Sergei Shoigu-2024?: Putin may have decided on a successor – the only one he could choose

Konstantin Eggert,
MBE, Independent Journalist,

Vladimir Putin is at the apex of his power – or is he? After he effectively changed the constitution in a sham plebiscite last year he can stay in the Kremlin until 2036, effectively making him Russia’s longest serving ruler since the creation of the Russian Empire in 1721. According to the Levada Center polls, he still commands ( 64 percent approval rating, though it is incomparable to the public adulation he enjoyed in  2014, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. He is in firm control of the security forces, most of the media and vast bureaucracy. Since the jailing of Alexei Navalny in January this year Putin practically eliminated all political opposition. The Russian regime’s international isolation since 2014 has been significant but the Kremlin more or less adapted to it.

However Putin has looming problems. Against the backdrop of gradually but constantly decreasing incomes his great power rhetoric and anti-Western stances – once Putin’s biggest assets in the eyes of the public – are losing attraction fast. Another Levada Center poll ( in September showed that two thirds of Russians agree with the proposition that ‘Russia should be a country with high living standards even of that means it will not be a leading world power’ – and absolute record. At the same time positive attitude towards the West is surging dramatically ( against the background of growing negativity towards the Russian regime’s main ally – China. This coincides with another indicator: half of the population supports a Soviet-style state-controlled, centrally planned economic system. This may seem a paradox but in fact it isn’t: huge income disparity and social inequality breed people’s desire to have a system that will redistribute wealth. Social and economic upheavals of COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the trend. Aggressive rhetoric and confrontational foreign policy are no longer as popular as before. At the same time the regime cannot deliver not only an economic miracle but even a relatively steady growth. In such circumstances it is difficult to imagine how Putin will justify a decision to go for ‘re-election’ – a de facto reappointment – to the presidency in 2024, when his present term expires.

Despite the image of resoluteness and strength Putin, 69, is a notoriously risk averse politician. Unwilling to confront a public opinion he cannot placate or change he may be looking for a successor to relieve him of the burden. Or at least he wants the Russians and the world to believe he does. Enter Sergei Shoigu, 66. In the last few months the defence minister had a series of carefully orchestrated and massively publicised state media opportunities which showcased his exceptional closeness with Putin. He was filmed trekking in with Putin and made pronouncements on a range of topics well beyond his official responsibilities, including on strategy to develop Siberia. This increasingly looks like an attempt to prepare Shoigu as someone who may take over from Putin in 2024.

Shoigu is a veteran of Russian politics. As minister for emergencies he was a member of Boris Yeltsin’s first government in 1991. Putin was a minor figure in Saint-Petersburg mayor’s office then. At first glance this must work against Shoigu. As a rule dictators do not trust those who do not owe their careers to them. But picking as a potential successor someone very different from Putin is logical for several reasons. The first and main one – both men are deeply involved in prosecuting the war against Ukraine, semi-’frozen’ now. In Putin’s view this guarantees Shoigu’s loyalty. In the eyes of the world he is as responsible as Putin for the 2014 Crimea annexation and – maybe – the downing of Malaysian Airlines liner over Donbas in July 2014. This limits Shoigu’s ability to reach out to the West and play a ‘Khruschev’ to Putin’s ‘Stalin’ in case of a power transfer in Moscow. Judging by Putin’s recent moves (massive armed forces deployment along Ukraine’s border in spring 2021, shutting down gas transit to Hungary via Ukraine) he may be preparing a major push against Ukraine, probably a new round of war. He evidently believes that even if he leaves the Kremlin Shoigu will not give back Crimea to Ukraine or launch a one-sided detente with the West. Secondly, Shoigu controls the army. Putin can thus hope that  he can ensure there will be no chaos and, even more importantly, no intra-regime struggle during and after the transition. Thirdly, after a quarter of a century of Putin’s ubiquitous presence in the public square the Russians will naturally want someone very different in his stead. As opposed to the defence minister, ex-KGB officers surrounding Putin lack public persona, breadth and management skills.

It may well be that Putin has no intention of leaving and the ‘Shoigu show’ is just a manoeuvre designed to test the elites and see whose loyalty Putin can truly count on. But for now it looks like the defence minister is being groomed to take over the number two position in Russia – that of premier – in the coming year or two. This would have been a natural stepping stone for the top job.

In such a scenario the main question will be ‘What future role for Putin?’ In the present day system the president is by far the mightiest figure. Russian political tradition is very different from that of China or Singapore. It has no respect for the opinions and experience of retired or semi-retired politicians like Deng Xiaoping or Lee Kwan Yew – just ask Mikhail Gorbachev, or read the histories of Boris Yeltsin or Nikita Khrushchev. So if the Shoigu hypothesis is true, Putin either thinks he can break this historical mold or is intent on gradually retiring. The former is unlikely, the latter is personally risky. In fact one never underestimates how treacherous politics in dictatorships are. But in both cases Sergei Shoigu is not only Putin’s best bet – he is the only one.

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