There is a narrative that if Putin were to leave power Russia would descend into chaos. It has been around for awhile, and has commonly been invoked as a reason to allow Putin to stay in power, because ‘what comes after could be worse’. It is also likely that this belief is one of the reasons Putin decided to run for a third presidential term in 2012 (he bought into his own propaganda).
However, Russia’s system is not built on a single personality. Yes, Putin is the face of the system at the moment, and the propaganda machine supporting the Putin myth is strong and effective. Nevertheless, the majority of Russians would change their minds about him in less than a month if the propaganda machine turned on him. When Yuri Luzhkov was ousted as mayor of Moscow, for example, his approval rating dropped dramatically within days.
I disagree with the imagery of Putin’s Russia as Stalin’s Soviet Union lite, where one person has absolute power without anything or anyone to halt the excesses. I think that after Stalin, the elite realized that they could never again allow one single person to completely dominate the system. And checks were built into the system to prevent the same thing from happening again. Witness, for example, the way Khrushchev was removed (with relatively little fuss) in 1964.
I’m simplifying quite a bit here, and it would take a book (or several books) to explain how and why things changed in the decades following Stalin.
The same checks instituted after Stalin died did not go away when the Cold War ended. No real effort was made to remove and clean up the elite (as was done in Germany after World War 2, or in Poland at the end of the Cold War, to cite two examples). Many of the elite stayed on in leadership in one capacity or another, and many are still around 25 years later.*
Putin is not the Russian system, and the Russian system is not Putin. Putin is a result of the system. But Putin could be removed by the elite tomorrow if they wanted him gone.
Whatever their motivations, the elite are not ready to let Putin go at this moment in time. Nevertheless, the groundwork for his removal is already being laid in Russia’s liberal media outlets.
My concern is that the same people who are laying the groundwork for Putin’s removal will take advantage of the relief Western societies will feel at Putin’s demise, and again refuse to do the hard work of ridding the system of its excesses. This is dangerous, and cannot be allowed to happen.
*Note: I am working on charts and graphs of the elite. It is just taking me awhile to put it all together.