Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

The Putin Succession and Russian Foreign Policy

Magazine article The Brown Journal of World Affairs

The Putin Succession and Russian Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

As THE LONG HISTORY OF military coups-in Latin America, Turkey (four since 1960), Greece (1967), and even Spain (aborted, 1981)-suggests, political succession in poorly institutionalized polities often leads to upheaval and even foreign intervention.1 Such succession crises touch upon the link between the distribution of economic, social, and political power within a country and a country's capacity to defend and project its sovereign power internationally.

These patterns assume special importance in light of the scheduled "successor" presidential election in Russia in March 2008, when Vladimir V. Putin will likely hand over executive authority to an anointed protégé.2 Considering the predominantly charismatic foundation of Putins authority and the fact that, to date, executive power has yet to change hands in Russia through electoral means, Putin's succession assumes particular significance for Russia's foreign relations and domestic trajectory. This article will attempt to frame the Putin succession and Russian foreign policy by examining, first, enduring historical patterns of succession and Russian diplomacy; second, the specific pattern of Putin's diplomacy; third, elite patterns and preferences in the current Russian political system; and finally, the external and internal contexts for future Russian influence in the wider world.

Putins successor will face a complex balancing act as he walks along political, economic, and diplomatic tightropes. Putin's successor must continue to satisfy multiple domestic factions, balancing the economic interests of the export-oriented energy sector against the internationally non-competitive bulk of Russia's industrial and agricultural economy, which sustains a large portion of Russian employment and is therefore susceptible to nationalist, protectionist, and even chauvinist pressures. The next president must be able to exploit high global energy prices to bring revenue into the Russian state and society and not just the country's vast criminalized patronage networks (as prevailed in the 1990s). Diplomatically, Putins successor must reinforce Russia's claim to preeminence in central Eurasia without spoiling Russia's relations with Europe, the United States, and Japan. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, Putin's successor will have to establish his political authority and legitimacy as Putin's handpicked successor, while Putin himself will try to retain at least a veto power behind the scenes in preparation to run again for president in 2012.


A brief historical review will show that Russia has historically had weak political institutions in place for succession. Consequently, changes in leadership have frequently been accompanied by dramatic discontinuities in domestic policies as well as in foreign relations.

Major gains in Russia's pre-1600 standing as an East Slavic, then European, and eventually global power tended to coincide with unusually long reigns of its rulers.3 Correspondingly, major modern advances in Russia's standing as a world power happened to coincide with exceptionally long tenures in power for such rulers as Peter I (1683-1725), Catherine II (1762-1796), Aleksandr I (1801-1825), and Joseph Stalin (1926-1953). This is not to say that long tenures are necessarily linked with foreign policy advance and domestic order, but length of tenure-where it does not coincide with an obviously disabled ruler-does tend to remove a major impediment: domestic dissonance (i.e., the raw contest for power).

To note the obverse, Russian succession crises have led to dramatic departures and even vulnerabilities in foreign affairs. Prior to the twentieth century, successions such as those of Peter III (1762) and Paul I (1796-1801) each took Russia backwards in its foreign policy, the former by withdrawing from Prussia on the verge of victory in the Seven Year's War (1756-1763), the latter by capriciously veering between anti-French and anti-British alliances in the wars of the French Revolution. …

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