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What Comes After Putin’s Rule in Russia. The West Should Beware

6 minute read
Walton is one of the world’s leading scholars of intelligence and national security. An historian at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he received a doctorate in history from Trinity College, Cambridge, where he also helped to write MI5’s authorized hundred-year history. His new book is SPIES: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West

News of a recent alleged assassination attempt on Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, raises the question: what kind of Russia might emerge after him? It is tempting to believe that, if Putin were killed, or otherwise removed from power, for example in a palace coup, Russia would shake off its dictatorial shackles, normalize its relations with the West, and advance down the democratic road. Such thinking is mistaken. History suggests there are slim prospects of Russia doing so.

The surest guarantee that Russia will not reform along democratic lines is the power of its security and intelligence services. At key junctures in Soviet and post-Soviet history, amid coups, near-coups, reforms, and revolutions, the KGB and its successors have always acted as kingmaker. Their power has remained consistent as Kremlin leaders came and went. There is little reason to believe they will not do so again.

Russia is effectively a security service with a state attached. Its intelligence services—the FSB, SVR, and GRU—wield vast influence. For the last two decades, Putin has ruled Russia by relying on “men of force,” siloviki, who have KGB or military backgrounds. By some estimates, 77 percent of Putin’s government were siloviki in 2019. According to one recent CIA chief of station in Moscow, the “overwhelming majority” of technocrats in his government come from this background. And Putin is not necessarily the most hardline among them.

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If Putin were eliminated, and someone like Nikolai Patrushev, on Russia’s Security Council, were to take power, little would change. The same goes for another silovik, Putin’s minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, or Alexander Bortnikov, old KGB hand and FSB director. With one of them at the helm, the situation may be worse. They may have clearer heads than Putin. The West may be better off with Putin than his alternatives. Better the devil you know.

In 1991, Russia’s post-Soviet government, led by Boris Yeltsin, hoped to bury the KGB. Fresh light is cast on this moment when the Russian security state got to the point of turning, but failed to turn, in newly opened British foreign office records. MI6’s then head of station in Moscow, John Scarlett, cabled to London that Yeltsin’s government was, for the first time, imposing a degree of political oversight on Russia’ services through legislation. Whether such efforts would be effective, Scarlett noted, would depend on whether Kremlin leaders broke with the past and genuinely refrained from interfering with the services. Scarlett was— correctly— not optimistic.

Read More: Why Putin Is Right to Fear for His Life

Yeltsin’s strategy was to separate the KGB’s functions, which had been responsible for combined domestic and foreign intelligence, into two new services: a security service, later called the FSB, and foreign service, the SVR. By splitting them, Yeltsin hoped to disband the KGB. However, much like the liquid metal T-2000 in Terminator 2, which hit movie screens in 1991, the KGB soon pulled itself back together.

Former KGB officers, its tradecraft, its files, and even its agents in the West, all moved seamlessly into Russia’s new services, the SVR and FSB. One FSB defector explained to me that old KGB training textbooks continued to be used at its headquarters, the Lubyanka, the KGB’s old headquarters, but now with pages about communism ripped out. The SVR’s first director, Yevgeny Primakov, made himself indispensable to Yeltsin’s government, as did the FSB, which in 1998 was led by a former mid-grade KGB officer, Putin.

Putin makes much of his KGB past. He calls himself a “Chekist,” in honor of Lenin’s terrorist secret police, the Cheka, the KGB’s predecessor. While FSB head, Putin kept a statue of the Cheka’s founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky, “Iron Felix,” in his office. But equally important to Putin’s subsequent career is his time in St Petersburg in the early 1990s. That city was the gangland power center of Russia’s mafia. Putin’s job in the city government drew him into the Russian underworld.

At the end of the decade, Yeltsin plucked Putin from relative obscurity at the FSB to be his successor in the Kremlin—Putin’s name does not appear on 1998 British intelligence lists of possible Yeltsin successors. Yeltsin did so because he hoped that Putin would go soft on him once out of power. Yeltsin was right.

With Putin taking over in the Kremlin, Russian intelligence and mafia were fused together. He has run Russia ever since as a security and mafia state. The FSB conducts massive, state-driven, money laundering schemes for Putin’s personal enrichment and that of some of his closest allies, the oligarchs. This is not a question of a few bad FSB apples, but systematic, criminal, pervasive, rot. Before becoming FSB head, Bortnikov was head of its economic division, where he sat at the nexus between the Russian mafia and state extortion.

The grim machine that Putin has created will outlast him. It is bigger than him. To be successful, an assassination, coup, or revolution in Russia, would need to sweep away not just Putin, but also the siloviki. The FSB will not disappear without a fight and it is more likely that, as in 1991, the FSB would metastasize, but remain.

Brave democratic reformers in Russia like Vladimir Kara-Murza are in penal colonies, as is Putin’s nemesis, Alexei Navalny. In these bleak circumstances, the best thing for the U.S. government to do is prepare for a long-term struggle with Russia. Certainly Washington, and its NATO allies, should do everything to help democratic reformists in Russia bring about change from within. But we should be clear-eyed about their prospects of success. Western countries should degrade the ability of Russian intelligence to operate overseas by instigating mass expulsions of its officers posing as Russian diplomats. History shows that expulsions degrade the Kremlin’s clandestine capabilities. Russian embassies and consulates in the West should be reduced to shells.

The U.S. needs a new grand strategy of containment for Russia. That strategy should be based on an uncomfortable truth: the West has a Russia problem, not a Putin problem.

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