Inside Putin’s inner circle and the post-Wagner race to succeed him

The brief rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin and his Wagner Group has been the most dramatic threat to Vladimir Putin in his 23 years in power. It suggests the Russian leader’s grip on power is not as firm as many believed it to be. Inevitably, rumours are swirling on who might emerge to replace him.

Whatever high-ranking Kremlin officials may think of Putin following the humiliation he has now suffered from Wagner’s armed rebellion, they probably remain, for the time being, too divided to organise a putsch.

Putin is protected by the clever power structure he has created for subordinates, which encourages different factions and individuals to compete with or undermine each other.

However, Nigel Gould-Davies, a British former ambassador to Belarus and now senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks the nature of the latest blow to Putin – a self-inflicted wound, given his patronage of the vicious mercenary group – accentuates the humiliation he has suffered.

“Unlike others that Putin has declared an enemy – Chechens, oligarchs, Ukraine, West – Prigozhin is entirely his creation. Elites will worry even more about the consequences of Putin’s rule,” he tweeted. The words of support for Putin on the world stage were conspicuous by their absence, too. Not a peep from Putin’s “best friend”, Xi Jinping.

Stephen Hadley of the Atlantic Council and a former US National Security Adviser, has a slightly different take. “Where this goes depends a little bit on whether Putin regains his footing, is able to do a crackdown and a purge for those that were disloyal, and is able to restore the sort of balancing act that he was doing before,” he says.

The likelihood that some of Russia’s top generals were aware of Prigozhin’s plan to rebel is complicating things for Putin as he plans his retribution. Prigozhin is known to have had deep connections among the Russian elite, including inside the military.

But when Putin’s time is up – whether he is ousted, bumped off or bows out due to natural causes – his say in events will be small or non-existent. He threw away the chance to arrange a peaceful succession when he tore up the constitution in 2021, making himself dictator for life.

Names that immediately come to mind are the hardline, ex-Soviet security officials close to Putin, known as the Siloviki. They include Sergei Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, defence minister Sergei Shoigu, national security adviser Nikolai Patrushev, Rosgvardia chief Viktor Vasilyevich Zolotov and Alexander Bortnikov, head of the FSB domestic intelligence service.

Although not among the security hierarchy, Mikhail Mishustin, with a reputation “as a skilled technocrat”, and Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin have also been mentioned as possible contenders.

Even among the Siloviki there are three competing factions – the army, the intelligence services, and the police and national guard, who battle each other for influence and power.

Bortnikov’s stock may have fallen in the past few months, due to numerous acts of sabotage, with or without help from Ukraine, that have occurred during his watch on Russian territory.

Shoigu, the focus of Prigozhin’s ire, has had a bad war, and is not seen as a likely successor to Putin, while Naryshkin suffered an infamous dressing down by Putin last year at a televised Russian Security Council meeting in which the Putin accusing the clearly terrified official of rambling, before ordering him to sit down.

Of the leading security figures, Russia experts regard Patrushev as his most likely successor. The former head of the FSB spy agency, now secretary of the Security Council of Russia, shared a worldview with Putin — consistently expressing hostility to the West in general, and toward the United States in particular.

If anything, Patrushev’s views are more extreme than Putin’s. He has been described by one former insider as “forceful, incisive, like Putin with a sharper sense of humour“.

Also on the Security Council is former president and premier Dmitry Medvedev: Putin gave Medvedev the top job in 2008 as a way to indirectly keep his grip on power, while obeying the limit on presidential years in office that previously applied.

When his four-year term was up, Medvedev gave up the job to enable Putin’s return.

Medvedev’s previous reputation as a pragmatist open to co-operation with the West was dented by vociferous support of the Ukraine war, and then utterly undone by his subsequent nuclear threats and calls for missile strikes on the UK. At just 57 years old, Medvedev appears to have time on his side. But his reputation as a Putin lackey means that if his boss quits or falls out of a sixth-floor widow, then Medvedev’s leadership’s aspirations are likely to bite the dust, too.

Alexei Dyumin is another name that comes up with increasing frequency in conversations about Putin’s possible successors. His main claim to fame – or infamy – is that he saved Putin from a bear attack in a mountain resort.

Dyumin, 50, is a former member of the Federal Guard Service, which protects the president and ex-deputy defence minister. He worked with the Russian special forces in the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Putin named him governor of the Tula region in 2016. Russian Telegram channels have begun to speculate that Dyumin could replace Shoigu as Russian defence minister. Complimentary posts about Dyumin have appeared in channels linked to the Wagner Group.

Optimists in Russia and abroad might imagine a colour revolution of the kind that brought democracy to Ukraine in 2014. If this were to happen in Russia, Alexei Navalny would be the likely leader. Currently languishing in prison on trumped-up charges, the opposition figure, anti-graft campaigner and most relentless of Putin’s critics has already survived an assassination attempt with nerve agent. But the road to something like Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution looks long – and hard to imagine.

The opposite extreme is staring us in the face; the lugubrious features of Prigozhin are already a familiar sight.

Just five days ago, some people were talking about the possibility of the career criminal, thug and mercenary leader supplanting Putin.

Prigozhin’s ruthlessness may not be in doubt, but with the Russian establishment almost certainly appalled at the prospect of seeing him take the reins, experts think it would have to take a spectacular military meltdown for this to happen. “You would have to have an absolutely catastrophic collapse of the state,” leading Kremlin watcher Mark Galeotti has said. Anyway, even with the best poison-testers on the planet in his employ, Prigozhin would have trouble getting any kind of life insurance.

William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, thinks Russia’s mighty nuclear arsenal will have a bearing on the Putin succession. He says that whoever wins the backing of 12th GUMO, the directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defence that manages Russia’s nuclear arsenal, will be off to a flying start in a fight to succeed Putin.

Given that an immediate path to supreme power for most or any of these individuals is hard to envisage, some have suggested a committee of leading officials might emerge to rule Russia, at least in the short term. The death of Stalin in 1953, saw a short-lived Troika of Lavrenty Beria, Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov. But that didn’t last long. Khrushchev soon grabbed power for himself. It’s tempting to use historical precedents to predict the outcome of current events, though such methods are unreliable.

Interestingly, though, Gould-Davies, thinks that such a committee, might take a much dimmer view of the war in Ukraine, than their public declarations would suggest: “The centre of gravity of the elite is against the war. They have never liked it,” he said. Although the notoriously jingoistic Patrushev probably isn’t one of them.

Simon Smith, formerly with the UK diplomatic service in Moscow and Kyiv, and now on the Chatham House Ukraine Forum, agrees that support for the war among the elite and senior officials is patchy at best. “I can’t believe that there aren’t a lot of people who look at this war and who think it makes no sense.” He warns, however: “I think the most probable initial outcome when Putin goes, will be for his successor or successors to double down on the war.”

He agrees that a committee, rather than the emergence of a single supreme leader, to replace Putin is a distinct possibility. “The prime attraction of a committee is that it represents less instability and danger – to Russia and those involved,” he says.

How long would Khrushchev have lasted had he stuck his head above the parapet straight away?

But with a committee in charge, there might be scope for more discussion, dissenting ideas – and criticism of the invasion of Ukraine. “And Russia has shown itself to be capable of opportunistic U-turns,” he says, noting that police states don’t have to make as many apologies or explain themselves.

John Lough, a former Nato official and now associate fellow of the Chatham House Russia and Eurasia Programme, thinks it is possible to be a little more upbeat about Russia and its future relations with the West. “The end of the Putin era – whenever that occurs – is likely to create new possibilities to align Russian and Western security interests – but only if a future Russian leader concludes that Russia must build cooperative security relations with the West,” he says, in a report out this week. “The West must ensure that the tools of cooperation are available if Moscow wishes to use them.

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