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Putin Grows More Paranoid of Potential Threats to Power

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Until June 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin was apparently quite confident in his power and the lack of any true challenge to it. Anti-Putin activists were successfully squeezed out of the country, the most vociferous were imprisoned or killed. The more measured dissatisfied voices largely stayed silent. The Russian elites were seemingly willing to endure the president’s exhaustive foreign policy agenda, consistently supporting him in the public sphere (The Moscow Times, June 8).

However, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “march for justice” broke that coerced calm. It turned out that several thousand armed men could move freely throughout Russia, take control of critical military facilities and major cities, as well as fire on the military aircraft that tried to stop them. Most importantly, none of Putin’s most ardent supporters came out to meet Prigozhin and defend Moscow with their forces. Some supporters allegedly even tried to flee from danger (Current Time TV, June 24; Vesma, June 27).

The Wagner Group’s mutiny shone a light on Putin’s weak side, demonstrating that it is possible to pressure the Russian president when possessing adequate resources. Thus, his image as a “strong leader” was irreparably damaged. At first, he characterized the march on Moscow as “treasonous” and a “betrayal,” promising to crush the “mutineers”; by the end of the day, his aggressive stance had all but evaporated. In this, the lasting damage to Putin’s image should be emphasized, as even the destruction of Prigozhin’s private jet cannot erase from memory how weakly and inadequately the Kremlin leader behaved on June 24 (Vazhnie Istorii; Meduza, June 24). It is unlikely that the Russian elites have forgotten that, in stopping the Wagnerites, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka had to be involved.

As a result, Putin is now undoubtedly more suspicious of his entourage than he was when seeking to tighten his inner circle earlier this year, which has affected his approach to foreign policy (see EDM, April 10). The Russian president did not attend the BRICS summit in South Africa in person due to security concerns. He also abandoned the idea of attending the G20 summit in India in person. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was designated to replace Putin as Russia’s head of state at both events (Lenta.ru, July 19, TASS, August 25)

Summits often involve face-to-face communication between heads of state who determine the main areas of their interaction. If the head of state is unable to participate, it is logical to replace them with the next most senior person. However, in the Russian sense, the next most senior official is not Lavrov, but rather Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

Mishustin is often considered a possible compromise figure for a post-Putin Russia (24TV, October 20, 2022). He is an experienced administrator who has dealt primarily with economic issues. As such, Mishustin is one of the most informed Russian officials in regard to the true state of the domestic economy. At the same time, he is not a member of the siloviki clans, and he does not seem to share the extreme anti-Western views widely shared within Russia’s security services (Current Time TV, November 11, 2022). Thus, it is logical to assume that, once in power, Mishustin would be more likely to offer Ukraine and the West negotiations for a peaceful settlement of the war than other potential successors.

According to the Russian Constitution, it is the head of government who assumes the duties of the president in the case of the latter’s incapacity (Constitution.ru, accessed September 5). This was the case, for example, after the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin, when then–Prime Minister Putin acted as head of state until the presidential elections in the spring of 2000.

Prior to Prigozhin’s rebellion, Mishustin regularly traveled abroad. For example, in May 2023, he visited Beijing where he was received by Chinese President Xi Jinping (Government.ru, May 24). However, after the events of June 24, the prime minister’s foreign activities sharply decreased. He did not attend the BRICS summit, though, as the individual in charge of the economy, he would have been most effective in discussing all the issues on the agenda, including various economic integration projects. He will also not replace Putin at the G20 summit, where the state of the global economy is set to be the primary subject of discussion.

This suggests that, following the attempted coup, Putin has become wary of any contact between Mishustin and the leaders of other states, especially China and India. Both Beijing and New Delhi are important partners for Moscow, but they are increasingly concerned about Putin’s adventurous and unpredictable foreign policy. Within these circumstances, it is natural for a suspicious, aging dictator to fear that a younger, far less odious leader could negotiate more effectively in exchange for “some adjustment” in the Kremlin’s policies.

These considerations can be applied to the same extent to another potential “successor”—namely, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. Overall, Sobyanin might carry even more weight within the Kremlin “power vertical” than Mishustin, having formerly served as the governor of Tyumen region, head of the Presidential Administration and head of the Government Staff (Mos.ru, accessed September 5). Nevertheless, as mayor, his foreign contacts are more effectively and legally restricted.

Lavrov, unlike Mishustin and Sobyanin, does not possess such administrative and political weight. Nor is he an independent player. For two decades in office, he has proven himself to be Putin’s faithful weathercock, incapable of defending his own opinions, much less pursuing his own ambitions. Therefore, it is safe to say that Putin does not feel especially threatened by Lavrov.

Overall, it seems that Mishustin may represent the greatest direct threat to Putin. If this is indeed true, that likely means the Russian premier will no longer serve as the head of the Russian delegation at major international events, though he will likely be able to maintain his contacts in the Commonwealth of Independent States and Collective Security Treaty Organization. It will also give credence to speculation that tensions are growing within the Russian elites due to the failing war and have been further aggravated by Prigozhin’s mutiny and subsequent demise. And Putin’s increasing suspicions may lead him to commit more mistakes that could further exacerbate this tenuous situation.

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