When will Vladimir Putin, Russia’s 68-year-old president and global pot-stirrer, step aside? As he approaches 21 years in power, it’s a constant source of fascination and speculation. Talk accelerated recently when the Russian legislature pushed forward a law granting immunity from investigation or prosecution to all former presidents and their families. Could he be paving his exit? Unlikely, considering Putin won a referendum this year allowing him to remain until 2036. But you never know when fate can intervene. Today’s Daily Dose explores those who — with Putin’s blessing or by revolt — could take the torch from one of the most influential global figures of the 21st century.
Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor
1. The TV Personality
Ksenia Sobchak became a familiar face as a reality TV star on Russia’s version of Big Brother and, later, as a journalist on an independent TV station who was openly critical of the regime — even though her father was Putin’s political mentor. She ran for the presidency in 2018 against Putin but with the president’s behind-the-scenes backing as a spoiler who could divide the anti-Putin vote. Sobchak won just 1 percent of the vote but built her brand enough to reportedly earn $5 million since then with media deals and other opportunities. The bespectacled blonde’s sharp tongue has gotten her in trouble, though: She was fired by Audi as brand ambassador after a racially charged Instagram post.
2. The Roger Ailes of Russia
Konstantin Ernst’s mastery of TV has helped strengthen Putin, starting with his ascent to power. The 59-year-old head of Channel One, with floppy brown hair and what the New Yorker described as “a look of perpetual bemusement,” does a subtle version of propaganda, not as over the top as state-owned TV and infused with a degree of artistry. Having helped mold Putin’s image, Ernst could build up the next leader … or perhaps turn the spotlight on himself.
3. The Oil Tycoon
Perhaps the most powerful private businessman in Russia — where state-tied firms generally rule — Vagit Alekperov built his kingdom at Lukoil after overseeing the Soviet Union’s oil industry. The 70-year-old is worth $17 billion and has made it to the top by being studiously bland, while executing total authority. (One of his nicknames is “the Don.”) If he strikes, you won’t see him coming.
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1. The Survivor
Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent foe, was poisoned and nearly killed this year but managed to recover at a German hospital. While recuperating, Navalny, 44, model-handsome and sporting a cleft chin, witnessed one of the greatest triumphs of his time in the spotlight: Two Navalny allies were elected to city councils in Siberia, amid raging protests. The poisoning, coupled with the rising push against Putin-backed Belarusian strongman Viktor Lukashenko, is a sign of Putin’s concern about his future, according to former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin.
2. The Next Navalny
Lyubov Sobol, 33, a lawyer activist who has led street protests against Putin in Moscow, is the camera-ready face of a new generation of urban protesters. By investigating and exposing Kremlin corruption, she’s built a following and faced some of the same kinds of ugly attacks as Navalny, whose YouTube show she produces. Sobol and Navalny’s offices were recently raided, and each was hit with fines of more than $300,000 for what a Moscow court said was libel against a Moscow catering company.
3. The Beast of the East
Sergei Furgal, 50, who represented the Liberal-Democratic party as the governor of Khabarovsk in the country’s far east along the Chinese border, was one of the most prominent elected leaders not within the Putin orbit. His arrest this summer, on murder charges from 15 years ago during his business career, sparked enormous mass protests. Putin appointed a new governor and tried to brutally quell the protests, but they’ve continued, suggesting a deeper discontent — and imprisoned martyr status for Furgal.
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1. The Defense Chief
Sergei Shoigu was a big deal before the Putin era. Shoigu, 65, was the high-profile leader of Russia’s Emergency Ministry during the 1990s — appearing solid and stoic at some of the country’s worst disasters — and even helped paved Putin’s political path. An ethnic minority Tuvan who hails from near Mongolia, Shoigu is an unusual face in a high place. And an enduring one: He survived another Cabinet reshuffle this year to retain his grip on the military, due in part to his closeness to the president. Shoigu even helped stage the famous 2009 photo of Putin shirtless atop a horse.
2. The Forgotten
A leader of a coalition of nations in the North Caucasus who were deported by Josef Stalin, Arkady Goryayev is one of the most powerful organizers of Russia’s minority groups, and rallies support for opposition candidates. In response, he’s been accused of being a separatist and “successor to Hitler’s accomplices.” If there’s a true bottom-up revolution, this leader in the remote southern city of Elista will be rallying Russia’s forgotten peoples.
1. The Darth Vader
Igor Sechin, 60, the head of state-owned oil giant Rosneft, is essentially Putin’s No. 2, and has been working with him closely since the Russian president was mayor of St. Petersburg. A bulky presence with piercing blue eyes, Sechin is now known as Russia’s most powerful oligarch, with close personal ties to Putin and a willingness to execute power ruthlessly that makes him feared far more than loved within the Kremlin.
2. The Taxman
Elevated this year to prime minister, aka Putin’s official No. 2, Mikhail Mishustin, 54, was an obscure tax official whose leap took Kremlin observers by surprise. A hockey buddy of Putin’s, he digitized Russia’s tax system and is well connected in the bureaucracy. Diagnosed with COVID-19 earlier this year, the PR-obsessed PM reportedly tried to squash any talk of his condition lest it be construed as weakness.
3. The Builder
Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, 62, served under Putin in the Kremlin before he was tapped for his influential post — where he’s set out on a building spree to remake the capital into a modern metropolis. Now he’s trying to deal with a spiraling coronavirus pandemic, recently instituting new restrictions and canceling Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
4. The Bodyguard
Once Putin’s bodyguard, Alexei Dyumin, 48, was boosted to deputy head of the GRU — Russia’s infamous military intelligence agency — where he’s said to have played a key role in the annexation of Crimea. Then he was tapped to become governor of the province of Tula, with speculation swirling that this is but a steppingstone to something bigger for Putin’s former hockey league goalie.
5. The Kleptocrat
An economist by training, Tatyana Golikova, 54, holds a top economic post as deputy prime minister for social policy. She also, it appears, knows how to count her own cash. Golikova and her husband, former industry and trade minister Viktor Khristenko, have been accused of corruption for acquiring valuable golf courses under shady circumstances and using the government to promote a drug in which they had a financial stake.
1. The Cultural Critic
Olga Lyubimova, 39, is the country’s new minister of culture but doesn’t seem to care much for culture: Her online writings reveal a distaste for museums, classical music, even the ballet — a Russian institution. Still, Lyubimova’s defenders say she’s bringing a fresh perspective to the department and will shake out some of its bureaucratic failings.
2. The NATO Needler
The governor of Kaliningrad, a perilously placed “island” province wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea, Anton Alikhanov became Russia’s youngest-ever governor at the tender age of 30. Now 34, he’s become a baby-faced, tough-talking voice against Western powers, and his Moscow connections ensure he won’t be in the hinterlands forever.
3. The Diamond Kingpin
Sergei Ivanov Jr., 40, runs the world’s largest producer of rough diamonds — the state-owned Alrosa. He’s not a jeweler by trade, but he’s got a sparkling name as the son of one of Putin’s inner circle: The elder Ivanov was a fellow KGB spy and later Putin’s chief of staff. Now Junior has access to Putin and the stewardship of a company that netted nearly $1 billion in profits last year. Still, he came off as bashful when he was unveiled as Alrosa chief: He asked if he was supposed to start work immediately, prompting then–Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to reply: “Come on, of course!”
4. The Resourceful Riser
Alexander Kozlov, 39, is rising so fast it’s hard to keep up. Just five years ago, he was mayor of a city of 200,000 in Russia’s far east region. Then he became the regional governor, the country’s minister for development of the far east and Arctic, and just this month was tapped in a Cabinet reshuffle to become environment and natural resources minister. That’s no small job in the world’s largest country by land mass. Kozlov, whose deliberate manner of speaking mimics Putin’s, according to the Financial Times, is a Moscow-trained lawyer who knows the power of publicity.