The ex-British spy who wrote a dossier on Donald Trump and Russian interference in the US election says he believes Vladimir Putin will be out of power “within the next year”.
Christopher Steele, who ran the Russia desk at MI6 in London between 2006 and 2009, told Sky News the West needs to “prepare for the end of the Putin era”.
The fractures in the Russian president’s control were exposed during the aborted Wagner coup, and here Steele runs through some potential scenarios that could end his reign.
:: Putin dies from illness or is assassinated
Rumours of Putin’s health have been rife, including that he’s seriously ill with cancer.
Steele says the exact nature of any health complaint is unclear but “very credible sources are telling us he’s been ill for some time”- raising the prospect he could die suddenly.
It’s also possible he could be assassinated, perhaps by internal elements, or by a plot from outside of Russia.
Steele says this would be the worst scenario for the West as “all bets would be off”, with “factional bloodshed” likely before a successor is established.
FSB director Alexander Bortnikov could be one of the frontrunners to take power in such a scenario, says the ex-spy.
:: Toppled due to Ukraine war failure
Putin believed a swift victory was possible when he invaded Ukraine: the reality has been very different.
Ambitions to take over the entire country were ill-founded and the fighting grinds on despite many deaths and demoralised troops.
Steele says the slow progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive may have given Putin some “breathing space” but that disquiet over the invasion – and the tightening effect of sanctions on the Russian economy and the rich and powerful could prove pivotal.
He believes this is the most likely scenario, with the following narrative playing out: “A move is made violently, if necessary, to kill or topple Putin in favour of another securocrat or regime oligarch – but one who has distanced themselves from the war and is prepared to negotiate on ending it genuinely with the West.”
He says “rising star” Aleksey Dyumin, the governor of Tula oblast, is one potential successor.
The others being oligarch Igor Sechin – nicknamed ‘Darth Vader’, and former Russian prime minister Viktor Zubkov.
While such a narrative could hasten the end of the war, Steele says another outcome could see control seized by nationalists in the security services who have lost faith in Putin but want to continue the fighting.
:: Putin stands down and endorses successor
After more than 20 years in power and with pressure mounting, the 70-year-old could decide it’s time to go and step down at the next election, scheduled for March 2024.
Steele says the elections give him a “potential off-ramp” and that Putin could choose to back a successor such as Dmitry Patrushev, son of the Russian Security Council secretary, or Aleksey Dyumin.
The ex-MI6 man says one of these figures as leader would mean “little or no change to the war in Ukraine, but at least the West would be facing a Russian leader who has not proven to be untrustworthy, a liar, and is not indicted for war crimes”.
As part of a deal to step aside, Putin might also ask for immunity for him and his family – similar to the deal struck when ex-president Boris Yeltsin ceded control in 1999.
“That’s in the back of his [Putin] mind that a similar deal might be possible for him going forward,” says Steele.
:: Military coup
The attempted coup by Wagner mercenaries – said to be aimed at Russia’s military leaders rather than Putin himself – was stopped by its leader before troops could reach Moscow.
But Steele says another hypothetical would be a plot orchestrated by senior officers from the country’s mainstream armed forces “disillusioned by the failures and losses in Ukraine”.
He says it would mean “no change to the war or Russian foreign policy” but could result in a transitional regime with a figure such as General Surovikin, commander of Russia’s aerospace forces, as president.
However, while possible, he rates this scenario as “very unlikely”.
Steele adds: “I think there is real disquiet amongst key people in the leadership now.
“Not just in the armed forces where the generals have been openly criticising Putin and the Kremlin for its support for the war – which is unheard of – but more generally the idea of the trajectory of Russia now: led by a president who’s been indicted for war crimes, who’s leading the Russian economy down a certain path.”
:: Popular uprising
Another less likely route Putin might be ousted would be an uprising – either by a nationalist figure such as Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, or a democratic action by supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The ex-spy says this would be “very unpredictable and possibly bloody in the short term” – with outcomes obviously more favourable for the West and Ukraine if democratic figures were able to seize control.