The overwhelming majority of discourse on political transition in Russia has so far focused on the future of the leadership; whether or not Putin is ill, whether or not there will be a popular revolution or a coup that will bring him down, whether or not there will be a nuclear escalation that will end us all and end the need for any future elections here or in the U.S.

President Putin’s campaign has answered some of these questions by going into full-on campaign mode for the 2024 presidential election.

Putin presumably is neither terminally ill nor planning to go out with a bang in any violent manner.

However, the political continuity of the head of state may be less relevant to Russia’s future than the discussion of military and social transition once the war against Ukraine comes to a conclusion.

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It might be worthwhile for the U.S. and NATO policymakers to refocus on the larger picture. A recent discussion with Andrey Piontkovsky, a Russian scientist, political writer and analyst, points to areas of concern and opportunity for the Western opponents of Putin’s policies, which could result from the rapid fragmentation of Russia’s defense . The schism within Russian defense circles will likely only deepen over time.

Proliferation of Russian private armies in Ukraine

Piontkovsky addresses the increasing number private militias that are active in Ukraine as evidence of the increasingly sectarian, disunited nature of Russia’s military strategy.

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These militias have grown from small groups of special operatives, affiliated with the private security agendas of particular powerful figures around Putin, into serious paramilitary structures that function as private armies at the behest of these figures. 

The impact of these various private efforts is to openly challenge official Russian military forces and to foster the sense of a lack of control over defense matters by Putin himself.

The most brazen of the lot has been Yevgeny Prigozhin, the funder and founder of the Wagner private military company, who, some believe, stands the greatest chance of becoming Putin’s political successor.

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Prigozhin has not merely devoted Wagner to particular military campaigns inside Ukraine, he has also challenged the entire international community by openly parading his war crimes, like with video footage of a defector’s public execution. 

Just as importantly, Prigozhin has repeatedly attacked the Russian military, implying that they are weak and fail to live up to Russia’s cultural “macho” image and expectations.

These open insults would have normally landed someone like Prigozhin in hot water with Putin.

However, Russia’s weakness in Ukraine and the silence from the Kremlin shows that Wagner’s presence is indispensable to official efforts.

There’s also Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s Chechen Republic, who has cut a deal with Putin for de facto independence in exchange for public displays of fealty, such as symbolic posturing and dedication of some troops towards assassination campaigns against Volodymyr Zelensky.

Notably, Kadyrov has kept his best fighters to himself and gone further than Prigozhin by appearing to challenge Putin personally when the former failed to appear for his annual New Year’s press conference. Instead, Kadyrov held one of his own for the first time.

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Other lesser known efforts include Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s private army, and a new outfit by an oligarch named Gennady Timchenko.

All of this points to several observations.

First, all these challengers of the ancien régime are clearly looking past Putin’s leadership and past the war in Ukraine.

They consider the war lost; the recent comments by Prigozhin and others point to a desire to “close up shop” in Ukraine, to wrap up what many consider a military misadventure and to move on to “real business,” which includes defending their own ill-begotten wealth, vying for remaining money that has not yet been confiscated to benefit Ukraine or squared away in hidden accounts abroad, divvying up huge natural resource reserves, such as nickel, and production factories, and otherwise engaging in the same type of financial machinations as what Russia had seen during the privatization drive following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There’s more to the story, however, as all of these players have agendas that go beyond Russia’s borders.

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Prigozhin’s Wagner has been an active player, albeit with limited success, in Syria and Africa. It has sought to prop up local regimes; gain access to natural resources, such as rare earth minerals, energy sources, and especially gold; stop waves of Islamist jihadists; and displace France as a source of power, particularly in West African countries.

Wagner has thus far suffered embarrassing losses against ISIS-linked terrorist groups in Mozambique and elsewhere; its security failures have been noted in Mali, where it had temporarily succeeded in forcing out France, but where it may fail ultimately to get its contract renewed.

Burkina Faso, which also broke its ties with the French, likewise decided not to employ Wagner. These global ambitions speak to a quest for great political power, rather than just supporting a defense role on behalf of Prigozhin.

Yet other parties likely harbor a similar outlook and intention to expand their efforts abroad in the near future.

Second, the splintering of Russian military strategy speaks to Putin’s increasing weakness and ineffectiveness.

Political assassination, however, may not be in the works, not only because Putin still has a tight grip over the internal security apparatus, but because as a weakened political leader he is convenient to many and is likely to cut deals with these assorted factions and forces.

Prigozhin and others may be less concerned about attaining the status of head of state and consolidating centralized power than about broadening and succeeding in their own agenda.

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Close ties to government resources is essential to that goal, whereas national interests and a grand strategy is not.

Therefore, we are likely to see Putin’s continuing symbolic presence in the political echelons, yet with a sharp divide between political control and military control.

Splintered Russian forces mean that Russia as a state will lose military significance, but various players and agendas will gain influence in different spheres.

However, that does not mean potential for liberalizing reform inside the country.

On the contrary, Russia is likely to turn towards a more authoritarian direction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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