Right now, it’s fair to say that Russian President Vladamir Putin is the most hated man in the world. He is currently leading Russia in a ruthless invasion of Ukraine. And while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is fighting the good fight, much of the Western world is doing its part by sanctioning Russia and exploring other options to stop Putin in his tracks.
Of course, the surest way to stop Putin is one that South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently proposed. He took to Twitter and asked some surprising questions: “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military? The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out. You would be doing your country — and the world — a great service.”
Many criticized a sitting U.S. senator for openly asking for a world leader to be assassinated. But in Graham’s defense, he is saying what countless others have been thinking.
But what happens if Putin dies while still in office? The answer is more complex than you might think!
Understanding Russia’s chain of succession
Like many countries, Russia has a chain of succession. And this chain of succession spells out who would assume control if Putin were to die or otherwise be unable to carry out his presidential duties.
Where it gets interesting is that Putin made changes to Russia’s constitution in 2020 that affect how this chain of succession works. Part of these big changes involved dismissing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet and installing Mikhail Mishustin (a tax official that hardly anyone had ever heard of) in his place.
In the event that Putin dies, Mishustin would be interim president for 90 days or until an election was completed. However, political analyst Kirill Rogov told the Associated Press that Putin’s changes (specifically, dismissing ambitious veteran politicians and installing unambitious loyalists) are probably a way for him to simply maintain power. “Such a model resembling the Chinese one would allow Putin to stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors.”
Putin’s play for power
Putin’s current term as Russia’s president is over in 2024. However, many who have studied both his political machinations and his unexpected invasion of Ukraine think that Putin may be trying to hold onto power for much longer than that.
How would this work, exactly? As reported by Business Insider, the idea is that Mishustin could be Putin’s successor and then appoint Putin as Prime Minister or place him in another valuable political position. From there, Putin could effectively call the shots while the country is nominally run by his handpicked “yes man.”
If that sounds farfetched, keep in mind this already happened back in 2007. As the Associated Press reports, Putin named Medvedev as his successor and Medvedev then made Putin Prime Minister. Many within Russia and beyond believe Putin was functionally running the country with Medvedev as a puppet until Putin officially became president once more.
Could Putin stay in power for life?
As you can see, it’s entirely possible for Putin to remain in power for a good, long time. But that brings us to a scary question: could Putin theoretically stay in power for life?
Strident Putin critic Alexei Navalny certainly thinks so. According to the Associated Press, Navalny said, “The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends.”
If that sounds crazy, Navalny asks us to consider how other powerful people try to hold onto their power. According to Business Insider, Navalny asked, “Do you see a lot of Mafia bosses decide, after decades of stealing and killing, to retire quietly to some beach house with all their money? How about narco-traffickers? Also, think about the major dictators … How many of them end their reigns with a peaceful retirement?”
Thanks, Navalny. It’s not like we wanted to get some sleep tonight or anything!
The likelihood of a coup
On any given day, it seems the likeliest way for Putin to die would be some kind of coup. But given the recent changes he made, how likely is such a coup to happen?
In a word, unlikely. The likeliest person to lead a coup against Putin would be the prime minister. And many think that’s exactly why he installed Mishustin (who, again, is an unambitious and previously-unknown tax official) as PM. Not only is Mishustin unlikely to rise against Putin, but he would be unlikely to garner much public support, either, given his lack of political experience.
The Daily Mail thinks that Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu might be a candidate to lead a coup. After all, Shoygu has proven himself as both a soldier and a politician. But he also helped orchestrate the invasion of Ukraine. Not only does that mean he may not have the support of the average Russian citizen, but his goals and Putin’s goals seem very well-aligned at the moment.
The dangers of a power vacuum
If Putin dies, the Russian Constitution says that an election should be held within 90 days for a new president. Mishustin would become president for the interim until the election is held. But just because an election for a new president would be held doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be a power struggle in the event of Putin’s death.
When a Western European intelligence official spoke anonymously about this to Business Insider, they didn’t mince words. “It will be ‘Death of Stalin,'” they said, referencing a dark comedy film about the power vacuum created by (you guessed it) the death of Stalin. “The oligarchs that selected Putin have been destroyed by Putin, he set about doing that first. We have our eyes on some people at the higher levels of the security services and army that we think could be contenders to win a struggle but until Putin is gone or greatly diminished it’s always going to be nearly impossible. He’s intentionally making sure there’s never any clear candidates.”