Putin faces 'major defeat' as Russia on track to lose Kherson
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Vladimir Putin has enjoyed largely uncontested control of Russia for more than two decades. He has used draconian laws and violence to silence his critics to ensure his place in the Kremlin is secure. However, with the Russian military continuing to struggle eight months after he sent troops into Ukraine, some experts say now could be the time the despot is finally usurped from power. This week, Ukraine’s Chief of Defence Intelligence, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, claimed that there are whispers in Moscow that the strongman could be ousted. He believes that the Russian President’s grip on power won’t survive the conflict in Ukraine.
“It’s unlikely that he survives it,” he said. “And currently, there are active discussions happening in Russia about who’d be there to replace him.”
For now, no challenge has been made against Putin. But various reports have highlighted a number of names who could replace him as President. They include ultra-nationalists, military leaders, and even those who work closely with him.
One name that has been touted as a potential successor is Yevgeny Prigozhin. He is the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, a private military company that has enjoyed a strong relationship with the Russian government for years. The group has been accused of orchestrating “false flag attacks” in Ukraine and helping the Russian military commit war crimes in the country.
Prigozhin has also earned the nickname “Putin’s chef” due to the fact that he owns a catering company that has previously provided food for events at the Kremlin.
But if Prigozhin is so close to Putin and already enjoys some power, why would he want to replace him? Christo Grozev, a journalist at Bellingcat, told Poltico recently that his Wagner Group backers prefer him to the current Russian President: “Wagnerites tell me they’d vote for him over Putin any time, and it seems to me he smells blood.”
Yet, historian Mark Galeotti told the same outlet that “you would have to have an absolutely catastrophic collapse of the state” for Prigozhin to have a shot at power.
One man who is seen as a much more likely successor is Nikolai Patrushev. He has so far followed an almost identitcal path to Putin, having served as the head of Russia’s security services and now working as Secretary of the Security Council of Russia — both roles were held by Putin in the late Nineties.
Patrushev also has a similar worldview to the current Russian President. Just a few days before Russia invaded Ukraine, he accused the US of trying to instigate “the collapse of the Russian Federation”.
Two months later, former DIA intelligence officer, Rebekah Koffler, warned that Patrushev “rivals Putin as a villain” and is “more barbaric than his master.”
She added: “Both men have likely authorised the poisonings and killings of many Russian ‘enemies.”
Alexander Bortnikov, the current head of the Russian security services, is another individual who might replace Putin. He has been in the role since 2008 and is one of Putin’s closest allies. In 2009, he was given the title of Hero of the Russian Federation.
He is a mysterious figure, however, and so there is little public information about him. Bortnikov graduated from the Leningrad Institute for Railroad Transport Engineers before becoming a KGB spy. His biography also says that his talent was clear from an early age, separating himself from the rest with his “logical thinking and highly developed intuition.”
Bortnikov has allegedly showcased his brutality in the past. It was claimed that he oversaw the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in Britain, the Russian national who had criticised Putin and branded Russia a “mafia state” before he was poisoned with radioactive material in 2006. The Kremlin denied any involvement in the killing.
It has also been claimed that Bortnikov gave the order to poison Alexei Navalany, the prominent Putin critic who is in prison on charges of fraud, contempt of court and parole violations. These charges are widely seen as an attempt by the Kremlin to silence him.
Some have suggested that Putin could be replaced by arguably his most trusted ally – Dmitry Medvedev. He took over as President in 2008 because the Russian constitution restricted presidents to two successive terms. But, Medvedev pathed the way for Putin to return in 2012, and loyally served as Russian Prime Minister until 2020.
Previously seen as slightly more moderate than the more hawkish figures in Russia, Medvedev has now ramped up his anti-Ukraine and anti-Western rhetoric. In August, he posted an unsettling message to his Telegram channel: “I hate them [the West]. They are b******s and degenerates. They want us, Russia, to die. And while I’m still alive, I will do everything to make them disappear.”
But Andrei Pertsev, a political commentator at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, doesn’t believe that the shift in tone is an indication that Medvedev is vying for the top job.
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Speaking to ABC, he added: “His over-the-top, hardline comments on foreign policy issues and insults hurled at Western leaders often look comical, but the role he’s trying to play is clear.
“It blends tough isolationism with populism, firmly placing the blame for internal woes on the shoulders of external enemies.”
A lesser-known Putin ally who has been linked with the top-job in the Kremlin is Sergei Kiriyenko. He currently holds the role of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, and was in charge of running the four referendums in Ukraine which resulted in the annexation of Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia.
Kiriyenko was a liberal-minded figure when he was appointed Russia’s youngest Prime Minister in 1998, aged 35. But he has since hardened his views to align himself with the current regime. Speaking to the Telegraph, Russia expert Nikolai Petrov explained how Kiriyenko’s close relationship with Putin both helps and compromises his chances of becoming Russian President.
He said: “It was under Kiriyenko’s very brief period as prime minister that Putin was appointed head of the FSB, although it wasn’t his decision. He is strong now because of his proximity to Putin but with Putin weakening this could change. He is a tool, a loyal tool for his boss.”
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