Vladimir Putin's strategy has always relied on pitting his rivals against each other; by keeping a divided house, he has prevented them from uniting to usurp him. However, since invading Ukraine, Putin may have overplayed his hand in a high-stakes game that could cost him his Presidency, if not his life.
For more than two decades, Putin has successfully pitted the different segments of his potential rivals against each other: Russian military against Russian intelligence; different factions within Russia’s elite against each other; now, private military companies, such as the Wagner Group, against the regular Russian army.
The critical flaw in Putin's strategy was to think that he had created a political ‘perpetual motion machine’ – that would forever keep him and his regime in power. But now his plans are floundering and he doesn’t seem to realize it, because like most dictators he has as an ‘Achilles heel;’ his own hubris.
Putin's pride has blinded him to the failures of his war, the discontent rising in the ranks of his army and the unspoken exasperation of Moscow's elite. Putin has yet to recognize that, like those other leaders, who fell to unexpected coups in the past, he is only useful to the elites and society, as a whole, for as long as he is able to meet their needs and demands. For years, Putin was credited as having "provided stability following the chaos of 1990s Russia." Now the President has become the epicenter for Russia's 21st century chaos.
Putin is not running a "hermit" country, such as North Korea, totally cut-off from the outside world. Rather, he has facilitated the rise of dozens of billionaires, many who now have their own "private military companies," who now see the reality of Russia’s position in the world and have both the means and the motivation to end the House of Putin.
Putin will not live forever. Many Russians now see it as irrational to put all of their chips on a 70-year-old man, whose bad health is a constant source of rumors. Putin's years of gaming one faction against another has given a reason for each of them to begin to stake out their positions for the post-Putin order.
Many of Putin's "favorites," who have stayed afloat for years due only to their patron's whim, will undoubtedly lose everything when he is no more. To prevent that, they must begin making alliances to guarantee their survival. Thus, Putin is left without anyone who will fight to prop-up Putin, as each one fights to save their future after the eventual end of Putin.
As long as Putin is behind the wheel of Russia, there is no reason for them to believe that he will accept that his Ukraine misadventure stands on the dead end of a precipice: There is no way ahead for Russia and, at this point, there is no way back. Putin, now wanted for war crimes, has become a heavy albatross around the necks of Russia's elites: Russia will not get out of its current economic crises, nor back to "normality" until the war in Ukraine concludes – something that is not possible with Putin in the Kremlin.
Putin's strategy of allowing or even encouraging the open disputes between his subordinates, such as between Wagner Group's Evgeniy Prigozhin and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, may prove fatal. It assumes great, continuing loyalty from his underlings, but also takes public sentiment for granted. Though it prevents the military elites from uniting against him, for now, it does not guarantee how the public's emotions may change.
As the war continues to force Russia's economy and long-term stability into the abyss, the public that today support's Putin may grow in sympathy to the arguments being made by a Prigozhin-like figure. Allowing his harsh criticism to go unchecked may provoke Russians to one day awake to the realization that Shoigu and, others like him, are not only inept but stay there only by the grace of Putin.
As the Russian economy worsens, the citizenry can be wooed, far quicker than Moscow seems to believe, to take side against Putin. History has shown that common people will often back the tough-talk of a populist, Prigozhin-like figure, who puts the blame for the Ukraine invasion at the feet of Shoigu. The plot twist that the Kremlin does not foresee, is that it may become an unpredictable chain of events as people begin making their own conclusions of "where the buck stops" and who should answer for Russia's military and economic defeat.
Prigozhin himself, if he feels that his life is endangered, has nothing to lose but to go full-out in constructing alliances with other disaffected oligarchs to strike out against Putin's interests. Prigozhin's recent, jovial meeting with his known enemy, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, is a testament to the fact that politics makes for strange bedfellows: But, also, to how one plays politics if seeking to guarantee one's future.
In stark contrast, eventually, for Prigozhin and Shoigu, it is quite possible that neither will survive the post-Putin era. Those who wish to curry the favor of the West, to unfreeze their billions of dollars while ending this conflict without even more drastic outcomes for Russia, are likely already on the look-out for the ‘messiah’ that will usher in the post-Putin era. They understand that now is the time to get ahead of the rush and to make the deals they need to see tomorrow's sunrise.
Like all investment schemes, those who get in early receive the highest dividends. As no member of the Russian elite believes that Putin is immortal, now is precisely the time to figure out on which horse they will back to replace the sickly, seven-decade-old tyrant.
The great game of who will come after Putin has already started. Undoubtedly motivated by pure self-interest there are many clever folks in Moscow who know that Putin's day will come - one way or the other – and that they need to be on the "right side of history," so that the new resident of the Kremlin allows their existence to continue. The rank-and-file citizens are the least priority. A wise politician will know how to ride the waves of their sentiments so he can obtain the power currently in Putin's hands.
If Putin's final hour comes by the hands of men, it is ironically the ruined president's own pride, that very "sin of the angels that caused their fall," that will prevent him from comprehending that he himself was the architect of his own demise.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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