Yevgeny Prigozhin and the other Kremlin contenders who could replace Vladimir Putin

Moscow-watchers suspect the president’s two-decade stint at Russia’s helm could be nearing its end

President Putin Attends Navy Day Parade
Observers say the Wagner Group coup attempt 'shows real cracks' in Putin’s leadership
(Image credit: Getty Images )

Vladimir Putin’s disastrous military defeats, his nuclear sabre-rattling and his endless raising of the stakes in Ukraine have forced even staunch pro-Kremlin commentators to question his decisions.

Now an attempted coup staged by the Wagner Group has left Putin “dramatically weakened”, said political economist Konstantin Sonin at The Spectator. He was “unable to crush the most serious threat to his authority in 23 years”, central parts of the state “fell with barely a shot fired”, and the mutineers, including their leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, got little more than a slap on the wrist.

The ordeal “shows real cracks" in Putin’s leadership, US secretary of state Antony Blinken told CBS News.

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This, along with rumours surrounding his ill health, is leading experts to suggest that the president��s 23 years at Russia’s helm might be reaching its end. There is “no shortage of possible usurpers” ready to throw their hat in the ring, said Foreign Affairs. Putin’s coterie of “sycophants” have been selected for their “unquestioning loyalty”, but “loyalty is a relative concept in a highly treacherous environment”.

So who might be Russia’s fourth president?

Yevgeny Prigozhin

Before the Wagner Group’s mutiny, there had long been speculation that Prigozhin himself could one day succeed Putin. “He obviously has political ambitions,” Russian investigative journalist Mikhail Zygar told CNN earlier this year. But having been exiled to Belarus, Prigozhin now finds himself “without a political future in Russia (at least while Putin is in power)”, wrote Time magazine.

But he may not be entirely out of the picture just yet. Putin dropped the charges against Prigozhin, and he is “functionally free to return to Russia”, said the New Yorker. Prigozhin insists he had not intended to topple Putin, and while it may seem Putin has survived a coup attempt, “something has changed in Russia”.

The “most remarkable” part of the aborted coup, said The Atlantic, was that nobody in the city of Rostov-on-Don, which Prigozhin’s Wagner Group invaded, “seemed to mind, particularly, that a brutal new warlord had arrived to replace the existing regime - not the security services, not the army, and not the general public”. In fact, “many seemed sorry to see him go”.

“I don't think we've heard the last of Yevgeny Prigozhin,” military analyst Sean Bell told Sky News.

Nikolai Patrushev

Kremlin-watchers see Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s security council, as the most likely successor. The former head of the FSB spy agency is even more anti-Western than Putin and is a long-time KGB associate of the president’s.

“Patrushev is the most influential person in the Kremlin bureaucracy and is the only person Putin trusts – to the extent he trusts anyone,” said the New York Post.

Patrushev is believed to have ordered the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in 2006 at University College Hospital in London. “I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin,” said retired High Court judge Robert Owen’s 2016 report into the incident.

But Patrushev’s age counts against him: nearing 72, he’s two years older than Putin. “Age is not on [his] side,” said Politico, adding that “should he become president [he] would likely only be a transitional figure”.

Alexei Dyumin

Another favourite is Alexei Dyumin, a former bodyguard to Putin and the current governor of the strategic Tula region south of Moscow. Over the years, Putin has groomed the “action man ‘military hero’ in his own image as his heir apparent”, reported the Daily Mail in 2016, when Dyumin became governor of Tula.

Since taking over a region he “held no apparent ties with”, Kremlin observers have “speculated whether this could be the relatively unknown newcomer primed to take over the leadership one day – just as the young Putin did for Boris Yeltsin”, said Australia’s ABC News.

Dyumin is known for playing goalkeeper at Putin’s ice hockey club where, according to one commentator, “his main duty was to ‘let in goals’ in a ‘delicate and polite way’ so Putin could be seen on TV hitting the puck into the net”, said the Mail.

Dmitry Medvedev

Russia’s former president and prime minister is now the deputy head of the country’s security council. He made headlines last year when he described US President Joe Biden as a “strange grandfather with dementia”, a statement The Guardian dismissed as an “attempt to retain political relevance”.

Since Putin declared war in Ukraine in February, Medvedev has “reinvented himself as an anti-Western war hawk”, said ABC, and “analysts say the tone of his rhetoric suggests he’s signalling that he’s up for the job if it becomes available”.

Mikhail Mishustin

The prime minister of Russia, who previously served as the head of Russia’s tax service, has forged a reputation “as a skilled technocrat” having “successfully reformed the country’s fiscal system”, said CNN.

But despite his credentials, “Mishustin is largely unknown to the Russian public and had previously shown little political ambition”, casting doubt over whether he could succeed a figure as autocratic as Putin.

Other possible contenders include Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin, First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov and Marat Khusnullin, Russia’s deputy prime minister for construction and regional development.

It’s worth noting that any changing of the guard won’t produce a democrat. But, said Russian-born author Niko Vorobyov on Al Jazeera: “The best we can hope for is a pragmatic kleptocrat who appreciates that the war is bad for business and thus would have very self-interested reasons to scale back the current confrontation.”

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