Until 'Black Tuesday' on 16 December 2014, 15 years after he first took power, there were no grounds for any consideration of whether Putin might resign or call snap elections. Now it has become absolutely essential to consider this scenario, although it remains as unlikely as ever, in order to drag Russia out of this serious economic and political crisis.
At the present moment it seems obvious that the crisis, the sanctions and the confrontation with the West are consolidating the Russian ruling government clique. The 'sanctions list club' is ready to go to the very end with Putin: Governor Tkachev of Krasnodar krai was the first to make this clear, two days after 'Black Tuesday.' For the rest – the borders are open. Anyone not prepared to take any further part in Putin's game of chance can pack his bags and leave. This means that the pressure on the vascular wall will not be so strong as to break it. Political regimes at the end of the 20th and early 21st centuries do not create 'iron curtains' – they leave the doors open. Hundreds of thousands of the educated classes have left Turkey, Venezuela, Pakistan, and other countries, and life there carries on with no damage to the political regimes. Nevertheless, Putin's resignation, as an extraordinary decision taken by the system, is a real possibility, all the more so because there is a precedent in Russia's post-Soviet history: in 1999 Boris Yeltsin stood down before the end of his second presidential term. Moreover, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where Putin's voluntary resignation could to a certain extent actually guarantee that the system he set up will be preserved.
Putin's resignation, as an extraordinary decision of the system, is a real possibility.
The Putin ‘consensus’
This decision can only be taken by Putin himself and his closest, longstanding associates. It will mean snap elections in which the successor will run with public support from Putin. The conditions for the emergence of such a figure are well known: it will, on the one hand, have to be someone capable of preserving the system and, on the other hand, of putting new options in place for a dialogue with the West. It will have to be an experienced manager who will be an acceptable successor for the Russian people. And he will have to guarantee the preservation of the 'Putin consensus' for the political and economic power elite. But he will also have to be recognised by world leaders as the person in the system with his finger on the nuclear button. Putin has quite a few of these in his inner circle: difficult to imagine, say, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev or Rosneft head Igor Sechin in this role, but Sergei Ivanov or Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin could well take it on, and they both meet all the transition criteria. For the so-called 'partners' i.e. the G7 leaders, the new candidate will obviously be preferable to Putin, who will never again be an acceptable interlocutor – not only for today's US, UK, German etc leaders, but for the next generation of leaders as well. The new figure may be cut from the same cloth, but he will represent at the very least formal opportunities for new ways of communicating.
Khodorkovsky is working to a specific plan, trying to 'sell' himself to the Putin system as the successor.
Interestingly, since the autumn of 2014, Mikhail Khodorkovsky has had an eye on the future, assuming that Putin will leave before his term is up. Some of his statements, which touched a nerve for Russia's anti-Putinists, were in fact addressed not to them, but primarily to the Putin elite and the West. Khodorkovsky said that Crimea could not be returned arbitrarily – it would need to be a decision of the system. He also said that the Western sanctions are not working and are harming Russia. Khodorkovsky, then, is working to a specific plan, trying to 'sell' himself to the Putin system as the successor. His statement about the sanctions is a signal that he, Khodorkovsky, who has symbolic capital and communications in the West, could solve the problem of getting the sanctions lifted. Khodorkovsky is behaving like a politician who could at some point in the future guarantee a hassle-free departure from the scene for the most odious of Putin's associates, as Putin himself did for Yeltsin's cronies. Not one of them was brought to justice, with the exception of some who openly took up the cudgels, such as Berezovsky etc. Any candidate for Russian president in a snap election will do the same, whether it is Ivanov or Sobyanin.
Putin's departure would only be possible in the event of an inevitable mass economic collapse, which means that Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and FSB head Alexander Bortnikov will have an important part to play in the transition. Any decision will also have to satisfy the old, regional politicians like Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and Governor Tkachev. A snap election will have to make the struggle between Putin and his opponents open and public, because this is the only way the victor will be able to get his hands on the essential tools for active politics, in leading Russia out of the crisis. This means that all opposition candidates will be allowed to stand in the election – Khodorkovsky, Navalny, Kudrin, and other less influential figures. As the federal TV, regional governments, armed forces and security services are all in the hands of reliable members of the system, Putin's successor will be guaranteed victory. It is difficult to predict how likely it is in such a scenario that there will be mass protests from Putin's opponents aimed at breaking up the system, or an attempt to mount 'GKChP 2' [Russian initials referring to the coup d'etat against Gorbachov in 1991] i.e. a coup in support of 'Putin friends' that would likely strengthen still further Russia's isolation and conflict with the West, and create a self-sufficient economy. It is hard to imagine mass support for protesters against the system. Though Putin himself constantly terrorises his own establishment with the possibility of an 'Orange revolution,' in reality the situation is extremely unlikely to spin out of control as a result of rioting in the streets. The idea of a 'GKChP 2' in favour of the most conservative wing of Putin's administration is much easier to imagine.
A system-managed Putin departure is a safer scenario for Putin elites than trying to manage in a state of economic collapse.
Nevertheless, a system-managed Putin departure looks a safer scenario for the Putin elite than the prospect of trying to get through to the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2016/7 in a state of economic collapse. The $400 billion of financial reserves on which Putin is relying in his hazardous game will be exhausted in two years. The creation of an efficient self-sufficient economy for a country the size of Russia is Utopian; the calculation that the situation can be managed and that the West will wait is fallacious. 'Black Tuesday' made it abundantly clear just how vulnerable all these short-sighted hopes are.
We must not overlook the fact that for the last 15 years Putin's closest circle of associates has been guided by 'economic-centric' motives, capitalising the key strategic Russian companies, developing all forms of economic penetration of the world economy and converting those efforts into guaranteed assets held in the West. Now all these people will have to completely change their way of thinking and, in effect, agree to economic suicide for the sake of an imaginary 'holy war for Russia's special way forward.' For them to give up economic motivation in favour of something strictly ideological is asking a lot – is this possible? Of course it is. But it would be less catastrophic for those '300 families' if Putin were to resign in a way managed by the system. This would in no way mean capitulating to the West. On the contrary, it would simply allow the Putin system to create some options, which would mean it could move away from the prospect of this kind of capitulation and a resounding defeat.