What was once unthinkable now seems possible: removing the president. But who could succeed Vladimir Putin? And then what is left of Russia at all?

“How’s it going? Is there life after Putin? How will he step down and who will replace him?” Questions like these currently weigh heavily on the shoulders of the Russian elite, its bureaucrats and businessmen.

At the same time, they experience the advance of the Ukrainian army, the flight of talented people from Russia and the West’s no to Vladimir Putin’s energy and nuclear blackmail.

“There’s a lot of swearing and swearing in Moscow’s restaurants and kitchens,” says one member of the elite. “Everyone has now realized that Putin has failed and is losing.”

That doesn’t mean Putin will give up, be overthrown, or launch nuclear weapons. However, it can be assumed that the country’s decision-makers and property owners will lose confidence in their president.

Russia’s political system seems to have entered the most turbulent period of its post-Soviet history. Western governments are also starting to fear an ungovernable Russia.

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“In the 23 years of his rule, Vladimir Putin has never found himself in such a situation,” says Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov.

In critical situations such as the loss of the Kursk submarine and its 118 crew members in 2000 or the devastating hostage-taking at a school in 2004, in which 333 people died, he has always managed to avoid responsibility and to maintain its image as a “strong leader”. “Today he performs operations that visibly fail.”

The February 24 invasion of Ukraine came as a shock to the Russian establishment, which had believed Putin would not risk all-out war.

But a combination of initial, albeit limited, military advances, Russia’s lack of economic collapse, and rapid efforts to negotiate peace calmed nerves.

(The massive consumption of alcohol may also have played a role; it was so pronounced that Putin began to complain about it in public.) Many a representative of the elite temporarily clung to the belief that Putin simply could not lose.

The “partial mobilization” that he initiated has meanwhile called these views into question. It became clear that the “special military operation” had faltered and that additional troops were bringing the country more and more into the conflict.

Mass flight and numerous conscientious objectors prove at the same time that Putin’s plan to involve the country in a new “Great Patriotic War” has so far failed.

Because mobilization shook the general public’s approval of the war, which did not envisage active participation. In wealthy Moscow, which forcibly recruited men on the streets, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was forced to announce the end of conscription on October 17. Other regions with less lobbying power will now have to make up for this deficit.

Putin cannot win his war because it served no clear purpose from the start; and in the face of great losses, he cannot complete it without being deeply humiliated.

Thus, even with a cessation of fighting in Ukraine, a return to a peaceful pre-invasion life under his warmongering presidency is all but impossible. Meanwhile, the economy is beginning to show the results of sanctions and the mass brain drain; consumer confidence is declining.

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In a September 30 ceremony, Putin annexed four Ukrainian provinces not under his control after a diatribe against the West. This absurd act may have undermined his credibility as a powerful leader within Russia as well.

Political adviser Tatyana Stanovaya explains: “Until September, the Russian elites had pragmatically decided to support Putin… but now events have progressed so far that they are probably left with a choice between different loss scenarios.”

A military defeat could well result in the collapse of the regime – and with it pose significant risks to those who supported it.

Meanwhile, Putin’s warmongering “raises the question of whether the Russian elites are willing to stick with Putin to the bitter end, especially given the rising threat of nuclear weapons use,” Stanovaya notes.

Putin has developed from a supposed stability authority to an unstable and dangerous figure. For example, this week Putin’s “goddaughter” Ksenia Sobchak fled to avoid arrest – apparently a sign that the elite are now devouring their own people.

Political expert Abbas Galyamov has spent some time in the Kremlin. He believes that in the coming weeks and months, the elite will realize that it is up to them to save the regime – maybe even their own lives. So far, the members have always trusted in Putin’s ability to preserve the regime (and thus themselves). The rethinking will intensify the search for a possible successor within the system.

Galyamov’s list of possible candidates also includes Dmitry Patrushev, son of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, who is one of the regime’s main ideologues. Patrushev junior was already a minister. While part of the family, he could be seen as a breath of fresh air given his young age.

Other well-known candidates for the post include Deputy Kremlin Chief Sergei Kiriyenko, Moscow Mayor Sobyanin, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, who could form an alliance with security forces officials and act as a moderate negotiator in the West.

But as jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny recently argued in The Washington Post, the hope that “the succession of Putin by another member of his elite will fundamentally change this attitude towards war, particularly the war over the ‘legacy of the USSR,’ naive at best.”

According to Navalny, the only way to break the cycle of imperial nationalism is to decentralize power and transform Russia into a parliamentary republic.

In what appeared to be an appeal to Russia’s elite, he argued that parliamentary democracy was also a sensible and desirable choice for many of Putin’s political groups.

“It gives them the opportunity to continue to exert influence and compete for power while ensuring that their position is not threatened by a more aggressive group.”

Such a “more aggressive group” has already formed. It includes ex-criminal Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s cook”, who heads the Wagner mercenary group, and Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, who has his own private army. Both men have a personal allegiance to Mr Putin.

Political scientist Ekaterina Schulman compares Prigozhin’s men to the oprichniki – a bodyguard force founded by Ivan the Terrible – which plunged the country into chaos. While the Russian dictator wants to turn Ukraine into a failed state, in reality he is turning Russia into one.

The article is first in The Economist under the title “Russia’s elite begins to ponder a Putinless future” and was translated by Cornelia Zink.

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*The post “Russia’s elite considers a future without Putin” is published by The Economist. Contact the person responsible here.