In the United States, there’s a pretty straightforward plan of succession if a president dies in office. The vice president takes over, but if they can’t or die in office themselves, the speaker of the House of Representatives take over, followed by the president pro tempore of the Senate, then the chain of succession makes its way through the president’s cabinet, starting with the secretary of state (via USA).
On the other side of the world in Russia — more specifically, Vladimir Putin‘s Russia — the chain of succession is clear on paper, but there are so many other factors at play that muddy things.
According to Britannica, Putin has been in power in some way or another for two decades. He became the President of Russia in 1999 and served until 2008 when he became the nation’s Prime Minister. He took over as president once again in 2012 and has held the position since then.
What is the official Russian chain of succession?
In 2020, Vladimir Putin introduced a series of changes to Russia’s constitution that many believed were intended for him to maintain power after his presidential term ends in 2024.
Part of these changes involved getting rid of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev — a former Russian president himself — and his cabinet. Medvedev was replaced by a relatively unknown tax official named Mikhail Mishustin. According to Business Insider, Mishustin would take over the presidency on an interim basis for 90 days, or until an election is held.
Many observers believed that appointing Mishustin, who is seen as being unambitious and with few backers aside from Putin himself, was a strategic play by Putin. Political analyst Kirill Rogov told the Associated Press at the time that these changes that Putin could be trying to set up a government that mirrors one used by China. "Such a model resembling the Chinese one would allow Putin to stay at the helm indefinitely while encouraging rivalry between potential successors," he said.
Putin is trying to retain power
While Russia’s official plan of succession is in place, Putin seems to be trying anything he can to stay in power longer. According to Business Insider, that’s why many believe he tapped Mishustin as his successor because he would be easy to control and less likely to challenge Putin’s authority. The thought is that if Putin vacates his position as president, Mishustin would take control of presidential matters, while Putin either takes over as Prime Minister again or crafts a new position for himself.
Putin is believed to have done this once before. According to the Associated Press, Putin chose Medvedev as his successor in 2007, then Medvedev named Putin the new prime minister. This caused some turmoil as this was done without any elections or input from the public. Many also consider Putin to have remained in charge during this time, even if Medvedev held the presidential title.
Could Putin stay in power for life?
Not only could Putin stay in power, many believe it’s his only option. The thought is that at this point, Putin is in over his head and that a peaceful transfer is almost impossible.
According to the Associated Press, Alexei Navalny is one of Putin’s harshest critics, and in 2020 when Putin unveiled his plans to rework the structure at the top of the Russian government, said that Putin can’t change his ways and that history indicates dictators like Putin rarely if ever ride off into the sunset into retirement.
"The only goal of Putin and his regime is to stay in charge for life, having the entire country as his personal asset and seizing its riches for himself and his friends," he said.
Business Insider quotes Navalny as saying, "Do you see a lot of Mafia bosses decide, after decades of stealing and killing, to retire quietly to some beach house with all their money? How about narco-traffickers? Also think about the major dictators … How many of them end their reigns with a peaceful retirement?"
The possibility of being overthrown
By carefully choosing his successors, Putin can limit the possibility of a coup. "Having a political heir is an invitation to a coup in most authoritarian structures like organized crime. And letting that heir build their own independent political and power base through legitimate authority almost guarantees one," an anonymous Western European intelligence official told Business Insider.
This is why many saw the appointment of Mishustin as a bit of a tell as far as Putin’s intent to hang on to power. If the next person in line to the presidency is seen as someone who lacks political ambition and has few powerful allies within the government, the likelihood of an internal power struggle becomes highly unlikely.
According to the Daily Mail, in that Putin is overthrown a suitable replacement could be Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu. He’s a highly regarded as a politician and his acumen when it comes to military strategy has earned him some of the highest praise of any Soviet or Russian commanding officer since World War II. However, Shoygu was involved in decision making that led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a significant stain on his resume.
A power struggle could ensue if Putin dies
"The Death of Stalin" is a 2017 movie that told the story of Soviet Union politicians jockeying for power after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The movie is a dark comedy, but the anonymous Western European intelligence official who spoke to Business Insider, said that in all likelihood art would imitate life, and the results would be a political mess for the nation and its political landscape.
"It will be ‘Death of Stalin,’" they said. "The oligarchs that selected Putin have been destroyed by Putin, he set about doing that first," said the Western official. "We have our eyes on some people at the higher levels of the security services and army that we think could be contenders to win a struggle but until Putin is gone or greatly diminished it’s always going to be nearly impossible. He’s intentionally making sure there’s never any clear candidates."