In the past year, Russian aggressiveness has led the United States to augment its military presence in Europe. Even though declining oil prices and a paralyzing degree of corruption and inefficiency have, for the time being, put a brake on Moscow’s ambitions, hostility will persist so long as Russian President Vladimir Putin is in charge. As a result, bolstering European security will remain a central component of America’s global strategy.
But what happens after Putin? While there are no serious challenges to his rule now, he is mortal. At some point, he will leave the scene. Historically, the departure of a strong autocrat has been a difficult, even dangerous time for Russia. As the intelligence firm Stratfor has noted, “The question now is whether Putin can set a system in place for his own passing out of the Russian leadership (whenever the time may be) without destabilizing the system as a whole.” Putin’s exit may not come for years, or even for decades. But when it does, the repercussions will be great.
Three post-Putin scenarios seem plausible. The first can be called the “Stalin” option, in which Putin institutionalizes his own policies, objectives and priorities, turning them into a sustainable ideology. As with the Soviet leaders who followed Joseph Stalin, there would be a significant degree of continuity. Change would be gradual, even glacial. The ideology of “Putinism” would be like Soviet communism without the Marxist facade, or in other words, reflecting Russian tradition: a kleptocratic, extractive economy designed to reward the loyalty of the supreme leader’s cronies while a robust internal security system stifles dissent. Putinism would sustain the belief that Russia has a right, even an obligation to dominate its neighbors. And it would continue the deep paranoia toward the West that justifies the extensive militarization of Russia’s foreign policy, as well as partnerships with any sordid dictator or authoritarian clique that also happens to be anti-Western.