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Putin Has No Successor, No Living Rivals And No Retirement Plan – Why His Eventual Death Will Set Off A Vicious Power Struggle

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Vladimir Putin isn’t waving goodbye just yet. Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Two things are certain concerning Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.

First, he will be reelected as president in the rigged election scheduled to run from March 15 to 17, 2024, by a resounding – if fraudulent – margin.

Second, he is not immortal. He will die one day, and he is likely to die in office rather than retiring willingly. Though we don’t know when that day will come, the world might want to consider the power struggle that will commence the day after Putin departs.

Ever since he took over as president in 2000, Putin has been perfecting the machinery of electoral fraud to guarantee victory. Vote buying, ballot miscounting, distribution of pre-filled ballots, tampering with ballot boxes, voter monitoring and intimidation, and ballot stuffing are all methods that Putin’s agents employ to guarantee a favorable result.

He has also jailed political opponents, exiled others and denied yet others the ability to challenge him in fair elections. In the most extreme cases, he has had hands in the murders of opposition figures like Boris Nemtsov and, most recently, the prison death of Alexei Navalny. There will be no surprises in this election: Putin’s victory will reaffirm his iron grip on Russia’s politics.

As a scholar of Russian politics and foreign policy who has studied Putin’s regime for the past 25 years, I have watched him build a dictatorship in Russia that rivals the repressive Soviet Union in both its brutality and corruption.

But ironically, Putin is a prisoner of the political system he has built around himself for the past 24 years. Like many dictators, he cannot walk away from power and enjoy a quiet retirement even if he wanted to. He is too attached to, and dependent on, the mind-boggling wealth and power he has accumulated during his time as a public servant.

A man holding a microphone stands in front of a crowd waving Russian flags.
Russian President Vladimir Putin can draw a big crowd.
Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Protection against threats

But even if Putin got to keep his palaces and yachts, there would be no guarantee of safety in retirement.

If Putin gave up power, his successor might come after him. Putin’s personal authority, charisma and influence would always be a threat to his successor as long as he was alive, a tempting target for the next ruler, and Putin knows it.

The other reason most dictators won’t even name their successor is that it might initiate a bitter power struggle even before the dictator retires or dies. Imagine if Putin picked a successor: That person would immediately become the target of the unsuccessful contenders not chosen for the job.

There are bitter rivalries even among Putin’s inner circle of cronies. Usually Putin manages to keep those struggles in check, but the 2023 revolt by Wagner warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin against the Ministry of Defense shows how deadly these competitions can turn. Prigozhin was killed in an August 2023 plane crash whose real cause may never be known, but Putin’s hand is widely suspected.

Behind each of the wealthy insiders who support Putin – his oligarchs – stands a deep network of corrupt cronies who would stand to lose their power, wealth and perhaps even freedom if a rival succeeded in taking over. Putin’s departure could set off a bloody power struggle whenever it happened, so why would he risk it ahead of time by naming his successor?

A superyacht thought to be owned by Vladimir Putin has been impounded in Italy under global sanctions related to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Power over others

Putin is not likely to be removed by any palace coup. His control over Russia’s security services has allowed him to crush rivals and control the media, judiciary, regional leaders, parliament and community groups. He has also closely monitored threats from potential opposition figures inside and outside his regime, and made his regime “coup-proof,” as one scholar put it.

His cultivation of anti-Western Russian nationalism has won him the loyalty of the military and citizenry – at least for now.

Putin also uses his control over Russia’s natural resource wealth to keep his oligarchs in line. He decides which oligarchs are appointed to lead Russia’s major state-owned oil, gas, mineral and industrial producers. As long as they remain loyal to Putin and support his political and economic directives, these oligarchs are allowed to profit handsomely by plundering the income their companies earn.

The oligarchs’ wealth and freedom are conditional on staying in Putin’s good graces. Cross him and they could lose everything. Jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky learned that in 2003 when, after criticizing Putin, he was imprisoned and saw his Yukos oil company seized by the state.

And just in case any of them did step out of line despite their dependence on his largesse, there’s another reason none of the oligarchs cross Putin: For decades he has amassed a trove of compromising materials or “kompromat” with which to blackmail even his closest advisers.

In short, the entire Russian elite have nothing to gain and everything to lose by defecting from Putin’s coalition.

A person in a hard hat and a brightly colored vest walks past large piles of cut trees.
The Russian timber and lumber company Segezha Group is run by a close associate of Vladimir Putin and is under sanctions from the U.S. in the wake of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Alexander Manzyuk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

After death

If Putin can’t retire and probably won’t be deposed, what happens when he finally does die in office? According to the Russian constitution, the prime minister automatically becomes acting president with limited powers when the president can or will no longer serve. Remember, that was Putin’s first step toward becoming president in 2000 when Boris Yeltsin resigned.

This time around, the transition would look much different. Russia’s current prime minister is Mikhail Mishustin, a rather bland and uncharismatic former tax official who lacks a strong power base of his own. Should he succeed Putin as acting president, it’s unlikely that he would become the permanent replacement.

Under the constitution, new presidential elections must be held within three months of the president’s death or incapacitation. But the real scramble for power will take place behind the scenes and not at the ballot box.

It’s possible that the potentially violent power struggle could be resolved before the election, but three months is not much time for a successor to consolidate their grip and fill the void left by Putin. It’s also possible that a consensus candidate might be allowed to win the election while the real struggle between factions plays out in the ensuing months and years.

Or, an informal coalition of leaders attempts to rule collectively while holding the key positions of power like the presidency, premiership and security services. This sort of power-sharing arrangement has historical precedent in Russia: Coalitions proclaiming “collective leadership” briefly held power after the deaths of both Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. But in each case, one member of the coalition was able to outmaneuver and eliminate their partners: first Stalin and later Nikita Khrushchev. These cases are reminders that autocratic succession is usually a messy affair.

Four men in hats and overcoats walk down a street.
Vladimir Lenin’s successors in power in the Soviet Union, from left, Josef Stalin, Alexei Rykov, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Stalin had the others killed and seized sole power for himself.
AP Photo

But the days, months and years after Putin’s departure may be even more turbulent than anyone expects. Never before has so much personal authority been concentrated in the hands of a single Russian leader with so few supporting institutions to help stabilize a leadership transition. There is no monarchical succession, as under the Romanovs, the last royal family to rule the country. Nor are there the strong institutions of a single-party state to constrain rivals as in Soviet times.

There is only Putin.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense or United States government.

The Conversation

Robert Person is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the United States Military Academy. The views presented in this article are his own and do not represent the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or United States Government.

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Oman Serves As A Crucial Back Channel Between Iran And The US As Tensions Flare In The Middle East

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Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, meets his Omani counterpart, Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, in Tehran on July 17, 2023. Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Prior to launching a barrage of drones and missiles at Israel on April 13, 2024, Iran reportedly got word to Washington that its response to an earlier strike on its embassy compound in Syria would seek to avoid major escalation. The message was conveyed via the Gulf Arab state of Oman.

The current crisis in the Middle East is one that officials in Oman have spent years trying to avoid. Located across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran, and with close defense and security ties to the U.S. and the U.K., Oman is aware that tit-for-tat attacks raise the risk of a broader war that would engulf countries and armed nonstate groups across the region.

Full-blown war could be triggered by further escalatory actions by Tehran or Jerusalem. But it could also occur through miscalculation or misunderstanding, especially given the lack of official bilateral channels for dialogue and de-escalation.

And this is where Oman steps in. For years, the Gulf state has quietly built a track record of easing regional tensions through diplomacy. It has continued to play this role since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. In the months since that assault and Israel’s response in Gaza inflamed the region, Oman has held high-level dialogues with Iran, hosted British Foreign Secretary David Cameron for talks on security in the Red Sea, and called for a cease-fire in Gaza.

It could now play a crucial role in keeping a channel of communication open between the U.S. and Iran as parties seek to tamp down tensions.

Standing apart from regional rivalries

Along with neighboring Qatar and Kuwait – as well as Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of an American embassy – Oman has played a critical role in back-channel diplomacy.

But Oman’s approach is distinct from that of other nations. Rather than participating in direct talks, it creates space for dialogue, serving as a facilitator rather than a mediator.

Multiple reasons account for the Omani decision to act as a facilitator. Unlike several of the other Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Oman lacks a history of tense relations with Iran.

Rather, Omanis recall that Iran under the shah provided support to Oman during the 1970s when the Gulf state’s then young new sultan, Qaboos bin Said, was fighting a decadelong uprising in the southern province of Dhofar.

Even after the shah was ousted in the 1979 Iranian revolution and replaced by a clerical regime headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, Oman stood apart from others in the region and declined to get involved in regional rivalries and competition for geopolitical influence that marred Iran’s ties with other Gulf states.

Secret back channels

Representing a small state in a volatile region, Omani officials have created diplomatic spaces that permit them to engage with regional issues on their own terms and in ways that play to their strengths. As Sayyid Badr Albusaidi, a career diplomat who became the Omani foreign minister in 2020, noted back in 2003, “We try to make use of our intermediate position between larger powers to reduce the potential for conflict in our immediate neighborhood.”

Unlike Qatar, which has attracted worldwide attention over its role as a mediator in Hamas-Israel negotiations, Oman engages less in mediation and more in facilitation.

This is an important distinction and one the Omanis have maintained in regards to engaging with U.S. and Iranian officials, as well as Saudi and Houthi representatives during the decade-long Yemeni civil war.

Omani facilitation takes varied forms. It can consist of passing messages and maintaining indirect channels of communication between adversaries or arranging back channels and hosting discreet meetings.

There is little of the publicity seen in Qatar’s mediation initiatives, such as the talks with the Taliban that produced the 2020 Doha Agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

But Oman’s approach can nonetheless yield results. In his memoir, “The Back Channel,” written after his retirement from the State Department and before his appointment as President Joe Biden’s director of the CIA, William Burns provided a detailed account of the Omani role in facilitating the back channel between U.S. and Iranian officials in 2013 that evolved into negotiations that produced the the Iran nuclear deal of 2015.

That back channel began after Iranian officials passed a message through Oman to the U.S. in 2012 suggesting a meeting in Muscat, the Gulf state’s capital.

Burns recalled that the head of Omani intelligence “greeted both delegations as we walked into the meeting room” and “offered a few brief words of welcome and then departed.”

The back channel remained secret throughout eight rounds of generally constructive dialogue that marked the longest and most sustained engagement between Iranian and U.S. officials since 1979.

Hosting adversaries

While the thaw between the U.S. and Iran didn’t last, the Omani back channel highlighted several factors key to the success of any attempt to dial down tensions between seemingly implacable adversaries.

The trust both sides had in Omani officials was critical, and the positive outcome of the meetings built confidence in each side’s use of Omani channels.

Oman’s role as a facilitator of indirect engagement between the U.S. and Iran assumed added importance with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the failure of the Biden administration to reenter the agreement.

Seemingly the only time Oman has not been willing to serve this role – when tensions soared after the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani in January 2020 – was because Sultan Qaboos was critically ill. In Oman’s absence, the Swiss led the back channel.

Tamping down tensions

During the heightened tensions since the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, Oman has passed on messages between Iranian and U.S. officials. In January 2024, Omani officials hosted delegations of senior negotiators from both countries, shuttling between the representatives in separate rooms.

Even as a wider regional conflict loomed in the Middle East after Israel presumably bombed an Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, Oman was on hand to try to tamp down tensions.

On April 7, Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, visited Oman – providing an opportunity for Omani officials to debrief the U.S. and other Western officials on Iran’s thinking as Tehran planned its response to the Damascus attack.

And while the current crisis in the Middle East is of a magnitude that Oman alone cannot address, the ability of trusted intermediaries such as Oman – along with Qatar and Switzerland – to keep open channels of communication is crucial to minimizing the possibility of any accidental escalation on the Iranian side, and to complementing U.S. and European dialogue with Israeli leaders in the quest to find a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

The Conversation

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Ireland At The Crossroads: Can The Ancient Brehon Laws Guide The Republic Away From Anti-Immigrant Sentiment?

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Undocumented migrants in Ireland hold a demonstration in 2017. Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ireland’s new prime minister is a relatively young man leading a comparatively young republic that is experiencing several unprecedented challenges.

Simon Harris was confirmed as “taoiseach,” or prime minister, on April 9, 2024, following the surprise resignation of his predecessor, Leo Varadkar.

The 37-year-old Harris takes the helm of a country very much at the crossroads of change. Local, national and presidential elections are all on the horizon, with the outcomes potentially determining the form that Irish democracy – and quite possibly unity in an island partitioned between a British-ruled north and an Irish republic in the south – will take.

Underlying these decisions is the question of how Irish voters will respond to the challenge of what is being called the “New Ireland” – a country in which approximately 20% of the population was not born in the republic, with a similar number identifying as nonwhite Irish.

A history of immigration

For a country whose main export, historically, has been its people – with 8 million leaving between 1815 and 1914 in large part because of a famine – and one that experienced little inward immigration until recently, this marks a substantial shift.

Moreover, change has taken place in a relatively short space of time and has had a significant impact on the republic’s current population of just above 5 million.

In 2023, 141,600 people immigrated to Ireland, representing a 15-year high. The majority are returning Irish nationals, many from the United Kingdom, encouraged by Ireland’s buoyant economy and ties to the European Union. But there are also a sizable number of Ukrainian refugees. A smaller number come from India, Brazil or Africa, the latter including refugees from the main conflict zones of Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The record levels of immigration, coming at a time of a severe housing shortage in Ireland, has led to a backlash that boiled over on Nov. 23, 2023. Triggered by the stabbing of three young children and their care assistant in the center of Dublin by an immigrant of Algerian origin, a mob unleashed looting, arson and vandalism on the streets of Dublin. The Garda (police) commissioner blamed the events on a “lunatic, hooligan faction driven by a far-right ideology.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment has been accompanied by a hashtag campaign, #irelandisfull. And it isn’t only taking the form of street violence. The overtly anti-immigrant Ireland First was officially registered as a political party in 2023 and is seeking candidates for the upcoming elections.

To counter growing tensions, Harris has said he intends to pursue a “more planned and sustainable” immigration policy.

But familiarity with Ireland’s history may offer a counterpoint to the Ireland-is-full viewpoint, which has little to do with traditional Irish values regarding hospitality. Rather, such views run counter to Brehon law – the customs and laws that governed Irish society before the coming of the English in the 12th century.

The Brehon laws were a remarkable body of progressive codes that regulated all aspects of society, from beekeeping to homicide. Their exact origins are unknown, but for several centuries they were passed on orally from one generation to the next.

In the seventh century, the laws were written down for the first time, usually by Christian monks – the preservers of much ancient Celtic culture.

Welcome, stranger

Restitution – or restorative justice – rather than punishment lay at the heart of the laws. Consequently, there was no capital punishment or prisons but a scale of penalties or fines for all transgressions, which were proportionate to the severity of the crime and the financial means of the perpetrator.

On the topic of hospitality, the Brehon laws were unequivocal: All households, from royal residences to the poorest of homes, were obliged to provide some measure of “oigidecht” – or hospitality – to travelers, even if they were unknown. In old Irish, the word oigi meant “stranger.”

The hospitality included food and drink, and even entertainment, although the level of each depended on the social status of the household. No monetary payment was expected, although the visitor could offer a poem or a song to his hosts.

Refusal to abide by these rules could result in ostracization or a fine.

The arrival of the English, and with them English common law, eroded the use of the Brehon laws, although they did not completely disappear until the 17th century.

Today, the name survives in U.S. cities through the existence of Brehon law societies, which place human rights at the heart of legal interventions.

Opening arms

It is the spirit of Brehon that I believe best represents Irish society today. Despite the outpouring of xenophobia in November and the emergence of anti-immigration politics, the majority of Irish people are still known for their hospitality to strangers.

It is a well-earned reputation. From the time of the French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in the 17th century to the Ukrainian refugees in the 2020s, Ireland has offered shelter to those facing discrimination and death elsewhere.

And it has long given a warm welcome to nonwhite visitors, from African-born Olaudah Equiano in the 1790s to American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the 1840s to U.S. actor and activist Paul Robeson in the 1930s – each of whom regarded their time in Ireland as some of their happiest.

A group of people stand around a statue.
A statue of antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass is unveiled in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images

Douglass, then a fugitive slave, was struck by “the total absence of all manifestations of prejudice against me, on account of my color”.

It is a reputation that has paid dividends, too. Irish tourism remains robust, generating over 5.3 billion euros in revenue (approximately US$5.7 billion) in 2023, making it the country’s major native industry and the largest regional employer.

An integral part of the promotion of Ireland as a tourist destination is the concept of visiting “Ireland of the Welcomes,” where the time-honored greeting is “Céad Míle Fáilte,” which translates as “a hundred thousand welcomes.”

As Ireland – and its new, young leader – responds to the challenges of becoming a more diverse society, the Brehon laws may serve as a guide for Irish seeking a return to traditional values grounded in hospitality and inclusivity, delivering a new Ireland in which both tourists and immigrants are given “a hundred thousand welcomes.”

The Conversation

Christine Kinealy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Reagan’s Great America Shining On A Hill Twisted Into Trump’s Dark Vision Of Christian Nationalism

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In August 1982, Ronald Reagan’s father-in-law was dying. Nancy Reagan’s beloved dad, Loyal Davis, was an atheist – a troubling fact to the 40th president. So Reagan penned a private, handwritten note in which he recounted how the prayers of colleagues and friends had cured him of a painful stomach ulcer.

Giving hope for what lay beyond, Reagan entreated the older man, “We’ve been promised this is only a part of life and that a greater life, a greater glory awaits us … and all that is required is that you believe and tell God you put yourself in his hands.”

For decades, some of Reagan’s critics have questioned his religiosity, noting he rarely went to church. But the missive to his father-in-law reveals a deep and heartfelt faith. That faith also factored heavily into his political stands and policies, as I discuss in my book “Righting the American Dream: How the Media Mainstreamed Reagan’s Evangelical Vision.”

In recent years, Donald Trump, another former president and the current Republican presidential candidate, has often spoken about his faith, posing for photo ops with right-wing preachers and praising his “favorite book” – the Bible.

The latest such demonstration was a video in which Trump promoted sales of a pricey US$59.99 version of the Bible. “Let’s make America pray again,” he urged viewers. “As we lead into Good Friday and Easter, I encourage you to get a copy of the God Bless the USA Bible.”

While Reagan and Trump – two of the most media-savvy Republican presidents – used religion to advance their political visions, their messages and missions are starkly different.

Why religion plays a part in politics

In my book, I explain that underlying American politics is a religious vision that links citizens to civic values. The most prevalent vision is that God blessed America and tasked its citizens with spreading freedom and democracy. It’s an idea that has undergirded Americans’ patriotism and inspired American domestic and foreign policies for decades.

Reagan telegraphed belief in a God-blessed America by describing the United States as “a shining city on a hill.” Reagan flipped the original meaning of a Biblical phrase from a 17th century Puritan sermon. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus warns that the world will judge whether or not his disciples, a symbolic city on a hill, stick to their ideals. By adding “shining,” Reagan sanctified American exceptionalism and the United States’ role as a global model of freedom.

A close up of a man speaking in front of a microphone with the American flag next to him.
Reagan described the U.S. as a ‘shining city on a hill,’ signaling American exceptionalism.
J. David Ake J./AFP via Getty Images

Once elected, Reagan sought practical ways to apply his faith in freedom, which, like many evangelicals, he believed came from God. By cutting taxes, ending industry regulations and privatizing government functions, he hoped to give individuals more economic and political freedom.

Reagan’s love of freedom also fueled his hostility to the Soviet Union. He labeled its communist government “an evil empire,” because it denied its citizens freedom. Casting a geopolitical stance as a cosmic battle between good and evil, Reagan made defeating communism a religious calling.

I argue that Reagan’s evangelical vision was mainstreamed through the media, which reported his interviews and public statements. This vision was not always apparent, but Americans liked his policies even if they missed their religious dimension. In other words, when Reagan proposed allowing the free market to determine the economy, limiting federal power and standing up for democracy worldwide, one didn’t need to be an evangelical to agree.

A new religious vision

Trump saw an opening for a new kind of religiously tinged politics when he ran for president in 2016. But unlike Reagan’s vision of spreading freedom and democracy here and abroad, Trump’s vision sticks closer to home.

I would argue that Trump’s religious vision is rooted in white Christian nationalism, the belief that the white Christians who founded America hoped to spread Protestant beliefs and ideals. According to white Christian nationalists, the founders also wanted to limit the influence of non-Christian immigrants and enslaved Africans.

Likewise, Trump’s rhetoric, mainstreamed by the media, portrays “real” Americans as white Christians. Many of these are men and women fearful that secularists and religious, racial and ethnic minorities want to replace, if not eliminate, them.

By most measures, Trump is not personally religious, although supporters contest that claim. But he has convinced conservative Americans, especially white evangelicals, that he is “God’s instrument on earth.”

When confronted with his financial misconduct, sexual crimes and outrageous lies, backers say that God works through flawed men. And evidence of that work – the U.S. Supreme Court overturning abortion rights, building the border wall and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – has won him their support.

Trump’s mainstreaming of white Christian nationalism is evident in his latest scheme. The God Bless the USA Bible sports an American flag on its cover. Included with scripture is the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Pledge of Allegiance and the handwritten lyrics to singer Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” A portion of the sales will benefit Trump’s organization.

Christianity and nationalism hand in hand

Former President Donald Trump and his faith.

Trump rejects America’s role as the “shining city on a hill” and its mission to spread freedom and democracy. His goal is to restore what he calls the “founding fathers’ vision.” It’s a vision shared by Americans who think the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, despite proof to the contrary.

Religion can be a force for good or ill. Reagan believed that his religious vision would promote individual freedom and spread democracy worldwide. Americans may agree or disagree on whether he was successful and at what cost.

But Trump’s religious vision – one that hawks Bibles, disparages democracy and mocks governance – isn’t one that Reagan would recognize.

The Conversation

Diane Winston does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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