The U.S. Should Prepare for the Possibility of Leadership Change in Moscow, CFR Report Argues

The U.S. Should Prepare for the Possibility of Leadership Change in Moscow, CFR Report Argues

February 15, 2024 11:27 am (EST)

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As the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine nears, a new Contingency Planning Memorandum from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) explores the possibility of the end of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

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In “Leadership Change in Russia,” CFR Fellow for Europe Liana Fix and Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Maria Snegovaya write that “given the omnipresence of the state, the weakness of Russian civil society, and historical precedents, Putin’s successor is likely to emerge from within the current system . . . Leadership change will most probably be a top-down process set off by elite power struggles, rather than a bottom-up societal process.” 

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Fix and Snegovaya identify three potential post-Putin leadership scenarios:

  • radicalization with a Yuri Andropov-type successor—“A leader even more militant, radical, and/or ethnonationalist could succeed Vladimir Putin.
  • retrenchment with a Nikita Khrushchev-type successor—“A less militant yet still autocratic leader comes to power and pursues a ‘Putinism without Putin’ approach.”
  • fragmentation—“Leadership change would fragment federal power and erode control over Russia’s regions.”

The authors consider a Westernization scenario, in the mold of Mikhail Gorbachev, to be implausible since Putin has marginalized or co-opted the liberal, Western-oriented faction among Russian elites.

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Despite the uncertain outcome, the authors argue that “leadership change can benefit the United States and its allies and partners, in particular Ukraine, especially if (historically likely) the next Russian leadership is less invested in continuing the war in Ukraine and more open to making concessions. However, any scenario of leadership change will involve a trade-off between opportunities and risks.”

While “leadership change in Russia is not necessarily contingent on a decisive loss or any other particular outcome of the war against Ukraine . . . the two events will likely cross-fertilize each other,” they write. “Moving forward, the United States’ primary goals should be to protect NATO allies and partners, first and foremost Ukraine; to contain Russia in the region and globally; and to mitigate harms associated with the radicalization and fragmentation scenarios. At the same time, it should manage the opportunities that can arise from the retrenchment scenario.”

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Fix and Snegovaya recommend that to prepare for possible scenarios of leadership change in Russia, the United States should:

  • “ensure high prioritization and allocate more resources to monitoring Russian domestic politics.”
  • “continue to put pressure on Russia to change its behavior” and “inflict costs for its war of aggression against Ukraine.”
  • “promote a favorable vision of a less autocratic future Russia and of less antagonistic Russia-West relations, aimed at receptive Russian elites and society.”
  • “closely monitor how a leadership change could affect the Russia-China relationship.”

“The United States and its allies should start planning for potential leadership change in Moscow by identifying more and less favorable scenarios and ways to indirectly influence the outcome in line with U.S. interests,” Fix and Snegovaya conclude, while “if the United States fails to develop a contingency plan with its allies, it risks unnecessary division and delayed response.”

Contingency Planning Memoranda produced by CFR’s Center for Preventive Action analyze potential crises and distill practical recommendations about how the United States can prepare for, prevent, and mitigate against potential consequences.   

Read the CFR Contingency Planning Memorandum, “Leadership Change in Russia,” online at cfr.org/report/leadership-change-russia.  

To request an interview, please contact CFR Communications at [email protected]

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