Will Russian Behavior Toward the US/West 'Improve' When Putin Is Gone?

August 11, 2021
Aleksandra Srdanovic

For many years, political scientists and other experts on Russia—from the United States, Europe and Russia itself—have disagreed on the prospects for Russia's policies toward the United States, and the West more broadly, after Vladimir Putin is no longer president. Views in this simmering debate run the gamut: Yale’s Thomas Graham believes Putin’s “departure might lead to a change in style, but it will have little impact on the substance of Russian foreign policy"; former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, now back at Stanford, thinks “a new leader in Russia might change Russia’s path.” Where American policymakers fall on this issue will matter greatly to the approach they choose in building relations with Moscow: If they believe that Washington has “a Putin problem,” to borrow Graham’s terminology, rather than “a Russia problem,” they may decide that trying to improve the relationship while Putin is in office is time wasted. Below, we have compiled a broad range of comments on this topic from some of the most prominent American, European and Russian researchers of Russian policy and politics (ordered alphabetically). We invite our readers to use this as a starting point for further investigation.

Anders Aslund, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council, and Leonid Gozman, Russian Politician and Political Commentator

  • “We do not know when and how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime will end, but there are signs that it is struggling and the end could come in the foreseeable future. This final stage may last years, but we need to start discussing now how a new state should be built on the ruins of the old system. … The West had better … understand that it can only reach minor agreements as long as Putin and his circle rule Russia. … Our optimistic conclusion is that Russia may look forward to a great future of freedom, rule of law, private enterprise and rising economic welfare as soon as the obsolete despotism of Putin has been eliminated, but we dare not predict when.” (Atlantic Council, 02.24.21)

Robert E. Berls, Jr., Senior Advisor for Russia and Eurasia, Nuclear Threat Initiative

  • Demands for major change will increase. No one who replaces Putin will be able to continue his policies for very long. Once Putin is gone… change … will become inevitable, and ‘the compass of Russian history inevitably will swing towards democratization and rapprochement with the West.’” (Nuclear Threat Initiative, 07.13.21; NB: This quote features a quote from Vladislav Inozemtsev, cited separately below.)

Janusz Bugajski, Senior Fellow, Jamestown Foundation

  • “The new Kremlin head may initially assume an aggressive and imperialist posture… Post-Putinism could lead either to the collapse of the state or its economic revival.” (CEPA, 03.01.18)

Paul M. Carter, Jr., State Department Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Former Consul General in Yekaterinburg, Russia (2017-2019)

  • “Had [former President Boris] Yeltsin chosen Boris Nemtsov as his successor instead of Putin, the country might look very different today. At the very least, ordinary Russians want the same things Westerners want—decent salaries, health care, good educations for their children and basic fairness in the political and economic systems. They are essentially Europeans and instinctively drawn to Europe and the West. Now, this may not be a sufficient condition for creating post-Putin democracy in Russia, but it is a necessary condition and a reason for hope.” (United States Institute of Peace, 03.23.21)

Samuel Charap, Senior Political Scientist, RAND Corporation

  • “Holding out hope that an epiphany occurs within the Kremlin, or that a new regime will fundamentally reorganize Russia’s foreign policy outlook, is not a reasonable plan for managing this relationship. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the next Russian leader will prove any more amenable to talks than Putin, let alone more willing to embrace America’s view of the world.” (War on the Rocks, 05.14.21)
  • “As much as we might find the current Russian regime unsavory, its successor could prove no better, or in some cases worse. Yes, it is possible that a post-Putin regime will curtail the more egregious behavior, but Washington and Moscow will retain profound policy disagreements and a legacy of antagonistic relations unlikely to be easily overcome.” (War on the Rocks, 05.14.21)

Luke Coffey, Director, Douglas & Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy

  • “We all want better relations with Moscow, but that is unlikely as long as Mr. Putin remains in power.” (Heritage Foundation, 07.25.19)

Joseph J. Collins, Director, Center for Complex Operations, National Defense University; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (2001-2004)

  • The source of Russia’s bad behavior isn’t just Putin. It is also Russia’s historical pattern of foreign policy with its neighbors and other great powers.American-Russian relations are in a new Cold War, and it will likely be a lengthy one, outlasting Putin, who may well have another decade to rule.” (The Hill, 04.23.17)
  • “For reasons that are part Putin and part Russia, our future with that country will be one of vigorous competition and, for now, limited cooperation.” (The Hill, 04.23.17)
  • “In the end, Russia isn’t Canada, and it will never be a friendly country. Even when Putin is in the old chekists’ [former KGB officers’] home, Russian-American relations will not be a bed of roses. Russia will remain the captive of its history and the victim of its authoritarian style of government.” (The Hill, 04.23.17)

Elias Götz, Stipendiat, Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Sweden, and Camille-Renaud Merlen, Research Student, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent

  • “Russia’s economic modernization depends on integration with the global economy and access to Western markets. In the medium to long term, therefore, Russia has strong incentives to establish good relations with advanced industrial states. In this view, the Putin regime is an anachronistic autocracy that finds itself on the wrong side of history, to borrow Barack Obama’s pithy phrase. This means that if another, more democratic regime comes to power, there are good chances that Russia will fully integrate into the existing liberal international order.” (European Politics and Society, 11.15.18)

Jakub Grygiel, Associate Professor, Catholic University of America

  • “The simplicity of Russian foreign policy is matched by its persistent implementation. These goals—and in particular the three geopolitical requirements for Russia to be a European great power—have been the guiding lights of Russian foreign policy for a long time and are not the product of Putin’s imagination. Putin is not pursuing new foreign policy goals; he has merely implemented them with greater vigor and a keen sense of opportunism. His foreign policy is not a historical anomaly. Putin’s successor may alter the timing, tweak the priorities and adopt a different mix of means, but rest assured Russia will continue to be a competitor in the European theater.” (The American Interest, 08.15.19)

Timothy Frye, Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy, Columbia University

  • “This is not to argue that Putin’s background and experience are of no consequence, or that any randomly selected Russian who landed in the Kremlin would behave like Putin. The debate on whether great individuals make history or history makes great individuals is long and inconclusive. But our national discussion on Russia has overplayed the individual at the expense of other factors—a bias that has not only distorted our view of Russian politics but has also bolstered a key Kremlin talking point—the indispensability of Putin to Russian politics.” (The Daily Beast, 08.09.21)

Thomas Graham, Senior Advisor, Kissinger Associates; Co-Founder, Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Program, Yale University

  • “Putin is the dominant figure in Russia today, and he makes the final decisions on foreign policy. But we need to remember that he operates in a political context and does not have a free hand, as he must balance the competing factions around him to maintain his own position. Moreover, he is a product of the Russian elite, and he gives voice to its consensus on Russia’s role in the world, which has deep roots in history and strategic tradition. His departure might lead to a change in style, but it will have little impact on the substance of Russian foreign policy. In short, we have a Russia problem, not a Putin problem.” (Perspectives on Peace and Security, August 2014)

Vladislav Inozemtsev, Russian Economist, Founder of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies, Russia

  • “I only have one reason for optimism: Putin is not eternal. Personalist regimes have one factor in common: they cannot outlive their founder. You need to be ready for the fact that once the founder is gone, it will collapse.” (Deutsche Welle, 04.20.18)

Ivan Krastev, Chair, Center for Liberal Strategies, Bulgaria, and Gleb Pavlovsky, Russian Political Analyst

  • “Despite widespread expectations that the regime will undergo a major transformation, it is unlikely that post-Putin Russia will be an anti-Putin Russia… Moscow will likely maintain its current foreign policy objectives even after Putin’s exit from the Kremlin, but without him Russia will probably be a weak international player.” (European Council on Foreign Relations, 03.01.18)

Richard J. Krickus, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Mary Washington

  • “A broad range of economic and political circumstances support the notion that in spite of a multitude of challenges, the Power Vertical will persist even beyond Vladimir Putin’s tenure.” (Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 05.01.14)

John Lloyd, Co-Founder, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford; Contributing Editor, Financial Times

  • “‘Putinism’—in the form of a country largely hostile to the West—will prevail as any successor seeks to preserve Putin’s success in making Russia at least appear to be great again. … Russia without Putin will likely look and act much as it does with him.” (Reuters, 08.24.18)

Bobo Lo, Nonresident Fellow, Lowy Institute

  • “In time, the Kremlin’s conviction in its own righteousness may become diluted and give way to a more open-minded and questioning attitude. But this will not happen as long as Putin remains the dominant political figure in Russia, and certainly not during the current presidential term.” (Lowy Institute, 09.17.18)

Michael Kimmage, Professor of History, Catholic University of America, and Matthew Rojansky, Director, Wilson Center's Kennan Institute

  • There will be a Russia after Putin. Its foreign policy may well shift, but it will not shift 180 degrees, and a considerable space between Russian and American interests is sure to remain. The unspectacular reality is that Russia and the U.S. will have to learn to live with each other. They should start figuring out a way to do so sooner rather than later. In this self-consciously boring approach, Russia would resemble any number of other countries whose political cultures and provocations vex American policymakers, but which are not perceived as nemeses. This list would include Pakistan, Turkey, Vietnam, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.” (New Republic, 06.09.21)

Michael McFaul, Director, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University

  • “Russia was not destined to return to a confrontational relationship with the United States or the West… Rather, President Putin chose this path.” (International Security, Fall 2020)
  • “Because leaders matter, Russia and the West are not destined for confrontation forever because of the balance of power in the international system. A new leader in Russia might change Russia’s path. It happened before; it can happen again.” (Foreign Policy, 05.07.20)
  • “History is on the side of those who want to see Russia return to being a normal, boring, democratic European country.” (The Moscow Times, 10.18.19)

Olga Oliker, Director, Europe and Central Asia Program, International Crisis Group

  • “The foreign-policy goals Putin’s Russia has pursued are not different from historical Russian, Soviet, and Imperial Russian foreign-policy goals. Nor were the last two decades unique in economic ups and downs and cycles of liberalization and constraint at home. I would say the real change Putin has wrought is to establish a system that appears extraordinarily dependent on him personally, both for its own sustainment and to make decisions and take action. And that, by definition, lasts only as long as Putin remains in power.” (Foreign Policy, 05.07.20)

Nikolai Petrov, Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Chatham House; Professor of Political Science, Higher School of Economics, Moscow

  • “Irrespective of who eventually succeeds Vladimir Putin, political conditions in Russia are likely to continue to impede the development of more constructive relations with the West.” (Chatham House, 05.13.21)

Eugene Rumer, Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia, U.S. National Intelligence Council

  • “It seems more than likely that at least the broad outlines of Putin’s foreign-policy vision will endure beyond his presidency.” (Russian Foreign Policy Beyond Putin, 2007)

Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

  • “Russia under Putin, and perhaps even after he departs from the scene, does not accept American primacy, either in its neighborhood or globally. American policy toward Russia for the past three decades has failed to reconcile Russia to the U.S. vision of its global leadership, which presumes a right and a responsibility to create and maintain everywhere in the world an international order predicated upon U.S. values and advancing U.S. interests.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 06.20.19)
  • “It is highly unlikely that this Russian stance toward the United States, NATO and the West in general [including an insistence on no additional NATO expansion eastward and noninterference in Russian domestic affairs] will change over time, even after Vladimir Putin departs the Kremlin. The period of Russia’s rapprochement with the West under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in the 1980s and 1990s appears to have been a temporary aberration from several traditions in Russian political and strategic culture that have endured across centuries and various political regimes.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 06.20.19)
  • U.S. engagement in and around Russia has provoked corresponding hostility from Moscow in response to perceived threats, causing deep resentment and suspicion and making it more difficult to secure Russian cooperation on issues where the two countries have shared interests. To overcome this legacy, the United States would do well to revisit the foundational principles of realism for managing the U.S.-Russian relationship, whether with Putin or a post-Putin Russia that continues the policies and behavior of its predecessor.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 06.20.19)
  • Russia’s political system and the parameters of its foreign policy doctrine are well entrenched, and in some form or another they will likely outlive Putin’s rule, even if there are changes on the margins.” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 06.20.19)

Andrei Soldatov, Russian Investigative Journalist

  • “[Putin] shifted the country further East, to a traditional place occupied by Russia for centuries. It’s not Eastern Europe anymore; it’s only Russia, the powerful, aggressive, totalitarian Russia it has always been… this is exactly what makes Putin’s contribution so damaging: It undermines the hope that Russia could ever become a rational, normal country.” (Foreign Policy, 05.07.20)

Paul Starobin, U.S. Author and Journalist

  • “A post-Putin era is unlikely to be a liberal one.” (The New Republic, 12.12.11)

Brian Taylor, Professor of Political Science, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

  • “Historically, the end of a personalistic regime often leads to another authoritarian government. Still, nearly every leadership change in Russia and the Soviet Union over the last century has led to major shifts in domestic or foreign policy. The same will likely be true after Putin.” (Foreign Policy, 12.12.21)

Dmitry Trenin, Director, Carnegie Moscow Center

  • “In Russia, the state—in whatever guise—is dominant; everything else revolves around it. The state is organized around a ruler exercising undivided power—a tsar, a party leader, a president—who is invested with ultimate responsibility for the country’s well-being. … The worst crime of a Russian leader, in the minds of the subjects, is to lose control of the state, which then can cease to exist… Post-Putin Russia will be different from what it is now, but hardly too different; it will be ruled by a new monarchical president, whose real authority will depend on how much confidence ordinary Russians will have in him.” (Raam op Rusland, 08.30.19)

Andrew Wood, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Chatham House; Former British Ambassador to Moscow

  • “If Russia’s relations with the West remain tense, as seems probable at least until 2024, Putin’s immediate successors will very likely feel compelled to continue his anti-Western policies, at least at first. That will all the more be the case if he/she/they succeed Putin from within his present coterie.” (The American Interest, 11.28.18)

This is an evolving draft, compiled by Russia Matters student associate Aleksandra Srdanovic, and readers are encouraged to send their proposals for additional entries to RussiaMatter[email protected] with “additional entries" in the subject line.

Photo shared by Kremlin.ru. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the individuals quoted.