In Russia, a Clan War for Putin’s Throne Has Begun. Who Will Win?

IStories editor Roman Anin on how Russia’s Game of Thrones will end

9 Jan 2023
In Russia, a Clan War for Putin’s Throne Has Begun. Who Will Win?

The first G8 summit of the 21st century was held in 2000 on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Russia’s young president, Vladimir Putin, was participating in the meeting for the first time. In a group photo of the heads of government, a smiling Putin stands between U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton. 

Looking at this photo today, it’s hard to believe that Russia began the century among the world’s elite, in a club with the most developed countries on the planet. After 20 years of Putin's rule, the country has moved into another league, one featuring the likes of Iran, North Korea and Syria. 

Russia quite deservedly occupies its place among today’s most isolated and inhumane regimes. And it's not just because of war, but also due to 20 years of political and moral degradation.

To understand the extent of Russia’s moral decay, read the biographies of its modern-day heroes — those whom authorities have bestowed honorary orders and medals, propagandists have extolled, and teachers have set as examples for children in “patriotic” education lessons.

The G8 summit on Japan’s island of Okinawa
The G8 summit on Japan’s island of Okinawa

National heroes

One of Russia’s main heroes of the war on Ukraine is Yevgeny Prigozhin. Convicted in the past for theft, robbery, fraud, and involvement of minors in criminal activities, Prigozhin began his “career” strangling women, notoriously tearing off their gold earrings after they’d lost consciousness. Today, he’s a hero three times over: for Russia, the DNR and LNR. 

He heads a paramilitary organization, the Wagner Group, whose forces number in the thousands, and come armed with aircraft, armored vehicles and launch rocket systems. This private army is comprised of convicts and sadists who smash the heads of prisoners with sledgehammers.

Prigozhin and his sort are the heroes of Putin's time. And this, in my opinion, says much more about Russia’s future than does the depth of the decline of the country’s GDP.

Yevgeny Prigozhin at the grave of a Wagner Group member
Yevgeny Prigozhin at the grave of a Wagner Group member

Collapse of Russian society

Moral degradation has engulfed not just the so-called elites in Russia, but the broader public, as well. The majority of the country’s population supports the barbaric aggression against Ukraine, and these same people wonder why Putin hasn’t wiped Ukraine off the face of the earth yet.

The war has divided Russian society: parents, poisoned by propaganda, call their children traitors for refusing to support aggression against a neighboring country. Russia’s most successful and educated residents — scientists, entrepreneurs and developers — are leaving en masse. Those who oppose the war, who can’t or don’t want to leave, are paralyzed by fear, suspicion and apathy. As if Dementors have drained them of their strength and deprived them of hope.

It seems that Russian society is not ready for regime change. 

This choice, once again, will be made for the people.

The destruction of the foundations of the state

Putin turned 70 years old last year. We don’t know how true the many rumors about his serious illnesses are, but still few doubt that he will die relatively soon, based on life expectancy standards if nothing else. 

In states with functioning institutions, the departure of a leader — whether from politics or to the next world — is an event worthy of the front pages of newspapers, but it does not determine a country’s very survival. 

Reality is quite different in countries with broken institutions, like Russia. In eliminating all possible competitors and canceling elections, Putin has deprived Russia of guarantees for a legitimate and peaceful transfer of power. He has hung the future of the country on a very unreliable hook: his own life.

It will be difficult for Putin and his fragmented inner circle to agree on a successor, whomever they end up selecting. The war in Ukraine — or rather the military defeats there — have aggravated internal conflicts between Russia’s ruling clans to an extreme. It’s now obvious: we await a fierce struggle for the throne of an aging dictator.

Russia’s “Game of Thrones” 

The clans operating in Russia today are similar to organized crime groups. Some have their own armies, like Yevgeny Prigozhin and Viktor Zolotov, the head of the National Guard (Rosgvardiya). Others control special forces within secret services, like Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Security Council of Russia (Sovbez). 

Each clan has its own financial resources, among them banks, state corporations and large companies. Some clans own entire regions, like Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya, and they don’t obey any laws.

Russia’s clans have never been united. For 20 years, they have fought with one another for resources and spheres of influence. For years, Putin has acted as a kind of arbiter in the conflicts of his inner circle, his very presence providing a precarious balance of power among the warring factions. The clans all understand: if Putin leaves office, it will disrupt the balance of power, and a war of all against all will commence. 

But nothing weakens the power of a dictator more than aging and military defeat. As the end of Putin’s reign draws ever nearer — whether due to political forces or old age — the more likely the many cold wars between clans will turn hot.

Ramzan Kadyrov (in the middle) listens to a report from Andrey Mordvichev, commander of the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army
Ramzan Kadyrov (in the middle) listens to a report from Andrey Mordvichev, commander of the 8th Guards Combined Arms Army

The reasons are twofold. 

For starters, the historical relations between some clans simply doesn’t leave enough room for all of them in Russia without Putin. The victory of one clan means the destruction of its rivals: they, at minimum, will have to give up their assets and influence, and maybe even their lives. 

Second, Putin has deprived himself and the state of a monopoly on violence. In addition to the army and law enforcement agencies, numerous private military groups operate in Russia.

Frontrunners and underdogs in the fight for the throne

Before placing a bet on the winner of Russia’s Game of Thrones, let's identify the underdogs. This is the easy part.

When a dictator becomes weaker, the key factor in the struggle to succeed him is physical resources: whoever has a larger, more well-equipped army holds an advantage. This much is well understood by people close to Putin. 

It explains too, in my opinion, the transformation of Dmitry Medvedev, who was once Russian liberals’ main hope for the country. Today the West considers him a clown for his ridiculous threats to the world — ”erotic fantasies,” as Prigozhin rather aptly dubbed them. Medvedev’s frivolous saber-rattling is a cowardly boy’s desperate attempt to show the class hooligans that he, too, can be bad. Maybe someone will let him join their gang.

The war on Ukraine has significantly weakened Sergey Shoigu’s once-influential clan. If, before February last year, this group claimed to be a potential successor, then after all the “gestures of goodwill” — after the world discovered the Russian army’s true nature — it no longer is. 

Once one of the country’s most popular officials, Shoigu has become one of its most hated.

Minister of defense Sergey Shoigu
Minister of defense Sergey Shoigu

The war on Ukraine has so changed the balance of power in Russia’s snake pit such that even the favorites are worried about what lies ahead. Yuri Kovalchuk, the country’s second most influential person, until recently appeared seemingly unshakeable. Today he is at odds with Yevgeny Prigozhin, however, because he understands that in a clan war of all against all, friendship with an aging and weakening dictator no longer matters. Sadists with sledgehammers at the ready will decide.

Does this mean that Prigozhin, with his private army of thousands of killers, is the top contender to win Russia’s Game of Thrones? The situation is much more complicated in my view.

Clan coalitions

Human DNA is 99% identical to that of chimpanzees, whose entire politics revolve around alpha males.

Young and strong, the alpha male chimpanzee keeps the rest of the pack at bay, oversees the distribution of resources and severely punishes those who challenge his authority. As soon as the alpha male begins to age and show signs of weakness, however, a fierce war to replace him begins. 

As primatologists have found, physical strength is an important factor in this power struggle — but it’s not decisive. Equally critical is the ability to build coalitions.

The reality of power in Russia’s political system today isn’t much different, as I see it. Victory in the fight to succeed the elderly alpha male will be realized not by a single clan, but by whoever can build the strongest coalition.

The outlines of one of these possible coalitions began to emerge several months after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We are talking about the union between Prigozhin and Kadyrov. It may also be worth adding to this alliance the clan of Zolotov, who has been well acquainted with Prigozhin since the days of “gangster Petersburg,” and who has close ties to Kadyrov. Let's call this trinity the “Coalition of the Bloodthirsty.” Its primary advantages are obvious: cruelty, determination, readiness to ignore human casualties, and of course, a huge united army.

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Another coalition that may arise during the struggle for the throne is the alliance among those who were most influential before the start of the invasion of Ukraine: Putin’s friends and colleagues. Let's call this the “Coalition of the Cronies.” Whatever contradictions tear these Kovalchuks, Patrushevs, Tokarevs and Timchenkos apart, I think they also feel the threat posed by the “Coalition of the Bloodthirsty”. They know their flock well and understand that when Prigozhin speaks of fat cattle who can’t tear their pink asses off the sofa for the sake of war, he is referring to them as well. 

If this coalition emerges, then undoubtedly its advantages will be a wealth of financial resources (these people literally own all of Russia), and control over the intelligence services. Although inferior to the “Coalition of the Bloodthirsty”’s military power, they have much greater intelligence, and intellectual potential at their disposal.

A third coalition, which emerged immediately after the start of the war on Ukraine but has not yet identified its leader nor final structure, is the ”Coalition of the Patriots.” The members of this union have not yet realized themselves as a community, but the war awakened in them common values, hatreds and aspirations. The “Coalition of the Patriots” despises the Russian ruling class for its corruption and military defeats, and it rejects the “Coalition of the Bloodthirsty” for its ties to the current government, crime and Chechnya.

This coalition has huge advantages. Its interests align with those held by the vast majority of people in Russia, including the army: it is against the corruption of the current government, and supports the complete destruction of Ukraine. The “Coalition of the Patriots”, in my opinion, is a dark horse in Russia’s Game of Thrones, the success of which largely depends on who will take the reins.

Head of the Security Council of Russia (Sovbez) Nikolai Patrushev (left)
Head of the Security Council of Russia (Sovbez) Nikolai Patrushev (left)

Russia at a crossroads

Russia’s future depends on which coalition emerges victorious in the struggle for the throne. As in ancient fairy tales, there lie three paths before the country.

The path least bloody is guaranteed by the “Coalition of the Cronies”. Should it win, the victors would repress only the leaders and active members of the opposing clans. Russia’s future would be determined by the children of the leaders of this coalition. Judging by what their acquaintances tell me, these young people would rather enjoy dance parties in Monaco and the ski slopes of Courchevel, than the prospect of becoming another North Korea, with an ongoing war at the border.

If the “Coalition of the Patriots” wins, Russia will become a military dictatorship. Victory requires a firm hand at the front, and a ruthless war against traitors in the rear. How long this dictatorship would last, no one can say. North Korea has been living this way for more than 70 years.

And if the “Coalition of the Bloodthirsty” emerges victorious, both the West and China will have to answer a very difficult question: are they ready to reckon with the fact that one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world will be in the hands of a “holy trinity”: a strangler of women, who today heads an army of sadists with sledgehammers; an academic from Chechnya who tortures his victims and arranges extrajudicial killings; and a former presidential bodyguard.

However this Game of Thrones ends, it’s evident already that Putin does not play a major role. The worst that can happen to a dictator has befallen him: people view him with contempt, not fear. 

Never ceasing to threaten the West with his missiles, they depict him in their caricatures as a monkey with a small penis hanging over a nuclear button. 

He writes many hours of speeches, which his press secretary promises the whole world will be reading and analyzing for many years to come. The world keeps on spinning and does not listen, just as passers-by do not pay attention to the madman in the subway, who day in and day out threatens the end of human existence. 

His unceasing efforts to be the alpha male of his pack notwithstanding, its members call him a coward who “ostentatiously fears for his life during a great and difficult war.” 

With this stain upon him, he will end his career and life.