from Center for Preventive Action and Europe Program

Leadership Change in Russia

Contingency Planning Memorandum 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov visit the Mulino training ground to observe military exercises in 2021. Sputnik/Sergei Savostyanov/Pool via REUTERS

Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in Russia does not appear as ironclad as it once did. Liana Fix and Maria Snegovaya recommend that the United States prepare for potential leadership change in Moscow and develop response strategies with its allies to mitigate fallout. 

February 15, 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov visit the Mulino training ground to observe military exercises in 2021. Sputnik/Sergei Savostyanov/Pool via REUTERS
Contingency Planning Memorandum
Contingency Planning Memoranda identify plausible scenarios that could have serious consequences for U.S. interests and propose measures to both prevent and mitigate them.

Introduction

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin looked set to stay in power for as long as he wanted. Under a series of constitutional amendments passed in 2020, he can stay in office until 2036, when he will be eighty-three years old. However, the war against Ukraine has turned into a stress test for Russia’s leadership and regime stability. The Kremlin has stabilized the political system after the mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the now-deceased leader of the private military company Wagner Group, and Putin remains popular (to the extent that approval ratings are meaningful in an autocratic society). However, internal Russian elite politics and competition are difficult to decipher from the outside and can lead to unexpected outcomes and surprising reshuffles. The Kremlin could be hoping to outlast U.S. and Western support for Ukraine, which appears less steadfast than once assumed, and to relieve internal pressure by presenting the war as turning its way. Yet domestic tensions are unlikely to disappear. The Russian economy will remain under strain, which will make tensions and elite power struggles more probable. Putin could still leave office sooner than many experts predict. Accordingly, the United States and its allies should anticipate the possibility of leadership change in Moscow, prepare to mitigate its harmful consequences, and manage its conceivable opportunities.

The Contingencies

Liana Fix
Liana Fix

Fellow for Europe

Maria Snegovaya
Maria Snegovaya

Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

Leadership change in Russia is not necessarily contingent on a decisive loss or any other particular outcome of the war against Ukraine. The causal relationship between leadership change in Russia and the course of the war could go either way, and the two events will likely cross-fertilize each other.

More on:

Russia

Vladimir Putin

U.S. Foreign Policy

The War in Ukraine

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. It is possible but unlikely that Putin will manage the succession, as he has forgone multiple opportunities in the past to appoint a successor. Leadership change will most probably be a top-down process set off by elite power struggles, rather than a bottom-up societal process. However, certain bottom-up dynamics could increase pressure on elites and push them to prematurely seek out alternative leadership. For example, a sudden deterioration of Russia’s economy or an unsatisfactory war outcome could lead to dissatisfaction with Putin’s performance among elites, triggered by the war’s ongoing political and economic consequences.

Putin’s successor is likely to emerge from within the current system.

Once a leadership change is underway, the United States and its allies should plan for the various types of politicians who could succeed Putin. Three scenarios are plausible: a radicalization scenario with a Yuri Andropov­–type successor, a retrenchment scenario with a Nikita Khrushchev–type successor, and a fragmentation scenario. A Westernization scenario, in which Russian elites oust Putin because he has isolated Russia from Europe as well as the Western world and replace him with a Western-oriented leader in the mold of Mikhail Gorbachev, is implausible because Putin has marginalized or coopted the liberal, Western-oriented faction among Russian elites.

The radicalization scenario (an Andropov-type successor)

A leader even more militant, radical, and/or ethnonationalist could succeed Vladimir Putin. In that scenario, the siloviki—Russia’s security and military elite—would come to regard Putin as a hindrance to a decisive victory over Ukraine, as well as an increasingly unreliable domestic manager. They would look within their circles for an alternative and empower that individual through their domination of Russia’s Security Council. The rise of a siloviki leader would be accompanied by domestic militarization, including societal and economic mobilization for the prosecution of military aims, as well as increased repression. In foreign policy, an Andropov-type successor would pursue a comparable approach or one even more hostile, confrontational, and escalatory toward the West, including threatening incursions into NATO territory or using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). That scenario resembles the rule of Soviet leader Andropov, whose short leadership (from 1982 to 1984) was marked by intensifying Cold War tensions and an increasingly authoritarian grip on Soviet elites and society. However, that possibility also includes potential backlash from less hard-line elites and society, as seen in the late Soviet Union when Andropov was succeeded by Gorbachev.

The retrenchment scenario (a Khrushchev-type successor)

In a retrenchment scenario, a less militant yet still autocratic leader comes to power and pursues a “Putinism without Putin” approach. That historically more probable outcome would come about if Russian elites wanted to keep the system intact but get rid of the worst excesses of the Putin era at home and abroad. The Khrushchev-type successor would prioritize economic recovery as well as domestic stability over confrontation with the United States and NATO, comparable to the initial phases of Soviet leader Khrushchev’s rule, which lasted from 1953 to 1964. Having come to power after Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin’s death, Khruschev pursued modest economic reform and, to this end, toned down escalation with the West at the beginning of his term. If the war against Ukraine is still ongoing in a retrenchment scenario, a Khrushchev-type successor would be open to compromise in return for economic benefits but would be unlikely to pull back Russian forces entirely, as he would not fundamentally change Russia’s adversarial relationship with the West. Compared to the militarization of politics and society under Putin, the level of domestic repression would be reduced. Redistribution of economic assets among the state-dependent elites would likely remain a critical factor in sustaining the regime. Oligarchs and elites with Western connections would play a greater role in pushing for de-escalation. However, that scenario also includes possible pushback from the siloviki or a more hawkish turn from the new leader, as occurred toward the end of Khrushchev’s term.

The fragmentation scenario

In this scenario, leadership change would fragment federal power and erode control over Russia’s regions. The outcome would be an inward-looking Russia occupied by domestic tensions and center-region disputes. An erosion of federal power is historically linked to a weaker Russian role internationally, which could benefit Ukraine and the West. However, there is also a possibility of dangerous unpredictability in foreign policy, as losing the federal center’s monopoly on violence can multiply regional centers of violence and weaken control over military assets and weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. A fragmentation scenario can emerge via two pathways: economic crisis or violent clashes among elites. It can also result from an unsuccessful radicalization or retrenchment scenario, in case an Andropov-type or a Khrushchev-type successor is unable to hold onto power.

More on:

Russia

Vladimir Putin

U.S. Foreign Policy

The War in Ukraine

In the case of an economic crisis, a dramatic collapse of energy revenues would lead to a financial shock reminiscent of the 1990s. Top-down pressures by the elites and bottom-up pressures from an economically deprived society would lead to a leadership change, likely placing a weak figure on top who is unable to consolidate Russia’s economy and political control. That would cause the Russian federal center’s grip over the regions to gradually loosen. Russian regions would contest the federal center’s power as financial revenues ran dry, going as far as delegating previously centralized security functions to regional private military companies (PMCs).

In the case of elite battles, an unsuccessful attempt at removing Putin from power would likely lead to violent clashes between rival factions backed by different security and paramilitary forces. Such clashes would occur if one faction attempted to overthrow the incumbent leader with the help of security forces but without a critical and broad enough mass of conspirators and faced resistance by forces loyal to Putin. Violent elite battles in Moscow and beyond would ensue. The disorder at the center of the system would spread across the country, where regional political and military groups would either pick a side or assert their own position against a weakened leader, leading to fragmentation.

Each of those three scenarios can change over time and morph into an entirely different scenario under internal and external pressures. Identifying in real time while events are unfolding which specific scenario and leader the West is confronted with—and how durable a new leadership will prove to be—will require the United States to carefully observe events over an extended period of time with limited insight into Russian elite dynamics. Leadership change should be understood as a process—beginning with discontent and ending in a period of consolidation—not just a moment in time. Although it is difficult to assess the probability of each scenario, judging by past leadership changes in Russia and the Soviet Union, radicalization and fragmentation are less probable than retrenchment.

Russian elites who initiate a leadership change will run great risks for themselves and for the system’s stability. To act, they would need to believe that the Kremlin can no longer guarantee their security and prosperity, and see the Kremlin instead as a threat to their political survival. A successful change in leadership will require elite coordination amid conditions that specifically constrain collective action. Unexpected events, such as a military setback or economic shocks, can create moments of weakness for the regime and a window of opportunity for dissatisfied elites. Alternatively, Russian elites could initiate a leadership change in case of a real or perceived sudden or long-term deterioration of Putin’s health. Although that scenario is a possibility, the following warning indicators focus on political instead of natural causes of leadership change, as they are more challenging to monitor and anticipate.

Leadership change should be understood as a process—beginning with discontent and ending in a period of consolidation—not just a moment in time.

Historically, most scenarios of leadership change have necessitated military or paramilitary force. Therefore, leadership change in Moscow will potentially require one or more security forces switching loyalties to sideline smaller factions and counter the risk of the incumbent leader fighting back or of a conspiracy being detected early. That dynamic would make a violent form of removal more likely than nonviolent forms (such as resignation). The current leadership’s suppression of internal criticism and systematic promotion of misinformation—including about the strength of its own regime—can also lead to a misinterpretation of signals and violent overreactions.

Russia’s lack of functional institutions creates a major hurdle to solving a leadership or succession crisis neatly and peacefully. To add legitimacy to an attempted leadership change and reduce the risk of instability, conspirators could use the veneer of a legal pathway within the Russian constitution. The constitution would place the prime minister, currently Mikhail Mishustin, in power for three months, after which elections would confirm the preferred candidate. An alternative route to the constitution would be to use the Security Council as a legitimizing support mechanism, especially for a leader from the siloviki.

Warning Indicators

The end of Putin’s regime will be foreshadowed by several traceable indicators for leadership change. Those can be divided into two categories: top-down indicators and bottom-up indicators.

The most important top-down indicators are those pointing to dissatisfaction and a power struggle among Russia’s elite and between elites and the current leadership. If elites within the government grow dissatisfied with Putin’s leadership, a significant uptick in resignations can be expected (although those need to be agreed upon by the leadership), resulting in new appointments, position rotations, and other notable shuffling. Further discernable signs of infighting among entrenched elites include defections, leaked conversations (which could even include attacks on Putin), or public statements by prominent members who typically stay quiet. Power struggles will also be observable through economic behavior, such as capital flight, withdrawals by large companies’ owners and stakeholders, large-scale sales of property and stocks, and property raids and seizures. In response to growing discontent among economic and security elites, the regime could launch a series of purges. A sign of insecurity would be to allow no anti-war candidates to run in the March 2024 Russian presidential elections, as appears likely.

The most important bottom-up indicators pertain to deteriorating economic dynamics, which prompt regional dissatisfaction. A drop in the Kremlin’s energy revenues could lead to a sharp economic downturn and budgetary cuts for social services. Depleted Kremlin reserves (such as the National Wealth Fund) will make it harder to provide basic living standards for the public. Inflation, ruble collapse, declining real wages, and decreases in spending will be particularly important indicators. In contrast, unemployment is a less reliable signal of instability, as it will probably remain low due to wartime mobilization and emigration.

Although the Kremlin has been showering Moscow with money in past years, providing for more distant regions will become more challenging for the center if resources grow scarcer. The earliest warning indicators will thus presumably emerge on the regional level. Declining approval ratings for regional and local authorities, regional budget deficits, and social protests (directly or indirectly supported by regional authorities) beyond the usual zones of instability, such as the North Caucasus, could signal dissatisfaction. Regional elites could seek cooperation with each other against the federal center. Regional businesses will suffer as the economy shrinks and will experience raids and property seizures.

The earliest warning indicators will presumably emerge on the regional level.

If perceptions of the center losing control over the regions spread to the local level, regional PMCs could grow in influence. Finally, if the war against Ukraine is still ongoing, or has paused or ended in a dissatisfactory way, a combination of military failure and budget pressures could reinforce a negative economic dynamic. Mounting casualties, dissatisfaction in the army, leading to possible mutinies, and, in particular, expansion to general mobilization, or the introduction of martial law could increase dissatisfaction and add to the bottom-up pressures on elites.

Implications for U.S. Interests

Leadership change in Russia could either undermine or advance U.S. interests. Each of the three scenarios above offers a different trade-off between risks and opportunities. A radicalization or fragmentation scenario would undermine three important U.S. interests: protecting NATO allies and partners, especially Ukraine, from Russian aggression; preventing regional instability; and ensuring the safety of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, and upholding nuclear nonproliferation.

  • The United States has an interest in protecting Ukraine against Russian aggression and shielding NATO allies and partners against belligerent or unpredictable Russian behavior. Such behavior could include an intentional or unintentional Russian provocation of NATO allies, as well as Russian sabotage of critical infrastructure and malicious activities in the United States, Europe, and globally. It could also include aggressive actions against Georgia, Moldova, or in Central Asia. If a leadership change transpires during the war against Ukraine, more aggressive or unpredictable behavior could include escalating the war through a general mobilization in Russia or using weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.
  • The United States has an interest in preparing for and addressing potential regional instabilities as a result of leadership change in Moscow. Regional instabilities in a radicalization scenario could include a flare-up of protracted conflicts in Moldova and the western Balkans. Instability in Belarus or Central Asia could occur in all leadership change scenarios. Leadership change could also create a power vacuum that other actors (including China, Iran, and Turkey—especially in the South Caucasus) could try to fill at the expense of U.S. interests in those regions.
  • The United States has an interest in ensuring the safety and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Especially in a fragmentation scenario, if Russia’s federal center and its monopoly on violence is weakened, that interest will become more challenging to protect. In the case of more aggressive Russian foreign policy, Russia could deepen its cooperation with Iran and North Korea at the expense of supporting and upholding the nuclear nonproliferation regime.

A retrenchment or fragmentation scenario also offers opportunities to advance the following two U.S. interests: de-escalating and stabilizing Russia-West relations, especially in Ukraine, and using economic leverage for positive change in Russia.

  • The United States has an interest in more restrained Russian foreign policy behavior and de-escalation toward Ukraine and the West. In a retrenchment scenario, Russia could be more willing to moderate its approach to the West and—if the war against Ukraine is still ongoing when leadership changes in Russia—to engage with the West instead of widening the war. However, with a Khrushchev-type successor, any concessions from Russia will only come in exchange for Western economic concessions (such as sanctions relief), which have to be carefully balanced.
  • In case of a fragmentation scenario triggered through economic crisis, the United States has an interest in exploiting opportunities to influence Russia’s development and potential political liberalization and democratization through economic leverage. In the best case, the United States can use that leverage to push for rebuilding functional and independent Russian institutions.

Preventive Options

Preventing leadership change in Russia is not in the power of the United States, nor is it necessarily in U.S. interests, as what could follow is unknown. However, examining how the United States could respond to such change is still worth exploring. Putin has antagonized the West and launched a war of aggression against Ukraine. The longer Putin has stayed in power, the worse Russia’s relations with the West have become. Putin has many stakes in the war against Ukraine, and 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. The United States can choose to adopt different approaches if leadership change in Russia occurs.

The United States and its allies can proceed with calculated restraint. That option would involve choosing detachment and adopting no outward policy or preference toward the different scenarios of leadership change that could emerge. The United States would in this case pursue utmost restraint in its direct and indirect actions, as well as communications, out of concern for accusations of outside meddling by hard-liners and a domestic backfiring in Russia. Although the United States has historically adopted such a reactive stance to domestic change in Russia, pursuing utmost restraint and adopting no outward policy toward any scenario of leadership change has disadvantages. Staying out entirely limits the United States’ room to maneuver. For example, if a retrenchment scenario and Khrushchev-type successor is more in U.S. interest than an Andropov-type successor, the United States needs to find ways to shift the balance in favor of one scenario over the other and to influence the outcome in advance rather than at the time when a leadership change is already underway, as it could be too late by then.

Instead of calculated restraint, the United States and its allies, without getting involved directly, could also take an approach based on indirect messaging. That approach would try to shift the balance in favor of a preferred scenario—for example, a Khrushchev-type successor instead of a more hard-line Andropov-type successor—by proactively crafting an optimistic message of a future less autocratic Russia and of less antagonistic Russia-West relations. Such a message would signal the benefits that would arise for receptive parts of the elites and society through domestic change and stabilized relations with the West and offer incentives. To ensure the credibility of such incentives, they should focus on achievable steps and economic improvements in the Russia-West relationship instead of on broad political goals. By conveying that message, the United States and its allies would outline an alternative to current politics in Russia. Even if the chances of success are low—as Russian elites and society are traditionally a weak force of change in Russia—the costs of indirect messaging are low, and only limited resources would be involved. The concern that indirect messaging could be viewed as outside meddling in Russia and backfire is understandable, but even when the United States has pursued utmost restraint in the past, Russia has still accused it of domestic meddling anyway when useful for propaganda.

The final option involves direct engagement. The United States would become actively involved in Russian domestic politics to encourage a preferred outcome. That, however, involves extremely high risks and costs, as it would amount to an active regime change policy that, apart from a significant probability for failure, would lack legitimacy within Russia and is therefore undesirable. Instead of engaging in regime change, or staying out entirely, the United States should choose the second approach of indirect messaging to influence some elite and societal groups’ calculus in favor of one scenario over another.

Leverage for the United States lies in Ukraine, not in Russia. A strategic defeat in Ukraine does not necessarily predicate which of the three leadership change scenarios will emerge. However, though not the only pathways to increasing domestic pressures in Russia, a defeat or multiple military setbacks in Ukraine are the most likely ones to do so. Therefore, a decrease or halt of Western support for Kyiv would not only endanger Ukraine’s existence, but also limit possibilities to influence domestic change in Russia and embolden aggressive Russian foreign policy in Europe and beyond. The United States should therefore continue to arm Ukraine forcefully and decisively, and ideally increase its own and its allies’ contributions to contain Russia regionally and globally.

Mitigating Options

In case of a suboptimal scenario of leadership change emerging in Russia, policymakers should be prepared to mitigate harm, especially in the case of a radicalization or fragmentation situation. The United States has different options for how to prepare for potentially damaging consequences.

The first option is to pursue and refine such preparations as discreetly as possible within the U.S. national security community through contingency planning, interagency exercises, and intelligence collection. The advantage of that strategy is that it would protect the United States from accusations of desiring regime change in Russia, avoid potentially difficult conversations with allies and partners on Russia strategy when most of the bandwidth is rightly focused on Ukraine, and help preserve resources needed for such preparations. However, the downside is that those preparations and recommendations, if limited to the U.S. national security community alone, would only involve allies and partners in discussions once a scenario of leadership change is already underway in Russia. As timing and alliance unity will be of the essence in any U.S. reaction to leadership change, that could be too late to start consensus-building with allies and partners. The run-up to Russia’s war against Ukraine has demonstrated how important a consensual approach is to exert maximum pressure on Russia instead of the United States acting unilaterally.

The second and preferable option is therefore to engage in broader preemptive preparations and discussions with allies and partners, including joint contingency planning, allied exercises, and intelligence sharing, on domestic developments in Russia as well as leadership change scenarios and respective Western responses to mitigate the risks and manage the opportunities. Leadership change in Russia would likely represent the most important and consequential opportunity for the West in decades. However, alliance disagreement or fallout over the appropriate Western response is highly probable, especially in case of a retrenchment or fragmentation scenario. Coordinated preparation with allies is therefore key to success and to maintaining transatlantic unity.

Recommendations

The United States and its allies have invested massively in Ukraine’s defense, not only guaranteeing Ukraine’s survival, but also increasing domestic pressures on Putin. Weakening Western support for Ukraine would put both aims at risk. Although the Kremlin has been able to stabilize its grip on power and to uphold the popularity of Putin, a sudden and surprising leadership change in Moscow initiated from within the Russian elite is not implausible (as demonstrated by Prigozhin’s munity, for example), and the United States should anticipate and prepare for that possibility. Yet, the United States needs to recognize that, although the potential repercussions of a leadership change can be hugely significant, U.S. influence will be limited.

Leadership change in Russia would likely represent the most important and consequential opportunity for the West in decades.

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. To advance those goals, U.S. policymakers should take the following steps.

Overall Recommendations

The U.S. intelligence community should ensure high prioritization and allocate more resources to monitoring Russian domestic politics. In particular, it should focus on dynamics beyond the top tier of elites and enhance its capacities to monitor warning indicators for leadership change. It should periodically reassess the list of indicators, targeted actors, and ways of gathering intelligence.

The United States and its allies should continue to put pressure on Russia to change its behavior. It should inflict costs for Russia’s war against Ukraine, acknowledging that a reduction or halt of Western support for Ukraine would embolden Russia to behave even more aggressively, and contain destructive Russian behavior in the region and beyond. That includes bolstering NATO defense capabilities; reinforcing sanctions design, compliance, and enforcement mechanisms; and, most important, continuing and increasing military and financial support to Ukraine throughout the duration of the war, which remains the most significant leverage the United States and its allies have to increase domestic pressure on the Russian leadership.

The United States and its allies should promote a favorable vision of a less autocratic future Russia and of less antagonistic Russia-West relations, aimed at receptive Russian elites and society. A less autocratic Russia is in the interest of the United States because it is likely to be more accountable to its own population and thus more restricted in its foreign policy ventures. As opposed to staying out of Russian domestic developments entirely, such messaging can incentivize receptive parts of the society and elites in order to shift the balance toward a favorable leadership change scenario in Russia. The United States should make those groups aware of the potential benefits of a productive relationship with the West and offer credible incentives. Those incentives should focus on encouraging achievable steps, including a de-escalation between Russia and the West and in Ukraine and possible economic benefits. It should, however, not prevent Russian accountability for the war, including the question of reparations and prosecution of perpetrators.

The United States should closely monitor how a leadership change could affect the Russia-China relationship. Russia and China have been constantly deepening their partnership. It will be important for the United States to find ways to limit a strengthening of China through its growing access to Russian resources (energy) or strategically important regions (for instance, the Arctic). Although the United States cannot likely pull Russia away from China (even if a Khrushchev-type successor could offer this possibility to the West), opportunities can emerge to work with China to constrain more aggressive or unpredictable Russian behavior that is not in China’s interest, such as nuclear escalation. In case of a potential Sino-Russian split emerging from bilateral tensions under a new Russian leadership, the United States can potentially benefit strategically.

Manage Opportunities

The United States should cautiously approach opportunities that could emerge in the retrenchment scenario with a potential Khrushchev-type successor. That successor could offer limited de-escalation toward Ukraine and the West in return for Western economic concessions. Priorities should remain maintaining the unity of a transatlantic alliance, as well as supporting Ukraine’s victory against Russia and protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The United States should coordinate in advance, and build consensus with its allies on, a long-term Russia strategy by launching a high-level discussion of leadership change scenarios. A particular challenge for the United States in a retrenchment scenario would be to prevent a fragmentation of alliance unity, as some allies could prematurely reach out to a Khrushchev-type successor, fearing a missed window of opportunity, while others could be skeptical of any opportunities at all. To prepare for that scenario, a discussion on long-term Russia strategy and leadership change scenarios should include a discussion of a task division, as well as joint contingency and crisis planning and intelligence sharing. Past experiences of leadership transition in Russia, such as the one between former President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin in 2012, have demonstrated the difficulties of staying united on common strategic goals once the domestic political context changes in Russia, even if the assessment of a new leadership changes over time. That experience underlines the importance of advanced alliance coordination. To make sure that a new Russian leadership cannot exploit European allies’ remaining vulnerabilities, that approach should also include decoupling of European economies from their remaining dependencies on Russian resources (such as nuclear fuel and products).

The United States should carefully balance potential Russian offers of de-escalation in a retrenchment scenario against any gradual changes in Western sanction regimes linked to Russia’s war against Ukraine. A partial relief of sanctions in return for Russian concessions in Ukraine or toward the West should be realistically weighed against the risk of strengthening the Russian economy and renewed aggression. In addition, such a concession should only be agreed upon in close coordination with Ukraine and alliance partners, and attach strict conditions, such as an automatic snapback mechanism in case of a violation. The United States and its allies should engage multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations or the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to codify—through rules, institutions, and mechanisms—the minimum conditions that need to be fulfilled to trigger and reverse (partial) sanctions relief. Also, Western actions should only be based on traceable policy change, not just softening leadership rhetoric.

The United States should exploit opportunities to influence Russia’s development through economic leverage. Such an approach would prove especially important in a fragmentation scenario triggered through economic crisis.

Mitigate Risks

More aggressive leadership in a radicalization scenario will likely ensure a renewal of Russia’s international assertiveness. Heavy personnel and equipment losses in a prolonged war in Ukraine will limit the Kremlin’s ability to conduct high-intensity conventional military operations of a similar scale over the next few years. However, most experts agree that Russia can rebuild its military within five to ten years.

The United States should preemptively coordinate with allies to strengthen NATO unity and defense capabilities in preparation for potential domestic changes in Russia. That coordination will be especially important in the radicalization scenario. The United States should assist allies in bolstering their capabilities to counter Russian conventional strengths, including unmanned aerial vehicles and air-and-missile-defense capabilities. The United States should also increase its military presence or encourage its European allies to station more forward troops in Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States. The scenario will also necessitate a significant ramping up of U.S. and, especially, European weapons production. Beyond conventional operations, nonlinear challenges, such as Russian subversion and sabotage and cyber and disinformation ops against NATO members, have to be addressed.

The United States should continuously strengthen Ukraine as a bulwark of Euro-Atlantic defense, and explain that endeavor in a polarized domestic context as an investment in its own national security. As a radicalization scenario could result in a widening of the war or an expanded attack on Ukraine, the United States should invest in security guarantees and consistent, large-scale military weapon deliveries to Ukraine (in particular, air defense systems to counter Russian missile strikes) with legally binding and lasting commitments. A well-outlined path toward Ukrainian NATO membership can also function as a deterrent to renewed Russian aggression.

The United States should invest in military-to-military channels of communication with Russia—in coordination with its allies and other states—to stress the importance of nonproliferation and maintaining the safety of Russia’s WMD arsenals. Such investment will minimize the risk of Russia using weapons of mass destruction in the radicalization scenario, as well as ensure the safety of Russian nuclear and WMD arsenals in the fragmentation scenario. It should also discourage Russia from deepening cooperation with Iran and North Korea.

The United States should pay special attention to non-NATO states neighboring Russia, such as Moldova and countries in the South Caucasus. The example of Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh has demonstrated their vulnerability, and conflicts could erupt in the Belarus, Central Asia, and the western Balkans. Those conflicts could occur in all three scenarios through an absence of Russian power or through direct Russian aggression and attempts at stoking instability. The United States should strengthen ties with those countries where feasible, develop contingency plans about how to react to escalatory action, and prepare for the possibility that other actors (China, Iran, or Turkey) will move into emerging power vacuums.

The United States should identify potential zones of instability within Russia on the regional level. Based on historical precedents, those could include ethnically non-Russian regions (especially in the South Caucasus), poorer regions, and large developed urbanized centers (Moscow, Novosibirsk, or St. Petersburg,). It should also consider the possibility that outside actors such as China or Turkey could be interested in exploiting fragmentation within Russia.

The United States should treat security in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific not as mutually exclusive, but as mutually reinforcing. Mitigating the risks of a radicalization or fragmentation scenario will be particularly challenging as it will require a commitment of additional resources in Europe when the United States is also trying to address security concerns in the Indo-Pacific. However, both goals require a substantial increase of investment in Western defense capabilities to signal U.S. willingness to protect the rules-based international order.

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. They should begin discussions with allies to develop a strategy for different types of possible successors to Vladimir Putin. A retrenchment scenario could offer opportunities for Ukraine and Russia-West relations, whereas the risks of a radicalization or a fragmentation scenario need to be mitigated. If the United States fails to develop a contingency plan with its allies, it risks unnecessary division and delayed response.                 

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