To echo the statement in the introduction, this paper is not a forecast. It examines one tightly drawn scenario that looks ahead to the end of 2027. It draws two main conclusions. First, although core features of Russia’s state system would be largely recognizable on the basis of what we see today, even a managed succession to a post-Putin leadership would unleash considerable uncertainty. Second, and consequently, we can conclude that there would be a broad spectrum of plausible outcomes across the political, economic and foreign policy domains.
In the scenario under discussion in this paper, the author assumes a cessation of hostilities in Ukraine on terms that would be exceptionally favourable from the perspective of the leading Western powers. Even so, by the end of 2027, Russia’s state system would continue to represent a strategic challenge for Western decision-makers.
According to this scenario, a post-Putin leadership would almost certainly still define relations with the West in adversarial terms. There would be few convergent interests, even if a comparatively pragmatic and transactional leadership came to power. Potential problems would be qualitatively greater under a regime that was aggressively anti-Western and confronted core Western interests in Europe (for example, by means of hostile state activity, or undermining the sovereignty of Russia’s neighbours, first and foremost Ukraine).
Western governments would face formidable obstacles trying to understand the inner workings and decision-making processes of a state system that might be even more opaque and inaccessible by 2027 than it is today. Even in the relatively more benign potential outcomes described in this paper, it is unlikely that a future Russian leadership, in which the security services would be prominent, would be well disposed towards Western governments.
Communicating effectively with the leadership of such a system – in the interests of, first, pursuing effective deterrence and, second, reducing the risks of misunderstanding, misperception and miscalculation – would be frustrating, labour-intensive and time-consuming. Again, the challenge would be appreciably greater if a hard-line authoritarian and isolationist leadership assumed power. As now, engaging with Russian civil society would be problematic, perhaps significantly more so if a future regime imposed further constraints on the domestic information space as a whole.
Western governments would have to monitor the potential for instability in Russia. Economic underperformance might generate political strains – perhaps among elites competing for rents, or as rearmament sucked resources away from civilian sectors, or by adding to deep-seated regional and social problems. Nor, as already discussed, is there any guarantee that the transfer of power to Putin’s successor would be smooth, or that a new leader would be able to consolidate his regime as effectively as he might like – or, indeed, as effectively as one of the outcomes in this scenario assumes.