Has Vladimir Putin triggered a succession war?

Vladimir Putin speaking in a televised address to the nation.
Vladimir Putin's future is in doubt. Credit: AP

Can we imagine a Russia without Vladimir Putin?

For so long his grip on power has seemed unshakeable. And yet is it now time to think the unthinkable - the prospect of a power struggle that is of Putin’s own making? In other words; a Kremlin succession.

Putin has started not just a war in Ukraine but a war for his crown. That is the view of a former British ambassador to Russia.

Has Vladimir Putin triggered a succession war?

President Putin’s spokesman brushed off the suggestion — but admitted, “of course, we are all thinking about the future.”

ITV News spoke to six experts – long-time Kremlin watchers, current and former western officials and President Putin’s own spokesman – about the man who has ruled Russia for more than two decades.

Isolated, and perhaps increasingly paranoid after Covid, the Putin of 2022 is very different from the young, former intelligence officer pushing western values who was handed the Russian presidency.

 Putin’s broken promises

"The state will stand firm to protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of mass media," Putin pledged on a cold and snowy night in the final minutes of December 1999.

This was the new president’s first address to the Russian nation, promising a path out of the darkness and into a bright future based on the principles of democracy and reform.

Vladimir Putin promised freedom when he came to power in 1999. Credit: AP

It was a bold commitment. It had only been eight years since Russians threw off seven decades of repressive Communist rule, and the experience had been traumatic at best.

Freedom had brought severe hardship, rocketing levels of crime and an economy drowning in debt. The plummeting rouble rendered ordinary Russians’ savings worthless.

Yet Putin was resolute that the freedoms he articulated that New Year's Eve were "fundamental elements of a civilised society" - and that they would be his country's way toward "love and peace in every home" in the new millennium.

Twenty-two years later, Russia's leader has abandoned those principles, as he leads his country headfirst into another existential crisis - this time of his own creation. 

Instead of delivering on his promises, Putin has presided over a system in which his opponents have been murdered or jailed during brutal crackdowns. There is no freedom of speech.

Putin has now brought death and destruction to Ukraine and shattered the veneer of peace in Russia by mobilising his population; bringing the war to their doorsteps.

Under expanding western sanctions, Russia’s future possibly looks bleaker now than when Putin inherited it after the chaotic collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fiona Hill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and advisor on Russia to three US presidents, told ITV News that Putin took power, “promising prosperity and making Russia great again.”

The war in Ukraine has been dragging on since Russia's invasion on February 24 Credit: AP

“He did not promise unpredictability, lack of prosperity and destruction.”

Now, for the first time in many years, there are signs Putin himself may be under threat from his ill-judged war. 

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has “fundamentally changed the political and social contract in Russia in ways that make it much harder to keep the country stable and to manage intra-elite stability,” said Sir Laurie Bristow, British Ambassador to Russia from 2016 to 2020.

“I’m starting to describe this war now as leading into a war of Russia’s succession,” Bristow said.

“The bulldogs [Russian elites] are fighting under the carpet, and they're fighting over money and power and potentially access to force,” Bristow said.

The Kremlin sees no such danger.

“It’s not true,” Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, told ITV News. 

'Putin does not care about casualty figures'

The Russian opposition-in-exile calls the war in Ukraine the “meat grinder.” In recent months, Putin has called up 300,000 of his countrymen to fight and far more than that number have fled abroad.

The United States has said Russia has seen more than 100,000 soldiers killed or wounded in Ukraine.

There have been widespread reports of Russian troops being sent to war with almost no training, rusty weapons and being told to use female sanitary products instead of military first aid kits.

Outraged at mobilisation and the expectation that men could be plucked from their homes, or even the streets to fight, Russians defied harsh laws cracking down on criticism of the war to sporadically protest across the country, briefly, in September for the first time in months.

The war has been particularly bloody with analysts suggesting Russia has lost as many men in nine months in Ukraine as the USSR did during ten years of war in Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979.

“Putin does not care about casualty figures. This is his point of leverage,” said Ms Hill.

 Instead, Putin is said to be concerned with his popularity ratings.

Putin recently sat down with Russian mothers who had lost their sons in the war. Credit: AP

Worried about social unrest, the Kremlin “carefully watches the reaction of the Russian population,” to events in Ukraine, a former journalist in the Kremlin media pool told ITV News. 

“Putin is obsessed with his ratings. When his ratings are going down, he starts to hide from uncomfortable questions to remove responsibility for the failures.”

Possibly for that reason, Putin recently cancelled his annual press conference for the first time in a decade as the Kremlin faces growing unease over the war.

Shortly after invading Ukraine, Putin’s approval rating jumped significantly but since August, it has dropped, according to the Russian polling organisation Levada Center. 

Meduza, an independent Russian news organisation operating from Latvia, recently reported that a leaked opinion poll commissioned by the Kremlin showed only a quarter of people support continuing the war.

Although willing to send his countrymen to their deaths, Putin has severely limited his contact with the general Russian public since launching his war in February, possibly fearing a backlash from grieving families.

Putin recently met a group of soldiers’ mothers reportedly handpicked for their loyalty to the Kremlin.

In a highly controlled meeting, he tried to convince the Russian public that he cares about the men he has sent to fight and die - fuelling the narrative spun by state television that it is Russia’s Ministry of Defence, not Putin, which is responsible for failures in Ukraine.

At a table with individual teapots and sweet treats, Putin told the women he shared their pain before saying to one mother in an attempt at sympathy, "some people die of vodka, and their lives go unnoticed. But your son really lived and achieved his goal. He didn't die in vain."

Before leaving, he also warned the women they should not believe “fakes” or “lies” about the war on the internet or on television.

It was an indication that even Putin realises the cracks in his war are beginning to show.

Even in Russia, where state television beams the Kremlin’s narrative into homes across 11 time-zones, it has been impossible to completely cover up Russia’s failures in Ukraine.

Nor the fact that Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ to ‘denazify and demilitarise’ Ukraine has now entered its eleventh month.

Nor that, in November, the army had to abandon a regional capital which Putin had declared part of Russia not much more than a month before.

“Across the whole world and in our country too, the people who do this look like clowns,” Maksim Yusin, a journalist and political commentator said on a Russian television show.

“That clownery is now just indecent…I don’t know which part of the elite is responsible for this.”

The answer, of course, is Putin.

Putin started 'plotting' Ukraine invasion during Covid

While Russia was ravaged by Covid-19 and sustained some of the highest death rates in the world, Putin was accused by some Russian media as living in a bunker in a bid to escape the virus.

His press secretary, Peskov, denied the rumours and said Putin was working at his house outside Moscow in Novo-Ogaryovo.

During this personal lockdown, Putin wrote a five thousand word essay ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,’ published on the Kremlin website.

“He basically spent his whole time thinking about this,” Ms Hill said. “Covid changed him because he sat and stewed in his own juices. It's clear that he started really plotting this [the invasion] during Covid.”

Novo-Ogaryovo is close to central Moscow but it may as well be “on another planet,” one visitor told ITV News.

Describing it as “quite lonely,” they said guests must pass multiple security checkpoints before they reach the main buildings. During the pandemic, visitors reportedly had to quarantine for two weeks to see Putin face-to-face.

With fewer in-person meetings, Putin turned his attention away from the present and towards the past, said Hill, becoming even more obsessed with Russian history.

After the publication of his essay, President Zelenskyy of Ukraine joked he was “envious” that Putin had so much free time on his hands to write “such a volume of detailed work.”

“Covid hardened him,” said Ms Hill, pointing out that during the pandemic a number of key people left the presidential administration. “He got a lot less information that might come from diverse sources during that period.”

Putin uses the internet more as a “tool for surveillance” than for acquisition of knowledge, Ms Hill said.

With restricted access to information, some analysts believe Putin’s ongoing isolation during Covid may have exacerbated his natural paranoia.

As the former head of the FSB, Putin “has always been looking over his shoulder,” a Russian political scientist with knowledge of the Kremlin told ITV News.

“It’s a part of his mentality. His profession suggests conspiracy thinking should be there. Covid may have affected this.”

With a shrinking circle of aides and limited contact with the outside world, multiple analysts have speculated that the make-up of Putin’s advisors altered during Covid, setting in motion changes in the current balance of power around the Kremlin.

 Surrounding Putin: war-hungry hardliners

Putin has carefully curated a strongman image — flying a fighter jet, posing shirtless on a fishing holiday in the Siberian wilderness and showing off his judo moves with Russian Olympic athletes.

Now, for the first time in decades, his strength is being questioned.

Although CIA director William Burns joked in the summer that Putin was “too healthy,” there are swirling, although unverified, rumours Putin is ill — fuelling questions about infighting around the Kremlin.

“There's definitely a major crisis to the system,” said Ms Hill. “Putin over-stretched himself. Now people see he is fallible.”

Putin’s system relies on a strong leader who takes all the key decisions and can hold the country, and its elites, together. When faith in him falters, Russia’s whole system of government risks falling apart.

“We are certainly seeing signs that the elite do not think the war is going to plan and they are trying to assert themselves in different ways,” a senior western official said recently.

The Russian political scientist told ITV News that the “transition period has started in the sense that the balance of powers around the leadership is changing. Warlords are getting stronger and technocrats are getting weaker.”

“The president has always tried to keep an equilibrium between the two groups. Now, that might turn out to be impossible.”

As the power shifts around the Kremlin, two men who are vocal supporters of the war are making a bid for more influence.

Chechen Ramzan Kadyrov's influence is growing. Credit: AP

Evgeny Prigozhin, who runs the Wagner paramilitary group, and Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, are both long-time Putin supporters and have both committed forces to fight in Ukraine. 

Together, they “arguably have better access to Putin than some ministers from the economic block of the government,” the Russian political scientist said.

Prigozhin has been sanctioned by the US for his role in running a ‘troll factory,’ which spread disinformation online during the 2016 US election which saw Donald Trump elected.

He also recently visited a Russian prison recruiting men to be mercenaries in Ukraine. Kadyrov, known for his ruthless rule in Chechnya, has sent hundreds of his henchmen, known as the Kadyrovtsy, to Ukraine and has also vowed to send his teenage sons to fight.

Neither is the sort of man anyone in the Kremlin would want to have as their enemy - but both have been publicly allowed to criticise the performance of the Russian army in Ukraine. 

Kadyrov recently described a general who he blamed for defeats as “talentless,” saying he should be sent back to the frontline as a private and “made to wash off his shame with blood.”

Unlike Prigozhin and Kadyrov, the Russian political scientist said, the ministers and advisors dealing with the economic fallout of the invasion, “tend to take a more flexible and softer position.”

“We do not hear a lot from Mr [Sergey] Sobyanin, mayor of Moscow. Or people from federal ministries and agencies who deal with economic issues. They will not express opposition views, of course, but the fact that they do not discuss these issues directly might suggest they have reservations.”

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One recognisable figure mooted as making a bid for a bigger role is Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russian president from 2008 to 2012 in a job swap with Putin to allow the Russian leader to circumvent constitutional limits against serving three consecutive terms.

Now Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Medvedev may be angling for a promotion if Putin names a successor, two people who spoke to ITV News suggested.

“He is a consensus figure among Russian elites with money,” the former Kremlin pool journalist said, adding that groups close to Putin, including influential friends from Putin’s hometown of St Petersburg, see Medvedev, who is also from the city, as a potential option.  

Yet Medvedev is not immune to the impact of Putin’s war.

Once known in the west as a liberal moderniser, Medvedev has rebranded himself as a hardliner. He recently compared Russia’s struggle in Ukraine to a conflict against “Satan” and warned Moscow could send all its enemies into eternal fire.

Unlike President Putin, Medvedev is a prolific user of the internet and frequently uses his Telegram channel to transmit his bloody messages.

Watchers see this conspicuous display of loyalty as intentional and calculating.

Medvedev, the former Kremlin pool journalist said, “wasn’t electable among patriots and Russians who are in the pro-war camp. This rhetoric helps get through to them. That’s why he is putting all this stuff on his Telegram channel. It’s a very well-done electoral calculation.”

Although any mention of successors to the Russian president, including Medvedev, is possibly premature and highly speculative, analysts and sources who spoke to ITV News agreed that the fact that such discussion is even underway shows Putin is under immense pressure.

The next election is due in 2024. Credit: AP

Russia’s next scheduled election is in 2024 and the Russian constitution has now been re-written to allow Putin to be sworn in as president for a third consecutive term.

While no one seriously expects Putin not to stand if he is physically and politically able, even his spokesperson indicated it is a topic not currently under discussion.

“2024 is not an issue which is on our agenda. It’s not on the table. This is an issue for those politologists and other people who earn their money chewing over these topics,” Dmitry Peskov told ITV News.

“Of course, we are all thinking about the future. But this is not an urgent issue right now. We are preoccupied with different things,” Peskov added. 

Peskov did not elaborate on what those “things” might be. Among them on the Kremlin’s agenda, surely, is maintaining stability in Russia at a time when Russia has been slammed for its failures in Ukraine. 

“The stress on Putin must be acute right now. This is a war that he is completely responsible for and he knows that people will be out to get him,” Ms Hill told ITV News.

Putin’s gamble: who can take the pain for longer?

Faced with a shrinking toolkit of options for pursuing a war beset by supply problems, reportedly low troop morale and an economy under western sanctions — Putin is weaponising the weather. Even allies of Russia, such as China, have urged Russia to de-escalate.

Instead, Russia has relentlessly targeted Ukrainian energy infrastructure in a bid to freeze the country into submission, pressure Europe with sky high gas prices and another refugee crisis.

“His way out is to get everybody else to push Ukraine towards the negotiating table and to accept the [front] lines as they are now,” Ms Hill said.

“Putin thinks he can break everyone's resolve because the risks of nuclear war and escalation are too high that they [the west] can’t stomach the carnage.”

Sir Laurie warned that the consequences of capitulating to Putin are far greater than any hardships suffered from an energy and cost of living crisis.  

“If Putin wins, it means everything we have taken for granted about the security of the UK since 1945 no longer holds,” Bristow said.

“If a country takes it into its head to seize and take over another country and nothing gets done about it, it shows we are not willing to stand up for our own security.”

Although Ukraine has declared the war will be over by next spring, multiple Western officials have said they expect it to become a grinding “war of attrition” dragging on long into next year and possibly the year after.  

“Russia is seeking to break Ukrainians’ will to resist but also to raise the cost to us of supporting Ukraine,” Bristow said.

Putin, he said, “is clearly counting on time and ultimately western election cycles working in his favour.”

In November Mr Trump announced his third bid for the White House. Credit: AP

The US midterm elections have already revealed cracks in the resolve of Ukraine’s biggest donor to keep funding the war: a faction of the Republican Party is calling for a possible reduction in funds to Ukraine.

Donald Trump, dubbed the ‘Kremlin candidate’ by some media, will also run for the presidency again in 2024. 

“The chaos is already emerging with Trump in the United States,” said Ms Hill, who advised Trump while he was in the White House in her capacity as Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council.

Ms Hill testified during Trump’s first impeachment trial where Trump was accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine in order to get Zelensky to dig up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden.

President Zelenskyy leaves after attending a national flag-raising ceremony in the freed Izium, Ukraine. Credit: AP

Trump, who has criticised the large scale of aid the United States is providing to Ukraine, has previously boasted of his relationship with Putin and urged peace talks.

That could create the type of division and chaos the Russian president is counting on consuming the west politically in order to create opportunities on the battlefield that he can exploit.

“Putin’s calculation is to wait it out, increase the pain and work on public opinion,” Sir Laurie said.

“We should be ready for a period of turbulence, uncertainty and risk in dealing with Russia.”

The question is whether Putin can hold on long enough in Ukraine, and at home, for his strategy to work.

Putin’s weapons arsenal has been ground down by months of relentless strikes on Ukraine, forcing Russia to desperately source replenishments from Iran and North Korea.

The weather is also Putin’s enemy.

Putin’s soldiers reportedly have had to source their own socks and hats while, in contrast, Canada is sending millions of dollars of winter clothing to the Ukrainian army.

Shivering in trenches, fighting for a paycheck, some Russian soldiers are wondering why they are there at all. 

At home, however, Putin has successfully stifled dissent. He has used the war to intensify his crackdown against the Russian opposition - almost all of whom are now in jail or abroad.

The economy has been mobilised to support the war effort, increasing the influence of the defence sector over parts of civilian life.

Gambling on his army still occupying swathes of Ukraine’s territory and his ability to bear the pain for longer than the west, Putin still hopes to maintain an iron grip on power and to rule as president until 2036 — when he would be 83.

Only a fool would underestimate his survival ability, but his rule no longer looks as inevitable as it once did. 

“He still thinks he’s got game yet. You should never count him out.” Ms Hill said. 

“But people are starting to think whether it’s likely he will make it to 2036….the odds are not in his favour anymore.”