Dealing with post-Putin Russia

| August 24, 2023

Putin’s rule over Russia will come to an end at some point, but when it will end as well as what the policy preferences of his successors might be are uncertain. It would be in the interests of the United States and Europe to signal on what terms they would be willing to cooperate with a post-Russian leadership.

Vladimir Putin has been the ruler of Russia since the turn of the century. He may remain in power through 2036, as the 2020 revision of the Russian constitution allows him to, or perhaps even longer. Then again, he may be ousted suddenly and surprisingly any day now, as the recent Wagner mutiny and the apparent lack of effective opposition to it within the Russian security services and public suggest is possible. Maybe he will decide not to run for re-election in 2024, though this does not seem likely.

Sooner or later, though, Putin’s rule over Russia will come to an end. What is not at all certain, of course, is who will replace him and what sort of foreign policy the new leader will pursue. It would appear, though, that there are only a few possibilities.

One is that Putin will be succeeded by someone just like him who will continue Moscow’s hostile policies toward Ukraine and the West in general.

Another is that Putin will be replaced by someone within his circle that decides Moscow needs to cut its losses in Ukraine and rebuild good relations with the West both to revive Russia’s economy and to hedge against an increasingly powerful China. While this might seem unlikely, Russian and Soviet history are replete with examples of new autocratic leaders dramatically reversing key aspects of their predecessor’s policies.

Yet another post-Putin possibility is an authoritarian leader who wants to cut Moscow’s losses in Ukraine but who sees the survival of both autocratic rule and even Russia’s territorial integrity as best served through increasing reliance on Chinese support and guidance.

It is also possible that Putin’s rule will end as a result of the rise of democratic forces which want Russia to become part of the West and cooperate or join the EU or even NATO. For this scenario to occur, there would have to be a dramatic change of heart within the Russian security services about what is in Russia’s and their own interests. While this seems highly unlikely, there have been examples in other where military-backed autocratic rule gave way to democracy.

Finally, whether Putin’s successor is autocratic or democratic, he or (much less likely) she may simply be weak as a result of having to deal with a compounding internal crisis resulting from Putin’s policies, including popular discontent over Russian casualties in Ukraine, economic decline, and secessionism in non-Russian or even Russian regions of the Russian Federation.

What Can Europe and the United States Do?

Russia’s post-Putin leadership and its policy preferences, whatever they may be, will have an enormous impact on Europe and the United States as well as other countries and regions of the world. But while obviously they hope to see Putin succeeded by a new leader who will end the war, withdraw from Ukraine, and improve Moscow’s ties with the West, Europe and the United States will have very little ability, if any, to affect the post-Putin transition — especially if the person who succeeds  him comes from within his inner circle.

Putin has sought to rally Russian public support for his war in Ukraine through claiming that the West wants to bring about the breakup of Russia. Whether Putin himself actually believes this, there appears to be no possibility of changing his mind about the West being his implacable enemy. The United States and Europe, though, would do well to signal to whoever might succeed Putin that this is not the case. Specifically, Washington and Brussels should make clear how they would like to relate to post-Putin Russia. Such messaging should include the following points:

Just as the United States and Europe support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, they also support the territorial integrity of Russia. The West has no interest in seeing the breakup of Russia.

The United States and Europe will lift their economic sanctions on Russia (including those on Moscow’s exports of oil and gas) in response to Russian withdrawals from Ukrainian territory. The more occupied territory that Russia returns to Ukraine, the more Western economic sanctions against Russia will be lifted.

While Europe and the United States would like to see Russia become a Western-style democracy, they acknowledge that whether it does so or not is an internal matter which Russians alone will determine.

The United States and Europe are prepared to have normal relations with any type of Russian government — democratic or autocratic — which is willing to behave non-threateningly toward the West, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics.

While they respect the Russian government’s desire to continue cooperating closely with China, Western governments want Moscow to know that the United States, NATO, and the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (US, Japan, India, Australia) are willing to discuss common security concerns about China (which many Russians besides Putin have had) if and when the new Russian leadership wishes to discuss them.

The articulation of these messages by the United States, Europe, and, regarding the last point, Quad governments, will not magically lead the Russian people, much less Putin’s inner circle, to oust Putin and embrace the West. Indeed, it is possible that a Putin loyalist successor will spurn them. But if the United States and Europe do not signal under what terms they would be willing to cooperate with a post-Putin leadership, then Washington and Brussels may reduce the chances that a post-Putin leadership will be willing to cooperate with the West.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.