Kremlinology and the Great Power Competition

Main Image Credit All the president's men: Russian President Vladimir Putin and some of his senior officials in 2018. Image: / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

While speculation around the potential demise of Putin’s regime is understandable, it is more helpful to consider the ‘so what’ of who comes next.

Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February, speculation has swirled about the Russian leadership. One common theme is the supposedly shrinking circle of people around Vladimir Putin, his political isolation and elite discontent – or even that there might there be a coup against him. Another is that senior officials are said to be seriously ill – or even dead. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was thought to have had a heart attack, for instance, and Putin has been repeatedly ‘diagnosed’ not just with a bad back, but with a whole range of serious mental and physical illnesses. A third theme is that frustration with failures in the campaign has driven Putin to fire (or ‘purge’) senior officials, first in the security services responsible for laying the ground for the invasion, and then in the military conducting it, including Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov. For some, these are all signs that the Russian ‘ship is beginning to sink’.

Perhaps. But these are highly unreliable signs drawn from the myth kitty or conspiracy cauldron, based on rumour and hearsay (even if occasionally laundered through prominent Western or Russian observers). Much of this speculation about the Russian ship sinking amounts to the summoning of a retributive end to the disaster unfolding in Ukraine and the challenge posed by Russia more broadly (and, for many, a long-wished for end to Putin personally). It reflects the hope that what seems to be an otherwise intractable question will simply solve itself. This is readily understandable: the war in Ukraine is a humanitarian catastrophe. But it does not help to shape thinking and scenarios for the future.

In fact, much of this discussion is a misinterpretation of what is happening, and echoes themes that over time have repeatedly been shown to be inaccurate. It is worth remembering that the ‘end of Putin’ has been proclaimed repeatedly through the 2010s – even since the mid-2000s. And at the time of writing, Gerasimov – together with most of the others asserted to have been fired – still appears to be in post.

To take one of the common themes noted above, firings at senior levels are comparatively rare in Russia. Over the years, some senior officials, even those quite close to Putin, have been retired or dismissed – some even investigated. And the command team of the Baltic Sea Fleet, for example, was fired in 2016.

Much of the speculation about the Russian ship sinking amounts to the summoning of a retributive end to the disaster unfolding in Ukraine and the challenge posed by Russia more broadly

The broader emphasis, however, is on continuity and stability, team loyalty and – as Putin has put it – effectiveness in getting the job done. Numerous senior officials have held their jobs for many years. Indeed, Putin once wrote an article entitled ‘why it is difficult to fire someone’, in which he stated that he often doubted what lay behind accusations of mistakes and calls for firings, and that he was not convinced that rushed changes would make things better: replacements for those who are fired would be much the same, if not worse. Of course, he might have added that they also reflect badly on the boss, and suggest a loss of control. Nevertheless, interestingly, he did indicate that it is appropriate to fire someone when they suggest that a task set for them is ‘impossible’.

This helps to sharpen our thinking about the chain of command and the frequency and causes of firings, but more importantly, it also shifts our attention to the question of possible replacements and their tasks. What if, for instance, Shoigu had had a heart attack? In a sense, there is a precedent. In September 2021, Yevgeniy Zinichev, Minister of Emergency Situations and a member of the Security Council, became the first federal minister to die in post. After a short interim period, Putin appointed the 50-year-old Alexander Kurenkov, a long-serving member of the Russian security and protection services – and someone well-known to the president.

If this offers a precedent for thinking about how heads of the so-called ‘power’ ministries might be replaced, then those such as Alexei Dyumin, the 49-year-old Tula region governor, appear to be candidates for promotion. Dyumin has extensive experience in the federal security and protection services and, before becoming governor in 2016, he served as Shoigu’s deputy in the Defence Ministry, and First Deputy Commander of the Russian Ground Forces. The questions would then shift to who would come with Dyumin in his network, and the roles they would play.

And if Gerasimov, who is already 66, retired or was fired, the question becomes who would replace him and who is in their network. Then the real questions are: what would, say, a Dyumin/Alexander Dvornikov, or a Dyumin/Sergei Surovikin or Dyumin/Alexander Lapin defence command arrangement mean in practical terms? What reforms might they be charged with implementing? How would this change alter the nature of the ongoing debate about military strategy? In sum: what would be their core tasks in shaping the Armed Forces into the mid- and late 2020s?

Good Kremlinology can contribute to foresight by dispelling some of the repetitive myths and more dubious rumours that cloud our thinking

Similar sets of questions should be posed about other areas, including the energy sector and economy and trade more broadly, as well as across the political arena – such as the recent appointment of 53-year-old Denis Manturov to Deputy Prime Minister. In fact, a new generation is emerging in Russia and already occupying some senior and influential positions, and a sophisticated familiarity with this evolving landscape – including networks, responsibilities and tasks – is essential if we are to observe and even anticipate change in Russian activity. Knowledge of the careers and tasks of potential future defence ministers and Chiefs of the General Staff (and their equivalents in other ministries) will help to avoid another round of extended but misleading discussions about non-existent ‘doctrines’.

It is important and right to consider the possible consequences of a sharp change in Russia. But good foresight requires the ability to look back at past predictions to assess the track record – what has been got right and wrong – and to consider a range of scenarios, including variations on evolving continuity.

It is probably wishful thinking that the Russian ship will simply ‘sink’ of its own accord – that the challenge Moscow poses will just fade away. Even so, the consequences of this in international affairs will be significant, and demand sophisticated reflection. Instead, however, it is more likely that the Euro-Atlantic community will face a substantial and sustained challenge from Russia in the medium term – a competition for which the Russian leadership has long planned. The real questions, therefore, are not about the departure of one or other individual, but about the ‘so what’ of who comes next. Here, good Kremlinology – among other approaches – can contribute to foresight by dispelling some of the repetitive myths and more dubious rumours that cloud our thinking, and help to mitigate some of the surprises.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Andrew Monaghan

Senior Associate Fellow; Founding Director, Russia Research Network

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