Institutionally, the Kremlin has for years been effectively an extension of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. Thee three most powerful men in Russia today are all current or former FSB chiefs- Putin himself, the Security Council chairman Nikolai Patrushev and the current FSB head Alexander Bortnikov. They met in the Leningrad KGB in the mid-1970s and have known and worked with each other for nearly half a century. Most other top Kremlin influencers- for instance the Rosneft head Igor Sechin, the foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin and many more are also drawn from that same tiny Leningrad KGB circle, and leavened by a few Putin’s old friends from his time as deputy mayor of St.Petersburg in the 1990s.

For these people, the question of who is eventually chosen to succeed Putin is much less important than who does the choosing. In 2000 Patrushev- newly appointed as head of the FSB by his former subordinate Putin who had just become President wrote an essay comparing the FSB to Russia’s ‘new mobility’. And over the subsequent 20 years the FSB did indeed proceed not only to take over swaths of Russia’s state and private business but also to appoint their children as ministers and even-just like the aristocracy of tsarist Russia make dynastic marriages among themselves.

Modern Russia is not just a security state but literally a state that has been taken by its own security services. Putin is the ultimate decision-maker and arbiter in various disputes between rival factions inside that extended FSB-connected ruling class. And insofar as a ‘collective Putin’ exists, it is composed of a tiny group of very closely connected, very paranoid old men whose chief goal is to preserve their wealth and power and pass it on to their children and protégés.

When considering whether regime change is possible in Russia, what’s important is whether some outside force could ever challenge the rule, not of Putin himself, but of the extended FSB clan that currently holds ultimate political and economic power. Russia’s military has no role in internal security and the Russian National Guard is headed naturally by a former KGB man, Putin’s former body-guard Viktor Zolotov. The silent majority of Russia’s elite- the mid level bureaucrats, professionals and business-people who have been robbed of their futures and their wealth by the war are by all accounts collectively horrified by it. These people represent significant economic and bureaucratic power. But they have no organized political voice and generally have too much to lose to risk rebellion. If the Russian army suffers a serious collapse and the country moves into a revolutionary situation, such nationalist firebrands will be the Kremlin elite’s most dangerous foes. It is much more likely, however, that the FSB clique around Putin will respond to a rising tide of nationalist anger and frustration by becoming more nationalist and authoritarian themselves.

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