turnover: the system is bigger than Putin and favors stability.

Mathieu Boulegue is a Senior Research Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House.

How could Putin’s Death impact the Russian invasion to continue the war in Ukraine and general Russian foreign policy?

So, that's a really good question. At this stage, the Russian system is more than Putin. Whoever comes next after him after he dies in power, which I assume is probably going to be the outcome. There is probably very little evidence at this stage that the foreign policy course of the Kremlin will change unless there is a software change inside the Russian system. For several reasons, the first one of course is stability.

Putin only represents a part of the system, and once again, the Russian system is more than just Putin and Putinism, and there is no evidence that the elite would not want any form of stability within the system after Putin is gone. Stability will probably mean a lot of reshuffling of the elite, with likely less outlook for foreign policy and more focus on internal politics as things stabilize. At least for the next few months, if not years, after Putin is removed or dies in power, then I don't see foreign policy as being a definite priority for the Kremlin, in as much as there is a real foreign policy by the Kremlin.

When it comes to the war against Ukraine, more specifically, there is a clear difference for me between what the Kremlin might actually do in terms of foreign policy course, and what they might intend to do to trick us. If the system remains, and if someone else comes who is part of the system, they could use it as bait. For instance, stopping the war in Ukraine or starting to make concessions.

They could try to use it as bait against Ukraine against the West, against other nations, to try to hook them, or to try to reinsert Russia inside the global community. A bit like what Medvedev was used for after 2008 when there was this big sort of Medvedev moment that everybody believed in, that the system would be different. We sort of fell into the trap, and since generally our natural inclination is to offer olive branches to whoever comes next or try to talk to whoever comes next, whoever comes after Putin. We will probably try to run to the Kremlin and say, "Look, this is obviously something new, we have to try a different sort of relationship."

This could be used by the Kremlin against us, in terms of power politics and in terms of foreign policy shaping, so this is something we have to be careful with as well. Then when it comes to a potential change in foreign policy, the other caveat that I would give to the assumption is that whoever comes next might not necessarily be better for Western interests, and therefore, for Ukrainian interests as well. Foreign policy could actually be even worse, we have the assumption that things would get better, but I think it's a wrong assumption. Nothing excludes that after Putin, there wouldn't be someone who is even more nationalistic, even more totalitarian in his approach to the state, and therefore, even more detrimental to Ukraine and to Western interests, so a lot of things to consider.

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?

At this stage, it would be a continuation of what we have, which is a constant deterioration of relations with the West and the sort of global liberal order in general. With continued contestation, continued competition, if not overt confrontation, with increased miscalculation and tactical errors, and Russia naturally getting more inclined to cooperate with like-minded countries. Increasing its footprint in terms of foreign policy with China, with India, with Pakistan, with the rest of sort of Russia's far abroad in other places.

If there is someone more sort of hawkish or more nationalistic in their ambition, there might be as well a refocus on internal politics. Because the game changer in the coming years will be for the Russian state to remain a unitary system, with the risks of the system breaking of the margin from regions, for instance, so for increased instability inside the Russian state, which a new leader would have to carefully manage, which would limit the appetite for genuine foreign policy, or let's say foreign policy outreach.

There might actually be a balance between what they have to deal with internally and the reality of foreign policy, which is running its course at this stage. I mean, Russia has isolated itself from the West in general, because of its actions, and is therefore going where actually people want to collaborate with Russia. But the Kremlin has become so toxic in terms of foreign policy, and in terms of its action, or being seen with the Kremlin has become so toxic that I don't think this is likely to change if there is a new leader that is even more nationalistic, even more hawkish than Putin

In a post-Putin scenario, if the war in Ukraine concludes with Russia withdrawing peacefully from Ukraine as part of a peace agreement, but maintaining control over Crimea, how would that impact its relationship with China?

That's a really good question, so listen, I think the assumption is partly correct that Russia would withdraw anytime soon from its positions in Ukraine. I think for that to happen, you need to have a complete system overhaul, a software change at the level of the state, that is so deep, so comprehensive, and that changes things so much, that there is indeed a complete redraw of foreign policy, with complete removal of Russian troops from occupied Ukraine. That would include probably Crimea.

If a new leader comes, completely changes the system, pro-democracy, pro-liberalism, which is not going to happen, but we can daydream about it. Then it would make sense for them to do a sort of mea culpa, apologize, and then withdraw from all of occupied Ukraine, because it wouldn't make sense, it would be double standards. You withdraw from certain parts of Ukraine and territory, but you don't withdraw from the rest, which would send a lot of red flags to Western capitals saying, "What are your real intentions? You haven't changed that much. You're offering us some sort of candy by withdrawing, but you're keeping some parts occupied and illegally recognized occupied parts of Ukraine, it doesn't make sense."

If that is such a case, then that would send a lot of red flags to us. But also, if you imagine a complete overhaul of foreign policy, there might also be a complete overhaul with China in the sense that maybe such a new Russian state would try to tether itself back inside Western interests, look closer to the West, and look less closely to China, and change completely the balance of its relationship with China.

You could very well imagine a complete sort of overhaul of foreign policy with more sort of European liberal-inclined mentality, that would go at odds with the Chinese vision of the world, in terms of great power politics, in terms of sharp power projection, and so on. I'm daydreaming here, none of this is going to happen. It's not like Russia is going to become a liberal democracy anytime soon. But if we have such a scenario where Russia withdraws completely from Ukraine, then you could argue that the foreign policy outlook with China would be so different, so potentially adverse to Chinese interest, that it would also be a completely new balance of power and a new game changer in the relationship.

And in case Russia loses the war and is forced to withdraw from Ukraine, how could that impact its domestic political situation?

Yeah, so as much as I would want this to happen and Russia to withdraw completely from occupied Ukraine, this is not going to happen any time soon. Russia is not going to lose the war rhetorically, symbolically, in terms of propaganda politics. Victory, defeats, who wins, who loses, it's a mental space. We're in 2022, it's a question of information dominance and information superiority. If the Kremlin tells the population we are winning, and whatever goals we set out for in the first place, we are winning, then they will win, and that will be a form of victory. It really is about a mental projection through information warfare and then propaganda to position Russia in where they want the state to go, where they want the population to look at, so there won't be any form of defeat. There will be a form of victory, symbolic, rhetorical, mission “accomplished moment” by Putin saying, "All of what you've seen for the past X months in Ukraine, this is what we wanted. We wanted to liberate quote-unquote parts of Donbas, we wanted to create this land bridge between occupied Crimea and Donbas. Don't believe what you could read elsewhere, we didn't want to take Kyiv off by force, we didn't want to completely take over the rest of mainland Ukraine and invade the full country."

All of this of course is completely fabricated, in terms of narrative, but also, shows that they're here to stay. I mean, what we see on the ground right now in the south, for instance, around Zaporizhzhia, Kherson in the oblasts, Russia is literally bunkering down. They are physically digging inside the Ukrainian territory to create lines of defenses to stay. They are preparing for a form of territorial integration of these oblasts, probably inside the Russian Federation at some point. They are not going to retreat, they're not going to withdraw.

There will be some tactical movements, of course, as Ukrainian counter-offensives are trying to push Russian troops away at certain parts of the territory. Mostly in the north, around Kharkiv for positions that are more contested. Maybe in Donbas and some places, but I don't see a military geography of Ukraine where Russian troops have withdrawn completely from pre-2022 positions.

I'm not talking about pre-2014 positions with Donbass and Crimea. This is the cost of Russia's narrative, in terms of this denazification of Ukraine, the liberation, blah, blah, blah, the sort of Peter the Great ethos that Putin has created around himself. All of this of course has been created, and shaped, and engineered by 20 years of Putinism, and then 15 years of social media, 10 years of social media, and internet dominance. But, once again, it's not like Russia is going to move away from Ukraine anytime soon. They will likely stop the war at some point, to stop the high intensity, and then do what they do best, which is suing Ukraine for peace until it's broken.

Could Putin's death lead to internal instability and potential civil unrest? How could such a situation impact even Russia's relations with the West and China?

Yeah, so that's the million-dollar question, in terms of what is coming next within the system in terms of potential instability that we are not seeing? Listen, I'm generally quite pessimistic when it comes to the future of Russia in general, but we can make several scenarios where... The most likely scenario would be a continued stability, once again, because the death of Putin will only be the death of the leader, not the death of the system.

You remove the cause of whatever bad is happening in Russia, which is Putin, but the symptoms, Putinism as a system and as a sort of elite redistribution network, will remain. The moment the system remains, the moment everything remains in place, the first thing that will happen is stability. It's almost as though the population will be completely robbed of any political destiny, because the system will survive.

That's the most likely scenario, and there will be unrest, of course, there will be probably a more opposition push by whatever is left of political opposition in Russia, which is not much. But it will probably go completely... The system will remain unscathed. Then there are the out there scenarios, the outside the box things that we have to be looking at, because for too long, we've been thinking inside the box in terms of Western policy, and we need to enlarge that box to try to prepare for potential futures.

One of these futures is, of course, a system change, whereby because of the impact of sanctions, because of increased economic isolation, because of Russia crumbling under debt, under increased cost of living, under increased discontent from the population, there could be a spark of some form of civil unrest that would come from the regions.

As there are more talks around wreckage at the margin of certain regions, defaulting, for instance, or certain regions starting to discuss a form of not secession or separatism, of course, but at least trying to show more discontent from local elites. You could imagine movements that would take over the system. This, for me, remains completely out of the box, but it's still interesting to look at, I think, for the simulation.

In terms of what are the key metrics that we need to look at, in terms of public discontent, in terms of societal discontent, in terms of how far can the Kremlin push the propaganda control and the information control around the population. Because it's really interesting to look at the narrative that they used in 2014, '15,the protection of Russians abroad, great power projection in the near abroad, blah, blah, blah. It worked to an extent, and it worked enough to keep people subdued. The narrative they used in 2022, the denazification of Ukraine, and so on, I mean, is that really the best they could find in terms of propaganda? This is bad.

If this is the best that the Russian state could think about, in terms of population control and information superiority, then Hollywood has made way better scenarios in scripts than this, to be honest. It's almost as though they have given up on trying to find a coherent and cohesive narrative that would consolidate the population around it. The fact that an authoritarian system is slowly turning into a totalitarian system in Russia, with increased repression, increased control, increased fear of losing grip on power, also shows that they're not too confident about their own narrative, that they know something is wrong.

I'm sure that they are looking very closely at what's happening inside of the regions, inside of local elites. I would argue, we should anticipate more rotations of elites, more sort of Stalin-like repression of the elites. It's something that my colleague, Nikolai has been working on quite closely, in the coming months, to make sure that the system remains consolidated around stability.

Is there anything else you would like to add about the potential implication that Putin's death that might have on Russian foreign policy?

I would really reinforce the need to reassess the assumptions that we have about the future of Russia, post-Putin. Because it may be coming sooner than we think, because we don't exactly know the state of Putin's health, we don't exactly know what's happening inside the corridors of power of the Kremlin. But I would start rethinking, and this is great that the simulation is coming now because we should start rethinking our assumptions around what comes next will be better for us. That is something you hear in policy circles that it can't be worse than Putin, but it could, there's absolutely no metrics that tell us that what comes next will be better for our interests in the global West, in general.

All the assumption that whoever comes next, we should try to reach out to, we should try to have a dialogue with, if not, offer olive branches. I can already see the French foreign policy establishment, or the Greek foreign policy establishment running to the Kremlin saying... Or the Italian one, to be honest, saying, "Okay, it's a new person, it's a new face. Let's try to do something." Then us, feeling disappointed again, in this endless cycle of optimism, disappointment, optimism, disappointment, that we have with the Kremlin in general for the past 20 years. I think we should review all these assumptions and start anew in the way that we think, and we interpret Russian policymaking.

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.

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