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Moscow succession: What would happen if Putin dies?

Thyroid cancer, Parkinson’s disease, leprosy or declining in the aftermath of a stroke – just a few of the many unproven ailments rumoured to have afflicted the Russian leader in recent years.

Just this week, the Kremlin were forced to deny rumours that Vladimir Putin had suffered a cardiac arrest in his bedroom, months after they were forced to deny that he had soiled himself.

Since gripping the reins of power in 1999, Putin has established himself as one of the most infamous politicians in modern history, with a vicelike grip over Russia.

His current term is set to expire next year, yet under sweeping changes to the constitution that were introduced in 2020, he could rule Russia until 2036.

Yet since his invasion of Ukraine and the loss of tens of thousands of his troops, the fallout of his military gamble has caused cracks to appear for the first time under his 20-year leadership. Speculation has also dogged the ageing tyrant that his health is failing, with the future of Russia uncertain upon his demise.

In June, he faced the greatest threat to his hold on power, after his former ally Yevgeny Prigozhin mounted an armed rebellion and called on his forces to march on Moscow to oust Russia’s military command.

Once known as ‘Putin’s chef’, Prigozhin held great influence following the invasion of Ukraine as the owner of the Wagner private military contractor. His growing criticism of the military leadership made him a credible threat to Putin’s regime, with the dictator vowing harsh consequences for his “betrayal” and “treason”.

Just two months after his aborted mutiny, Prigozhin died in mysterious circumstances while aboard a plane flying between Moscow and St Petersburg.

While this dramatic opposition to the Russian leadership was swiftly quashed, it posed questions about the future of the country’s leadership, and who stands in line to replace their authoritarian leader.

His family

Unlike other dictators throughout history, Putin’s family are not in the running to replace him, with very few details known about their relationship with the president.

Famously secretive about his personal life, his 30-year marriage to flight attendant Lyudmila Shkrebneva ended in divorce in 2013 amid speculation about his extramarital affair with retired gymnast Alina Kabaeva.

While it is unknown how many children he has welcomed since the breakdown of his marriage, he had two daughters with Ms Shkrebneva, Maria Vorontsova, 36, and Katerina Tikhonova, 35.

Neither have any involvement in politics, while he refuses to name his grandchildren in public, telling a reporter: “The thing is, I don’t want them to grow up like royal princes, I want them to grow up to be normal people.”

During one of his rare personal interviews in 2015, he said of his daughters: “My daughters live in Russia and studied only in Russia, I am proud of them,” he said. “They speak three foreign languages fluently. I never discuss my family with anyone.”

Mikhail Mishustin

If Putin were to die or abruptly step down, the Russian Federation Council has 14 days to call early presidential elections. If it fails to act, the Central Election Commission would call it, while prime minister Mikhail Mishustin would serve as acting president in the interim.

He is considered by some however to unlikely option to become a permanent placement, given his lack of popularity with Putin’s inner circle of ‘yes men’.

According to the BBC, Mishustin had the “unenviable task of rescuing the economy but has little say over” the Russia-Ukraine war, with sources close to the Kremlin saying he was unaware of Putin’s intentions for a full-scale invasion.

Speaking to The Independent, Dr Mark Galeotti said: “Constitutionally, he takes over when the president is dead or incapcitated, he would be incumbent. He’s a classic technocrat choice. I could see that happening, but there are other candidates who would fill the same niche.”

Dmitry Medyedev

Known as one of Putin’s closest allies, Dmitry Medvedev has been tipped as one of his potential successors. He had previously held the role of president from 2008 to 2012, before stepping aside in what was later revealed to be a prearranged deal.

Once considered by the West as a moderate voice within the Kremlin, he has developed a reputation as Putin’s bad cop, referring to Ukrainians as “cockroaches” and making increasingly bellicose nuke-related threats.”

The former law professor held the role of Prime Minister from 2012 to 2020, before becoming the deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia.

Over the years however, it is believed that his subservient role under Putin has weakened his own ability to consolidate power amongst Russia’s elite.

Sergei Kiriyenko

Other names mentioned to take the leadership helm include Sergei Kiriyenko, who has served as First Deputy Chief of Staff since 2016, and is known to be a member of Putin’s closest inner circle.

With his involvement over the newly annexed Ukrainian territories, he is understood to have daily access to the president, and maintains good relations with all major key players among Russia’s political elite.

Dismissing his chances of ever coming to the forefront of Russian politics however, Dr Galeotti said that he served better as a “backroom” operator.

Sergei Shoigu

Given the humiliating trajectory of the Ukraine war, Sergei Shoigu is no longer a likely choice to be announced as Putin’s predecessor, despite his position as one of Russia’s most influential men. The defence minister had once been voted the most popular politician after Putin, and is known to be close with the reserved leader, often spending summer vacations together.

“Before the invasion, I would have absolutely said Shoigu, but his reputation has now been tarnished with the invasion,” said Dr Galeotti.

“He’s still got relatively high levels of public support and trust, and he is a phenomenal behind the scenes operator. The days where he could have been president may be over but as a kingmaker, he could still be really influential.”

Nikolai Patrushev

The secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Patrushev has known Putin since they worked together in the KGB, and was a major strategist in both the 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine.

The 71-year-old is reportedly “one of the few figures Putin listens to”, while his son Dmitry has also been rumoured as a potential successor to Putin given his position as agriculture minister.

Other suggestions have included Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, former bodyguard Alexei Dyumin and chief of staff Dmitry Kozak.

“It’s going to have to be someone who could create a coalition, who is able to be acceptable to both the technocrats and the security elite,” Dr Galeotti said. “It will quite likely not one be one of the big beasts, precisely because of the need to build a coalition.”

“I think actually the Russian system will cope with the crisis quite quickly and swiftly and we’ll see the next political elite looking to end the war in Ukraine and the confrontation with the West. Putin will quite likely become the scapegoat for all that wrong.”


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