The Russian president is about to be reelected for another six years. What will that mean for his country and the West?

5 Scenarios for Russia After Putin’s Next Term

This weekend, Vladimir Putin will win another election as Russia’s president. The election will, of course, be rigged in Putin’s favor, just as all of his past elections have been, but Putin is all but assured to claim another six-year term, taking him to at least 2030.

Yet for all that inevitability, Putin’s next term as president has been the focus of surprisingly little discussion, including what it is likely to mean both inside and outside Russia. And that’s all the more surprising given that Putin’s regime is arguably more destabilized now than it’s ever been, with little end in sight for Russia’s growing economic troubles or the spiraling deaths on the battlefields of Ukraine. Since last summer alone, Russia has seen a sudden mutiny, led by a renegade militia that nearly marched on Moscow; rampaging anti-Semitic riots, with security services nowhere to be found; and protests erupt in normally placid places like Bashkortostan.

No one can say what these events portend. But it’s clear that the war in Ukraine has helped make Russia’s domestic situation more unstable than it’s been in decades, and all kinds of potential future scenarios are no longer unthinkable.

So it’s a good time to think about them. In at least considering the paths below — and the likelihood of their arrival in the not-too-distant future — the West can begin preparing accordingly, especially in terms of strategy and policy. We know much about Russia’s past and plenty about Russia’s present. But what about Russia’s future?

Below are five scenarios that Russia might (or might not) experience by the end of Putin’s next term in 2030.

While Alexei Navalny may have been the most prominent leader of democratic movements in Russia, killing him will hardly eliminate pro-democratic energies in the country.

While Alexei Navalny may have been the most prominent leader of democratic movements in Russia, killing him will hardly eliminate pro-democratic energies in the country. | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Democracy Flowers

Why It Might Happen: As the anti-communist, anti-colonial revolutions in 1989 across Eastern Europe illustrated, totalitarian regimes can rest on quicksand and quickly crumble in the face of democratic movements. Putin’s disastrous decision-making in Ukraine has already had unforeseen knock-on effects, which will only continue to generate discontent moving forward — and more interest in potential alternatives, including outright democracy.

And that was true even before Alexei Navalny’s suspicious death in prison. While Navalny may have been the most prominent leader of democratic movements in Russia, killing him has hardly eliminated pro-democratic energies in the country. With Navalny transformed from a campaigner into a martyr, such momentum for democratic reform — even democratic revolution — might actually begin building anew. As a prisoner, Navalny was out of sight, and largely out of mind for most Russians. But as a symbol of the lengths Putin’s regime will go to snuff out any opposition, Navalny may now become something more.

Combined with the other protests still gurgling around Russia, not least those organized by soldiers’ mothers and wives, a sudden burst of democratic momentum around the country is now possible. Nothing would be more of a testament to Navalny’s life, and to Navalny’s legacy.

Why It Might Not Happen: As much as many in the West would like to see a full flourishing of democracy in Russia — whether led by Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, or someone else — the likelihood of such a scenario playing out before 2030 is minimal. And that was the case even before Navalny’s death. Now, with the leader of Russian democratic hopes suddenly snuffed out, any chance at rallying Russians to a democratic cause has almost certainly died with him, at least for the foreseeable future.

Just look at where Russia is. Navalny is, in many ways, irreplaceable, just as jailed pro-democratic figures like Vaclav Havel or Nelson Mandela before him were irreplaceable, and whose countries’ democratic transformations happened only after they were freed. The rest of Navalny’s pro-democracy infrastructure has been effectively undone, stamped out by Putin’s repression. And even with the shock of Navalny’s death still settling, the Russian body politic has hardly evinced any interest in liberal democracy anyway. Rather than rallying to his cause, many have simply shrugged their shoulders at Navalny’s demise, and gone on with their lives. The same goes for hopes of rising opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; even two years into Putin’s disastrous war, the majority of Russians are still passively, if not actively, supportive of the unprovoked invasion.

What the West Should Do: The best hopes for a democratic Russia lie, perhaps ironically, not in Russia itself, but in Ukraine. Just as colonial failures in places like Angola and Algeria led to democratic, post-imperial reforms in places like Portugal and France, so too could a Ukrainian victory kill off Russian nationalism and Russian revanchism — and finally spur the kind of democratic flourishing Navalny called for.

If this scenario does come to pass, it’s incumbent on the West to return to an old strategic staple: trust, but verify. Don’t get overexcited about Russia’s democratic prospects — a mistake far too many in the West made in the 1990s — but encourage what you can. Be open to lifting sanctions and hydrocarbon price caps, but only in return for concrete reforms and prosecutions of Putin-era officials. All the while, keep building out relations with Russia’s neighbors and former colonies, places like Moldova and Armenia.

Perhaps above all else — and as sacrilegious as it may sound right now — don’t put your hopes in a single leader. Navalny was the clear lodestar for Russian democratic hopes, but even he had his nationalist weaknesses, claiming, for instance, that Crimea is rightfully Russian. If nothing else, Navalny should be the last singular Russian figure so many in the West place hopes of democratic reform on — a belief that has burned the West in the past and that led the West to miss just how ingrained Russian imperialism still is.

A Dagestan officer kicks the body of a Chechen fighter in the village of Pervomaiskaya after the Russian grueling assault on Jan. 19, 1996.

A Dagestan officer kicks the body of a Chechen fighter in the village of Pervomaiskaya after the Russian grueling assault on Jan. 19, 1996. | Serguey Chirikov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia Disintegrates

Why It Might Happen: Picture this: on the back of a devastating war, with hundreds of thousands of Moscow’s troops slaughtered in a meaningless fight, Russians turn out to protest en masse, and overthrow an aging, doddering regime. Long-buried frictions and frustrations ripple across the country and a nation supposedly united under the steady hand of Moscow suddenly splinters along ethnonationalist lines. Chaos sprints across the nation, which collapses into a mixture of anarchy, territorial fragmentation, and violence that leaves no region, and no family, untouched.

Sound farfetched? Think again. This is, after all, precisely what happened in Russia in the late 1910s and early 1920s, when the tsarist collapse ripped apart the Russian Empire, with peoples and polities across Eastern Europe and the Caucasus and northern Asia all declaring independence — only for most to eventually be gobbled up by a rising Soviet regime.

This is also what we saw following the Soviet collapse (albeit with far less violence), when new nations claimed their sovereignty following the USSR’s collapse — and not just in places like Ukraine or Kazakhstan. Residents in Chechnya voted for clear independence, while those in Tatarstan voted for equal footing with the Russian Federation. Residents in places like the Siberian nation of Sakha signed agreements for an independent army, while residents in the Buddhist nation of Tuva unleashed anti-Russian violence that bordered on outright pogroms. State fracture — and independence for nations long colonized by Moscow, but still largely unfamiliar to the West — stalked the Russian Federation.

Could it happen again? Perhaps not immediately. But Russia remains a conglomerate of 21 republics, dozens more regions, and even more nationalities with uncountable grievances against Moscow. The longer the war continues — and the more these colonized minorities are tossed into Putin’s meat grinder, slaughtered at far higher rates than ethnic Russians — the likelihood of such a scenario increases. Perhaps in the republic of Chechnya, its leader — an increasingly unhealthy Ramzan Kadyrov — dies in office and infighting over a successor spirals into a third Chechen War. Perhaps in Muslim-majority Tatarstan, veterans’ committees and local students gather to protest both Moscow’s recruitment of Tatar infantry and smothering of Tatar identity — and the Kremlin, in a fit of failed strategy, opens fire on the protesters, sparking a broader anti-colonial movement. Or perhaps, in Sakha, the unemployed storm and seize control of Russian hydrocarbon infrastructure, demanding the funds be returned to their colonized nation, and demanding the sovereignty they agreed to in the early 1990s.

Why It Might Not Happen: Many Russian analysts still view this scenario as farfetched, given Putin’s grip on power. And they’re not necessarily wrong; aside from Chechnya, no clear thirst for outright independence is evident, even in those nations watching their men be massacred in Ukraine. Recent protests in places like Dagestan and Bashkortostan, for instance, weren’t solely about independence but included economic and environmental grievances as well.

Still, dismissing this scenario out of hand would be unwise. All it takes is a spark, and the tinder that Putin has built up over his quarter-century in power could go up in flames — a likelihood that only grows alongside Putin’s disaster in Ukraine.

What the West Should Do: The West should stay flexible and remain mindful that the Russian Federation is hardly a homogenous entity. It should encourage democratic forces around the country, including in those that emerge in nations long colonized by Moscow, while training far more speakers of languages like Chechen, Sakha and Tatar. It should also lean on those who successfully safeguarded the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal during the Soviet collapse, making sure their expertise is implemented yet again. And it should prepare to be comfortable with territorial reorganization across the Russian Federation — a country that still refuses to recognize its own colonial legacies, which are only going to become more trenchant as the years pass.

While Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group never quite reached Moscow, that wasn’t for lack of opportunity

While Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group never quite reached Moscow, that wasn’t for lack of opportunity; if anything, the path was wide open. | Vasily Deryugin/Kommersant Publishing House via AP

Nationalists Rising

Why It Might Happen: A year ago, the idea that a renegade militia led by a frothing nationalist could nearly march on Moscow, sending Russian officials scurrying for cover, was fantasy. Not that it hadn’t been done before; the so-called “Kornilov Affair” of 1917, and even the failed hardliner coup of 1991, showed what a move could potentially look like. But under Putin, the idea that Russian nationalists might congeal and storm Moscow long seemed laughable.

And then, last June, militia head Yevgeny Prigozhin did just that. And while Prigozhin’s Wagner Group never quite reached Moscow, that wasn’t for lack of opportunity; if anything, the path was wide open. If Prigozhin accomplished anything, it was that he made Putin look like a tsar with no clothes.

Of course, Prigozhin is no longer around — his plane exploded over Russian airspace a few months later, killing him and much of his inner circle in what is widely assumed to be Putin’s retribution. But all of the ingredients that fueled Prigozhin’s rebellion are still there: frustration with Putin’s bungled invasion; the ongoing stripping of Russia of men and material in order to continue a quagmire; and the kind of spiraling wealth inequality that’s launched populists and revolutionaries around the world before.

For those reasons, this appears to be one of the likelier scenarios facing a post-Putin Russia. The flames of nationalism, stoked by Putin, will hardly subside anytime soon.

Why It Might Not Happen: Still, a scenario like this is hardly inevitable. Prigozhin himself was almost one-of-a-kind — a chef-turned-oligarch willing to publicly break with Putin’s cabinet, and even insult the president himself, all while building out a globe-spanning militia from Ukraine to central Africa. At the moment, there’s no other force that can compare to Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, much of which has been dismantled and subsumed by the state.

Plus, if anything, Putin is only getting more nationalistic as the war drags on, leaning further and further into outright fascism. Outflanking Putin from the right is only going to get more difficult, especially as he continues descending into the world of nationalistic conspiracies.

What the West Should Do: If and when a more nationalistic figure or cadre replaces Putin, the West should continue to strengthen and expand sanctions, lower the hydrocarbon price caps, build out diplomatic and security relations with Russia’s neighbors, especially those (like Ukraine) directly targeted by Russian nationalists — all of it part of a broader package of policies. Call it, if you will, containment — a policy that helped hem in Soviet expansionism and could once more help to rein in an expansionist Moscow.

Smoke rises from a building in Bakhmut

Smoke rises from a building in Bakhmut, site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. | Libkos/AP

A Technocratic Reset

Why it might happen: We’re now two years into Moscow’s failed invasion of Ukraine, and the impact in Russia is already obvious. And those costs, whether in terms of a sagging economy or spiraling body counts, will continue piling up. Which is why the idea of an inner circle of Kremlin officials meeting with Putin and informing him that they appreciate his service, and that they wish him well in retirement — a redux of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1964 ouster, in other words — is a scenario only rising in likelihood as time goes on.

Indeed, there’s a distinct likelihood that by 2030, a new regime will emerge in Russia. (Not that it needs to lead an internal conspiracy against Putin; the aging dictator could, of course, just die in office, and save us all the trouble.) The new government wouldn’t be democratic, necessarily. But it would be headed by a small number of Western-trained, technocratic elites, who would start out saying many of the things Western officials and businessmen, eager to get back to a kind of status quo antebellum, love to hear. They would put much of the blame for the war on Putin alone, promising a return to a sense of normalcy in Moscow. They might go so far as to free certain political prisoners and opposition politicians, or even rescind Putin’s 2022 announcement of annexations in eastern Ukraine (though not Crimea).

All the while, they would call for something that many Western politicians would welcome: “reset.” A chance to start over. To start fresh. And to pledge a new Russia moving forward.

Why It Might Not Happen: With apologies to Isaac Newton, there’s an iron law of authoritarianism: a dictator in power tends to stay in power. In other words, wresting control from a dictator like Putin always requires significantly more planning, energy and resources than the incumbent leader needs to thwart any internal conspiracy. It’s not that surprising, when you think about it, given that a dictator like Putin still holds all the levers of the state — and cultivates competition among his underlings, who would be eager to rat out any anti-Putin plotting. Toss in the fact that Putin still appears to have wide support among Russian officialdom — not least because, given the state of the war in Ukraine, Russia might actually win — and hopes of a Khrushchev-style ouster are hardly a safe bet.

What the West Should Do: If this actually were to happen — if a new, technocratic elite manages to wrest control from Putin — the West’s policy formula should be a flip of the strategy for actual democratic transition. That is, the West must distrust, but verify. If nothing else, Western officials should remember that every time a “reset” approach with Russia has been pursued, the West ended up appearing foolish, myopic, or both. For that reason, any calls for a renewed “reset” should be treated with severe skepticism. And while democratic reforms should obviously be encouraged and incentivized — especially as it pertains to lifting restrictions on civil society or Russia paying reparations for Ukraine — any improvements should be treated as temporary. After all, we’ve seen this story before, and we’ve seen how, time and again, it ends.

Vladimir Putin’s grip on power still appears strong — but there are plenty of factors that will make his next term far different

Vladimir Putin’s grip on power still appears strong — but there are plenty of factors that will make his next term far different, and potentially far more difficult, than anything he’s seen previously. | Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Long Live President Putin

Why It Might Happen: This was always going to be the likeliest scenario, wasn’t it? Barring unforeseen health events, and especially given the U.S.’s newfound squeamishness on backing Ukraine, Putin can look at his new presidential term as something that he will likely serve out entirely, and potentially far beyond.

And understandably so. With the death of Navalny, the democratic opposition is in shambles. The Russian economy, despite a barrage of Western sanctions, has hardly collapsed, even if it’s turned sluggish. Although Putin hasn’t conquered Kyiv, the worst of the Ukrainian war may yet be behind him, especially given the U.S.’s reticence to arm Ukraine. And compared to American presidents, at just 71, Putin’s still got (relative) youth on his side.

He’s already become one of Russia’s longest ruling leaders, with plenty of presidential terms behind him. Looking ahead to 2030, why would anything change?

Why It Might Not Happen: Putin’s grip on power still appears strong — but there are plenty of factors that will make his next term far different, and potentially far more difficult, than anything he’s seen previously. Take the economy. While Putin’s managed to ride out the sanctions against Russia thus far, the economy as a whole is clearly heading for both stagnation and rising inflation. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, Putin’s missteps have already resulted in staggering casualty numbers. Either ingredient would be enough to threaten any leader, no matter how authoritarian. Escaping the vise of both is going to stretch Putin’s dictatorial toolkit further than ever before.

What the West Should Do: Ratchet up the pressure, wherever and however it can. Continue and enhance the sanctions, including against third parties in places like the United Arab Emirates that are helping Moscow skirt sanctions. Strengthen the hydrocarbon price caps, which have already drained revenue to the Russian state, and seize outright all of the frozen Russian Central Bank assets. Deepen partnerships with those on Russia’s periphery, especially as it pertains to encouraging democratic developments.

And, perhaps most of all, recognize that so long as Putin remains in power, Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine will continue, with threats of far broader warfare hanging in the offing. The West should use every tool it can find to force Russians — both those in the Kremlin and the broader populace itself — to realize how much better off they, and the rest of us, will be when Putin is no longer in power.

Source: Politico