A botched war and now a narrow escape from a coup plot – the Kremlin clock is ticking faster and faster for Vladimir Putin. The stability he brought to Russia after the chaos of the 1990s is over. Its reputation for competence and efficiency is in tatters.
In the savage world of Russian politics, such displays of weakness are fatal. The man who came to power in 1999 could now be gone within months, weeks or days. Even in Russia’s rigged political system, Putin’s chances of winning another six-year term in the presidential race scheduled for March next year have dwindled.
Indeed, he may well no longer be in office by then. Forced retirement due to “poor health” perhaps, or perhaps a sudden terminal illness. Even a slip through an open window, an assassin’s bullet, or a dose of poison in his borscht would do the trick.
Article 92 of the Russian Constitution stipulates that if the head of state is “unable to perform his duties”, his temporary successor is the prime minister. That would be Mikhail Mishustin, a capable and discreet 57-year-old bureaucrat who is not a household name even in Russia.
But the real power after a palace coup would lie elsewhere, probably with a Kremlin insider. Nikolai Patrushev, the national security adviser, is one of the candidates. His well-connected and burgeoning son, Dmitry, currently Minister of Agriculture, is another. Such a new leader would make Putin the scapegoat for the disastrous war in Ukraine and try to end it as quickly as possible.
A botched war and now a narrow escape from a coup plot – the Kremlin clock is ticking faster and faster for Vladimir Putin
The best known figure was former crime boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private army Wagner
A neat, but not lasting solution. Many in Russia fear that what awaits them is a “time of trouble” (Smutnoye vremya), in which warring clans fight for wealth and power. The phrase originally referred to the anarchic period after 1598, when the Tsarist throne changed hands six times in 15 years.
Echoes of that nightmarish time still resonate today. Russians also remember the upheavals of 1917, when the Bolshevik Revolution plunged Russia into a five-year civil war, and 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved after a failed coup.
According to Igor Girkin, a well-followed military veteran among Russian nationalists, the chaotic and violent events of the past weekend show that another “time of trouble” has already begun.
I fear he is right. I have long said that the best way to understand Russian politics is not to read academic books but to watch the American television series The Sopranos. The crude and brutal people who run Russia would be quite comfortable in the world he portrays of dirty protective rackets in suburban New Jersey.
But that’s chilling fact, not entertaining fiction. Behind Putin’s facade of pomp and patriotism lies a world of rotten state institutions, populated by gangsters and morons. The best-known character was former crime boss Yevgeny Prigozhin and his private army Wagner. Since the failed coup, they may be irrelevant, for now. But other semi-independent private armies abound. The bloodthirsty Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov leads one of the greatest. The sharia-ruled mafia outpost of this shaggy tribal leader in the mountainous Caucasus region has long escaped Kremlin control.
State-controlled energy giant Gazprom has two militias: Potok (stream) and Fakel (torch). Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has Patriot, who hire experienced soldiers with high salaries of £5,000 a month or more – a fortune by Russian standards.
These legions serve multiple purposes. As well as spearheading Russia’s efforts in Ukraine, the Wagner Group – in particular – extends the Kremlin’s influence across Africa and was largely responsible for rescuing the brutal Assad regime. in Syria. Yet the existence of these “military contractors” is a sign of the depth of Russia’s decadence. It would be inconceivable for British companies like energy giant BP or catering contractor Sodexo to have private armies, let alone Ben Wallace, the Secretary of Defense, to have his own personal fighting force. .
The Kremlin belatedly tries to contain these legions. But the lesson of recent days is that the central power is weak. like the boyars [barons] who clashed in the first Time of Troubles, the big players in modern Russia know they need their own private militias, and the bigger the better.
As those rivalries boil over, long-buried ethnic grievances could also resurface. Regional leaders, who have long resented Moscow’s intrusive power, could all too easily try to assert their independence. The Muslim peoples of central Russia – Tatars, Bashkirs and others – could exploit the crisis to regain the freedom they briefly tasted more than 100 years ago.
Perhaps the most alarming prospect is that of “bulk nuclear weapons”: the idea that Russia is stockpiling thousands of nuclear warheads falling into the hands of terrorists
The Kremlin belatedly tries to contain these legions. But the lesson of these last days is that the central power is weak
Although Mafia bosses may invoke religious, patriotic or regional sentiments, promising a rapprochement with the West or demanding a tougher stance against it, the real quarrels are about money. The increasingly likely outcome is that Russia’s fate will now resemble that of interwar China, with a weak central government battling powerful criminal warlords.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the nominal rulers of this country – Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the first Chinese republic, and his successor Chiang Kai-shek, were rocked by foreign intervention, communist insurrection and the ambitions of regional leaders. The fighting claimed the lives of two million soldiers, and another five million civilians died of starvation and other deprivation.
In Britain, we may have largely disconnected our oil and gas supplies from Russia, but that’s no reason to be complacent if the giant country descends into disarray. Perhaps the most alarming prospect is that of “bulk nuclear weapons”: the idea that Russia is stockpiling thousands of nuclear warheads falling into the hands of terrorists.
Another concern is Chinese attempts to exploit the post-Putin era. The sparsely populated eastern regions of Russia are home to its most sought-after natural resources.
Policymakers in Beijing have long looked avidly beyond their common border at Russia’s natural wealth: hydrocarbons, minerals, timber, water and crops. It would be ironic if Putin’s attempt to rebuild the old Russian empire would result in his country becoming part of the new Chinese empire. Still, these are not the worst results. A post-Putin junta or strongman could turn the country into a nuclear-armed rogue state like North Korea or Iran, bristling with weapons and determined to stir up trouble. Given our repeated failures to rein in Putin’s ambitions, we will find it difficult to deal with a regime genuinely committed to nuclear confrontation.
All of these fears create bargaining chips for leadership candidates. Many in the West prioritize stability above all else. It’s all too easy to imagine a successor to Putin saying we have to make concessions now, or Russia will break up, go rogue, or fall into Chinese hands. Such concessions could mean forcing Ukraine to accept any peace deal on the table, or slowing down NATO rearmament.
One thing in all of this is certain: change will catch us unprepared. Over the past 30 years I have watched with dismay and anger as our governments eviscerate Britain’s expertise in understanding Russia. Spies, diplomats and analysts with long Kremlinological experience, their skills honed by the high stakes of the Cold War, were scrapped.
Russia was now a friend, our pinstripe masters insisted, and it was time to focus on trade, investment and cultural ties.
Paying attention to the dark side – the Russian Sopranos – was a waste of taxpayers’ money. As for Putin’s downfall, our forecast is even more limited.
Whether we like it or not, the Putin era – with the illusions it fostered in Russia and abroad – is coming to an end. Be ready.