If Vladimir Putin is ousted or when he dies, the Russian government likely to emerge at least in the near term would not be the liberal, democratic and peaceful one in which so many are placing their hopes. And in the short term, such a regime almost certainly would behave even worse toward Ukraine than Putin has.
There are three reasons for such conclusions, all of which should be carefully attended to by those who in Russia, Ukraine and the West who despise what Putin has done and what he represents, will welcome his departure as a necessary step, but who have come to believe that his departure alone will mark a turn to the better in all respects.
That is likely to be so in the longer term, given the history of successions in the Kremlin, a history that suggests each new leader will ultimately choose to legitimate himself by denigrating or worse his predecessor. But that same history suggests that the successors are unlikely to make such changes as quickly as many would like.
First, the coalition that appears to be forming behind the scenes consists of the so-called “siloviki,” senior officials of the security services and the military.Many of them are more cautious than Putin has done because they know better than he the costs of invading and annexing part of a neighboring country.
But not all of them are: many of the “siloviki” believe that Putin has failed to act in ways that would have brought Moscow a victory in Ukraine, and they will push for more aggressive moves in order to prove their point as well as to justify an increased role for themselves in the constellation of a post-Putin regime.
And whether they are in the cautious or the aggressive camp, they are not liberals and they are not democrats. They are part and parcel of the authoritarian regime which was never completely dismantled in 1991 and which has been restored with extreme vigor by Putin over the last 15 years.
Hoping that they will suddenly see the light is a dangerous delusion.
Second, those who may be angling to push Putin out have an even more compelling reason for taking aggressive action in Ukraine and perhaps elsewhere as well. If they were to back down immediately, many in Russia would be unwilling to accept them as legitimate. Instead, most Russians would view them as people the West had somehow installed.
The West, of course, would have nothing to do with such a change should it occur. But Russians, fed with Putinist propaganda about the supposedly “all-powerful” Western security services and their ability to create “fifth columns” and overthrow governments via “color revolutions” as in Ukraine, would likely find it hard to believe that.
Consequently, even those who would like to get out of the Ukrainian morass would see a further move there, perhaps involving the seizure of Mariupol, as being necessary to their immediate survival in office and thus support it even if in the longer term they would be willing to yield on this point.
And third, any such post-Putin regime would not cease to be a Russian one. It would be interested in promoting its understanding of Russian national interests, and its members would undoubtedly conclude that given what looks to the to be the West’s feckless response to his challenges, they would benefit by continuing part of his strategy even if they rejected some of it.
Moreover, any such regime would almost certainly further tighten the screws on its own people lest they try to exploit the uncertainty that any leadership change in that country always produces.For the Russian people, the first weeks and months could be worse as well, even if in the longer term, things would likely get better.
Indeed, given that many in Western governments would be so pleased by any indication of a change of heart in Moscow – even a minimalist and superficial one – as has been the case up to now, those in a post-Putin government would at least at first likely continue to test the limits rather than pull back more than they might be willing to do later.
Consequently, as pleased as many would be with the departure of Putin from the political scene, all of them should keep in mind that despite what is likely to be a media circus on that event, his exit alone will not usher in a new heaven and a new Jerusalem.It is far too early to celebrate. It is absolutely necessary to remain vigilant.