This past week, numerous Russian sources started posting reports that Putin had suffered a massive heart attack and was either dead or close to it. The Kremlin, of course, was quick to deny the rumours.
Such reports are nothing new as there has been much speculation over the past year that Putin was seriously ill with thyroid cancer, or pancreatic cancer, or leukemia, of Parkinson’s disease, or cardiac issues, or numerous other terminal illnesses. These have been exacerbated by his unexplained absences, the fact that whenever he travels, he is accompanied by a large contingent of medical doctors and specialists, and that he frequently uses body doubles for public appearances. His appearance has also changed appreciably in recent years and in particular his face has appeared puffy, and he has exhibited tremors in his hands during public meetings. Whatever the case, Putin is 71 years old, and his days are numbered one way or another.
When he does eventually shuffle off his mortal coil, there is considerable speculation as to who would succeed him, since whether it be during Soviet times or the past three decades of oligarchic rule in Russia, there is no credible succession plan. Putin has spent most of his time in power getting rid of potential opponents and successors. Constitutionally, the Prime Minister would take over until a new President is elected. However, as we know from history, elections in Russia are very problematic. Further, under Putin’s rule, the Prime Minister’s position has been largely symbolic. The current Prime Minister is Mikhail Mishustin, a systems engineer by background, and a relative unknown, who Putin personally handpicked, largely because he posed no real threat to his authority.
Most experts on the twisted world of Russian power politics believe that the most like person to take over when Putin leaves the scene is Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev. The Russian constitution does have a well-defined order of precedence, and Patrushev is ostensibly only twelfth in line to succeed, however changes of regime in Russia have historically been characterized by serious infighting, anarchy, and unpredictability. Nonetheless, Patrushev is well positioned to succeed Putin, as he has a very similar background, having served for most of his life in the KGB and its successor, the FSB. From 1999 to 2008 he was the director of Russia’s notorious FSB. He has been part of Putin’s inner circle for most of the past several decades, and certainly knows where all the “skeletons” are buried. In recent times, he has controlled what information reaches Putin. His political views are very similar to Putin’s, and his FSB power base may well be decisive if he chooses to succeed Putin.
Former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate, however most Russians recognize that Medvedev was always Putin’s puppet and that he does not have either the smarts or a significant independent power base to enable him to seize power. Further, his extremist and often ludicrous comments about the war in Ukraine over the past year have earned him the reputation as some sort of buffoon, both domestically as well as internationally. His chances of succeeding Putin are slim at best.
The top possible contenders from the military side, Secretary of Defense Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Valeriy Gerasimov, have been largely discredited for their military failures in the Ukraine war, and are highly unlikely to pose much of a challenge. They are personal appointees of Putin’s and are generally not well liked even by the military ranks they lead, and hence do not have much of a power base to rely on.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is also often mentioned as a possible successor to Putin. The position of Moscow mayor is more than just a municipal office and carries with it inordinate influence in the backrooms of Russian power politics where crucial decisions are often made. He has previously served as a Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, and head of the Presidential administration. He is well connected in Russian political circles and would be a serious candidate.
As President Zelensky once said “anything is possible” in Russian politics and predicting who will succeed Putin is problematic. This is especially so if the circumstances surrounding Putin’s departure are peaceful and orderly or not. My own view, considering what I know and understand of Russian history, is that the transition is likely to be chaotic and violent. Russian leaders do not tend to retire peacefully and Putin’s departure from the world scene will undoubtedly be messy.