As Vladimir Putin's end increasingly seems near (political or physical), the battle to replace the Kremlin strongman heats up. Here are the main characters in this very Russian blood sport.
Today, Russia deservedly ranks among the most isolated and inhuman regimes in the world. And it's not just because of the war — this is the result of two decades of political and moral degradation of the Russian state.
The clans surrounding Vladimir Putin today resemble organized crime groups.
Some of them command their own armies, like Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin and the head of the Rosgvardia, Viktor Zolotov. Others, like Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Security Council, have security units.
And each clan has its financial resources — banks, state corporations and large companies. Some clans own entire regions, like Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya.
None of them are subject to any law.
The Kremlin arbitrator
These clans have never been united. For 20 years, they have been constantly fighting each other for spheres of influence and resources. Their wars could be conventionally called cold wars: They were waged in the shadows by law enforcement agencies, and the victims — security officers, business people and officials of opposing clans — have lost their freedom, not their lives (although there have been exceptions).
In all these years, Vladimir Putin has acted as a kind of arbitrator in the conflicts of his entourage. He has provided a precarious balance of power among the warring factions because each knew that, without Putin, there would be no balance, and a war of all against all would break out.
But nothing weakens the power of a dictator so much as aging and military defeats.
As Vladimir Putin's end nears — be it political or physical — the clans’ cold wars for power are more likely to escalate into hot wars. And in the battle for the place of the aged alpha male of Russia, the winner will not be one clan, but the one that can create the most powerful coalition.
Brutality vs. intelligence
The outlines of one possible coalition have emerged after several months of the war in Ukraine: an alliance between Prigozhin and Kadyrov. Their tandem can join the clan of Rosgvardia director Viktor Zolotov, who has known Prigozhin well since the days of the "bandit Petersburg" and is in close contact with the leader of Chechnya. Let us call this trio a "coalition of the bloodthirsty." Its advantages: brutality, decisiveness and their powerful joint army.
Another coalition that could emerge during the struggle for the throne is the alliance of the most influential people — Vladimir Putin's friends and fellow KGB members. Let's call it a "coalition of cronies." Whatever the contradictions that tear apart all these Kovalchukes, Patrushevs, Tokarevs and other Timchenkos, they, too, feel threatened by the "coalition of the bloodthirsty.”
If such a coalition were to emerge, its unconditional advantages would be enormous financial resources (these people own all of Russia) and control over the special services — which, although inferior to the "army of the bloodthirsty" in terms of offensive power, have a much greater intelligence and intellectual potential.
Vladimir Putin at a state awards ceremony in the Kremlin
Hatred of the ruling class — and Ukraine
Finally, a third association — which appeared immediately after the outbreak of war in Ukraine but has not yet found its leader and final structure — is the "coalition of patriots." Its members have yet to recognize themselves as a community, but the war has awakened common values, hatred and aspirations.
The "coalition of patriots" hates the Russian ruling class for its corruption and military defeats; it also rejects the "coalition of the bloodthirsty" for their connections with the current government, criminals and Chechnya.
This coalition has enormous advantages. It opposes the current government's corruption and supports the complete destruction of Ukraine — a view that aligns with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the Russian population.
The "coalition of patriots" is a dark horse in the Russian Game of Thrones, and its success largely depends on who becomes the leader.
The cronies v. the bloodthirsty
The "coalition of the cronies" guarantees the least bloodthirsty fate: Leaders and active members of the opposing clans have the most to fear. The future of Russia will fall in the hands of the children of the current elite — young people who are more likely to choose their favorite parties in Monaco and Courchevel ski slopes over the idea of turning the country into another North Korea, with a never-ending war on the border.
Instead of fear, Putin is treated with disdain.
Suppose the "coalition of patriots" wins. Russia would inevitably face a military dictatorship, because victory on the front requires a firm hand and a ruthless war on traitors at home. No one knows how long this dictatorship would last — North Korea has been in this state for more than 70 years.
Should the "coalition of the bloodthirsty" win, the West and China will have to answer a tricky question: Will they be ready to accept one of the largest nuclear arsenals of the world ending up in the hands of a beautiful trinity: a strangler of women who leads a sadistic orchestra with a sledgehammer, a former presidential security guard known for his cognitive abilities and a Chechen academic who likes torture and extrajudicial executions?
End of the road for Putin
However this Game of Thrones will end, it is already clear that Vladimir Putin will not play a significant role in this series. He has experienced the worst thing that can happen to a dictator: instead of fear, he is treated with disdain.
He threatens the West with his missiles, and the West caricatures him as a monkey hanging over a nuclear button. He writes hours-long speeches, which his press secretary promises the whole world will scrutinize — but the world passes by, as if he were a madman raving about the end of the world.
He poses as the alpha male in his pack, but even its newest members call him a coward who "demonstratively fears for his life in a big, hard war." Faced with this stigma, the end of his career or his life is creeping closer.