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What Would Happen If Putin Were Assassinated?

Russia Ukraine
Vladimir Putin at the opening ceremony of international military-technical forum.

If Russian claims are true, and a recent drone attack from Ukraine was meant to kill Vladimir Putin, it raises difficult questions for the Kremlin – what would happen next and who would take his place if the worst happened? First, there would be a pause in fighting and the Russian army would grind to a halt. While Russia has a chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the war, Putin is the ultimate decider on war strategy. Russian generals would be confused and frozen when confronted by the demise of the supreme leader.

Would Russia Follow the Constitution?

The next question would be who would replace him? There is a legal succession plan in the Russian constitution that stipulates that the prime minister would step in and assume the presidency. This is how Putin came to power in 1999 when President Boris Yeltsin resigned, and Putin as prime minister was next in line.

Prime Minister Does Not Have the Juice

The current prime minister of Russia is Mikhail Mishustin. He is considered a political lightweight and not a well-known or public figure. The technocratic Mishustin has a low-key demeanor. Surprisingly, he does not come from the intelligence organs or the military. He is an economist and former director of the Federal Taxation Service. Mishustin does not have much to do with the war in Ukraine. He reportedly was unaware of the initial invasion. Mishustin previously bonded with Putin over both politician’s love of ice hockey.

If Mishustin took over the country due to constitutional guidelines, he probably would not be the long-term choice. There would eventually be an election, but initially, due to his lack of experience as a wartime leader, the Kremlin elites close to Putin would likely bring in someone else to take over as president.

Putin’s Righthand Man

One Kremlin heavyweight who helps Putin make the difficult and pivotal decisions about the war and overall security of the state is Nikolai Patrushev. He serves as Russia’s Security Council secretary, a position akin to America’s national security advisor but with much more power and influence. If you have read as many books about Russia and Kremlinology that I have, you would notice that Patrushev is almost always mentioned by authors as a key influence on Putin’s decision-making process.

That means Patrushev would likely work with the Duma (the Russian legislature) to pass emergency powers to place him as president or at least as prime minister. The Kremlin could call a state of national emergency and perhaps even institute martial law and amend the constitution to allow Patrushev to take over the country’s leadership.

These Kremlin Elites Have Been Loyal to Putin for Decades

Yuri Zhukov, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek, “The Kremlin has many towers, meaning there are multiple rival clans vying for power. At the top of the pecking order is a clan of elites from the security services [the siloviki], like Patrushev, and other people with a KGB/FSB background, like Sergei Naryshkin and Igor Sechin.”

Sergei Naryshkin is director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, and has Putin’s complete confidence. He or other members of the SVR briefs Putin daily and the president relishes hearing intelligence that supports the war effort that the SVR is happy to provide.

Igor Sechin is one of Putin’s closest friends and advisors. He has been at Putin’s side since the early 1990s. Sechin served as Putin’s deputy chief of staff when Putin was president in 2000. Sechin is now CEO of Rosneft – the mammoth Russian oil company.

Naryshkin and Sechin would clearly have input on who would take over for Putin after Mishustin would temporarily assume power. Then the Duma could declare that Patrushev would become president after a wartime emergency appointment was declared.

Russia Would Undergo an Intense Grieving Period

The Russian people would be shocked at a Putin death and there would be a national mourning period that would likely freeze military action at the front. This would be a harrowing time for the future of Russia as there is no clear succession plan that has been made public aside from what is currently in the constitution. Putin may have a secret design in place that Kremlin elites know about, but even if Patrushev became president there would still be a scramble behind the throne to see which individual would be on the inside and which person would be outside of power. A Putin death would be disastrous for the country. Many Russians cannot contemplate a future without their dear leader.

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Author Expertise and Experience: Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.