Leon Aron

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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Opinion

What happens to Russia after Putin?

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Leon Aron

Senior Fellow, American Enterprise Institute

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In March 2024, Russian President Vladimir Putin won an unsurprising landslide reelection victory, securing 87% of the vote in an election that had no credible opposition. However, dissent was visible throughout the country. With Putin ruling since the turn of the century and a domestic situation arguably more unstable than it has been in decades, many are wondering what Russia’s future will look like when he is no longer in charge.

Watch the above video as Straight Arrow News contributor Leon Aron addresses this question using Russia’s history as a guide.


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The following is an excerpt from the above video:

We cannot, of course, predict the future, but we can look at several factors that could shape post-Putin Russia. Some are hopeful, others rather depressing. 

In Russian history, we see a pendulum swinging from generally repressive, sometimes tyrannical regimes to somewhat less brutal ones, what we might call more liberal. We saw this change in the early 17th century with Mikhail Romanov actually being elected tsar by the National Assembly of the Nobles after the death of the sadistic Ivan the Terrible. After a 40-year interlude of misfits and perverts, the totalitarian Peter the Great was replaced by Catherine the Great, who corresponded with Voltaire and had Diderot as her guest in St. Petersburg.

Following the cruel disciplinarian and martinet Paul I in the early 19th century, Alexander I initially embarked [on a] very liberal trajectory. Half a century later, the classical reactionary Nicholas I was succeeded by his son Alexander II, who liberated the serfs. And, of course, closer to us in time, Khrushchev’s thaw came after Stalin’s horrors, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost revolution occurred after the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko stagnant neo-Stalinism.

So history points to the possibility of a less repressive, less belligerent regime in Putin’s wake. 

{LEON ARON]
What happens to Russia after Putin? What should the West be prepared for? 

We cannot of course predict the future but we can look at several factors that could shape post-Putin Russia. Some are hopeful, others rather depressing. 

In Russian history, we see a pendulum swinging from generally repressive, sometimes tyrannical regimes to somewhat less brutal ones, what we might call more liberal.

We saw this change in the early 17th century with Mikhail Romanov actually being elected tsar by the National Assembly of the Nobles after the death of the sadistic Ivan the Terrible.

After a 40-year interlude of misfits and perverts, the totalitarian Peter the Great was replaced by Catherine the Great, who corresponded with Voltaire and had Diderot as her guest in St. Petersburg.

Following the cruel disciplinarian and martinet Paul I in the early 19th century, Alexander I initially embarked very liberal trajectory. Half a century later, the classical reactionary Nicholas I was succeeded by his son Alexander II who liberated the serfs. 

And, of course, closer to us in time, Khrushchev’s thaw came after Stalin’s horrors and Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost revolution occurred after the Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko stagnant neo-Stalinism.

So history points to the possibility of a less repressive, less belligerent regime in Putin’s wake. 

Within this general direction, two circumstances are most relevant for us today. First, the pendulum of regime changes has swung wider after Russia’s military setbacks. 

The Alexander II liberal revolution-from-above followed Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. Russia’s 1905 revolution, which resulted in an essentially constitutional monarchy, had been precipitated by the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. And the February 1917 democratic revolution as well as the Bolshevik takeover seven months later occurred after setbacks in World War I. Quagmire of Afghanistan contributed to Gorbachev’s liberalization.  

So Russia’s defeat in Ukraine is critical not just for Ukraine and the West but for Russia’s future as well: it makes a wider swing away from Putin’s Russia much more likely.  

But here’s the rub. 

As we look at the Stalin to Khrushchev transition I’ve just mentioned, when Stalin died, the most powerful institution in the Soviet Union was the Ministry of State Security, or MGB, under Stalin’s top henchman and executioner Lavrentiy Beria. It was the most powerful agency in the country – but not the only powerful one. There was the Communist Party apparatus, there was the government, there was the military, there were various ministries. Sitting on the ruling Politburo were men in charge of these institutions. Men like Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan and Moisey Kaganovich. 

When Stalin died they took on Beria and prevailed with the help of the military.

Yet in almost quarter century of the Putin rule,  the FSB and other secret and semi-secret services have subverted, hollowed out, and destroyed all Russian institutions. As Russian analysts put it, the FSB “podmyalo pod sebya,” literally “crushed under” every Russian institution: the courts, the federal and local bureaucracies, the governors. The recent arrests of the generals at the very top of the ministry of defense have demonstrated the FSB’s total control of the Russian military.

As a result, institutionally Russia is like a desert in which the FSB horsemen raid this or that settlement, seizing people and assets as they please. 

Can anyone name the head of the government, the Russian prime minister? Or the head of the supposedly ruling party, United Russia? Of course not, because they are completely irrelevant.

The two most powerful men in Russia after Putin are his colleagues from the Leningrad KGB in the mid-1970s: the head of the FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, and the head of the so-called Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin, who was Putin’s classmate in Leningrad State University’s Law Department. 

And so here’s the takeaway: If the lessons of Russian history hold, post-Putin Russia should hew to a more palatable direction, especially if is defeated in Ukraine. Yet standing in the way of this change is the legacy of virtually unlimited power of the secret police.

And all we can do is to keep fingers crossed and stay tuned.