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Interview: The ‘War Of Clans For Putin’s Throne Has Begun’

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Roman Anin is a Russian investigative journalist who worked for Novaya gazeta and was among the founders of the independent iStories outlet in 2020.

He has taught journalism in Moscow and worked with international networks including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), in addition to his work investigating millions of documents leaked among the so-called Panama Papers. He has also reported deeply on the leadership within Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

In 2021, Russian authorities labeled him a “foreign agent.” He resides abroad.

Anin spoke with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service recently about potential risks to Vladimir Putin stemming from the Russian leader’s decision to invade Ukraine, the current maneuvering for power by men like Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and National Guard head Viktor Zolotov, and whether a possible Russian defeat in Ukraine could spell a new Time of Troubles.

RFE/RL: Many Western experts are skeptical of a scenario in which Putin is challenged or ousted inside Russia and the Kremlin. If the title of your piece (on iStories in January) is anything to go by — A Clan War For Putin’s Throne Has Begun — you don’t share that skepticism. Why not?

Roman Anin: I believe that the war of clans for his throne has begun. It doesn’t mean that they will overthrow him. Putin is 70-something years old; he’s not a young man. That means that his circle understands that sooner rather than later he will die or he will step down. They realize that they need to work on the different scenarios after his death. And the problem of his circle is that it’s so split, they have been constantly fighting against each other for dozens of years now, for access to him, for the opportunity to influence his decisions, for power. These fights were sometimes not “cold” but fought.

There are plenty of examples. Take [Security Council member and National Guard (Rosgvardiya) Director Viktor] Zolotov, for example, who is very close to Putin — or rather used to be very close to Putin. He used to be his bodyguard, a guy who spends most of his time together with Putin.

Zolotov hates [Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr] Bortnikov, and Bortnikov hates Zolotov; they’re constantly fighting. That makes it very difficult for them to agree about a possible successor. And that’s why I think that it actually increases the chances that one of them, or a coalition of them, will start acting even before Putin’s death or before he loses power — just because they will realize that they don’t want to lose time.

RFE/RL: When you write that a battle for Putin’s throne is already raging, what do these people want: to replace Putin or to get closer to the tsar, to whisper in his ear?

It’s even simpler. They want to save their lives, assets, the lives of their relatives. They understand that after Russia loses the war — because nobody among them believes in the victory anymore — they understand that it will be the starting point of this battle for the throne. And the one who loses the battle will lose everything — power, assets….

Imagine that the next president of Russia is somebody from [Nikolai] Patrushev’s clan, who is the head of the National Security Council of Russia, one of the major governmental bodies of the country. That means that people who were fighting against him during all these years will not be able to save their assets, and even [their] lives or maybe freedom, and they understand that. And that’s what I believe will make a war really be fought. They will be fighting for their lives.

Because the other problem is that they’re stuck on this boat — because of the sanctions, because of their involvement in various crimes. They can’t leave the country. They can’t just say, “OK, let’s betray Putin and go somewhere.” They’re stuck there. And imagine snakes stuck in the same bottle and they just hate each other.

RFE/RL: What’s the take of Putin himself on this power struggle? One interpretation is that he’s trying to set his underlings against each other so as to remain strong while they’re being weakened.

 Before the war, that really was a part of his strategy. He loves to behave as judge in those battles of the inner circle. Today, it’s obviously not the case, because those public clashes between [former bodyguard and Wagner Group founder Yevgeny] Prigozhin and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu, between Prigozhin and [Chechen Republic head Ramzan] Kadyrov, they definitely don’t make Putin’s power stronger. It’s vice versa; they’re making it weaker.

Putin’s problem is he’s a politician who is constantly afraid of making decisions, who would rather sit and do nothing and wait until the problem somehow solves itself….

RFE/RL: That’s a strange assessment of a man who made a decision to invade his neighbor.

But these are different types of decisions. Because he believed, when he made this decision, that it would be a very easy war; they believed they would conquer Ukraine in three days. So, he wasn’t actually risking anything.

The decision to do something inside his clan [is different] — and actually he doesn’t have that many choices, Putin. If you read public statements of Prigozhin, of many other opinion leaders, so-called patriots, they have already started criticizing him. They have already started saying that he is betraying the country.

These are very serious accusations, and either Putin acts himself — meaning he starts repressions against his former allies — or it will become too late. And that’s a very difficult decision. It’s ridiculous that such a kind of decision for him is more difficult than the decision to invade Ukraine. And he hasn’t made this decision. But I believe that as we are approaching the presidential elections, the more he will have to act, and I believe that we will witness repressions against his former allies.

RFE/RL: Another decision he could have made, but hasn’t, is to appoint some kind of successor-in-waiting. Why hasn’t he done that?

I believe because he doesn’t have a good figure. He knows that his clans are separated, and it’s very difficult to find somebody who will serve all the clans. And simultaneously because he’s really afraid for his freedom and life. He’s afraid of losing power. I think the biggest regret he must have these days is that he doesn’t have a son who could become a natural successor….

Five years ago, I did a story about his bodyguards — how they started getting positions in different agencies, especially in secret services. And I asked one of the bodyguards, “Why is Putin doing that?” And the answer was really simple: “Because he trusts these people. These people for 20 years stood behind his back with a gun and they didn’t kill him, you know?”

Finding a successor is a really risky decision, because how can he be sure that the successor will not betray him the next day after he becomes the president? That is why he’s afraid, and I’m sure that Putin will go for another presidency.

RFE/RL: What does this power or succession struggle spell for his legacy, which he’s so obsessed with?

 I think it has become clear these days what his legacy is and what his historical role will be. In the history of Russia and the world, it is clear today, he will remain as a near-Hitler, as one of the worst dictators, one of the persons who started one of the cruelest wars in in Europe. He wanted to live on in the history of Russia and the world somewhere in between Peter I and Catherine the Great. But he will be somewhere between Hitler and [former Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi.

RFE/RL: Let’s discuss those who are vying for his throne, and let’s begin with the most notorious one — that’s definitely Prigozhin. Who is the “happy grandpa” that Prigozhin was mocking in his recent videos? Is it [Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces General Valery] Gerasimov, as he later claimed, or the “bunker grandpa,” as Putin has been repeatedly been called since the war?

I’m absolutely sure that it’s Putin, not Gerasimov. First of all, “Grandpa” is the nickname of Putin, and everybody knows it. Prigozhin chose that nickname not accidentally. Then, of course, he realizes that Gerasimov is officially in charge of what they call the “special military operation,” but all the major decisions are, of course, made by Putin. And the decision whether to provide weaponry and ammunition to Wagner is made not by Gerasimov but by Putin.

And what is also really important and interesting in the framework of this war of clans and Prigozhin himself was his public statement [in the same video]…that they are going to leave Bakhmut on the 10th of May. And everyone paid attention only to the first part of this statement. But, in my opinion, the last part was more important. What he said was that “we will leave on the 10th of May, and we will wait until the Russian people need us, which we believe is going to happen really soon if you look at how our leaders are acting.”

It was obvious that he was referring to some kind of revolution, coup, or whatever. So he sees Wagner as this kind of military group that represents the interests of the majority of Russians, and if Russians need it, they will be ready there. That’s a very dangerous statement and nobody noticed. But I believe that Putin and his people in the Kremlin really read between the lines.

RFE/RL: If so, can Putin really afford for Prigozhin to get away with this? There was also this other statement where he said something to the effect of, “We should cut our losses, consolidate our gains, and freeze the war in Ukraine.” People have been thrown into jail in Russia for much less.

 Absolutely. Again, these statements weaken Putin’s power…. It’s very interesting, because they’re very dependent on each other. Prigozhin is in charge of 50,000 people at the most important section of the front lines. If they leave, you know, that will be the end of the war — or at least that will be a very serious defeat of the Russian Army.

Prigozhin is dependent on Putin because they can’t fight without ammunition, without weapons. So I believe that Putin is dreaming more than [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy that Prigozhin dies there — that would be the best solution of his problem.

RFE/RL: What does it say about Russia itself that a former strangler of women, a bandit, and now a guy who prances around with a sledgehammer is vying for the top spot in power? We do have historical analogues here, the precedent of Stalin being a bank robber. But still.

Anin: I actually don’t think there were examples, at least in recent history, of such a country. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine that I am somewhere in 2007, and a screenwriter from Hollywood comes to me and says, “Look, here’s an amazing book or script which says that Russia starts a war against Ukraine, Putin is sitting in his bunker for two years, the main military guy is an ex-criminal who was beating women and robbing them. He is recruiting tens of thousands of prisoners and they’re being killed on the front line without anything, and Russia is becoming the most isolated country, somewhere between Iran and North Korea.” I would have told the screenwriter that he’s crazy. But this is the reality.

We were talking about Putin’s legacy. When he became president, Russia was one of the most developed, elite countries of the world. Where is it today? It’s such a tragedy, of course, first of all for Ukraine, but [look at] what Putin also did to Russia: He threw his country dozens and dozens of years back, and I don’t know how much time it’s actually going to take to recover or whether the recovery is possible at all.

RFE/RL: If Prigozhin, indeed, has some sort of big game plan in mind, what would be his selling pitch to the Russian people?

We have to admit that he’s very talented PR guy, and he was already selling this idea that, “Look at these fat cats from Rublevka, the wealthiest part of Russia. They betrayed the country. They’re sending your sons to the front line without anything. They stole everything. Your sons are dying there. I know how to win the war, but these traitors don’t allow me. They don’t allow us to win.”

And Russians are buying that. He’s becoming more and more popular. Because he’s actually saying the truth, or he is saying something that resonates with Russians. Because, unfortunately, the majority of Russians do support the war, or at least maybe not the war itself but they think these days that “if we started the war, then there is no way for us to lose it. We’ve got to go until the end.” And Prigozhin’s ideas resonate with Russians.

RFE/RL: He’s also the only one who can, to some extent, claim some sort of success in Ukraine, compared to others.

Exactly. That’s what Ukrainians say. That’s what Western experts say. And that’s what people in Russia say: That his private army is more effective than the official army.

RFE/RL: With all that in mind, who do see coming out on top in this Prigozhin versus Shoigu and Gerasimov duel?

It really depends on what’s going to happen after and during any Ukrainian counteroffensive. Things can start changing and developing really quickly, and I’m afraid that we are a step before the start of the real chaos in Russia — unless Putin decides to withdraw the troops, close the country, proclaim a military dictatorship, arrest all his enemies, and transform the country into really a North Korea….

RFE/RL: If he decides to do such things, will he be able to do that?

 That’s the thing; I think he’s not ready to do that, and he’s hoping for a miracle. He’s not doing anything. He’s kind of stuck in his bunker. And that’s why he’s criticized, you know. If you read the most popular “Z” channels, they’re saying, “Where is our leader? What is our plan? Are we going to win?” He’s afraid to do that, and that’s why I think that he will not do that. And on the one hand, I am afraid; on the other hand, I hope that the successful [Ukrainian] counteroffensive will start this hot fight between elites, this chaos.

But I am afraid that somebody even worse can win this battle. And that will be the real challenge for the West. How is the West going to act? Because imagine Prigozhin wins the battle, and now the country with the second-biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons is in the hands of a notorious criminal, a criminal who is even worse than Putin, a crazy criminal, a sadist, a guy who loves torturing people and killing them.

And I hope the West has a plan for how it’s going to act if somebody like Prigozhin or [Igor] Girkin (aka Igor Strelkov, who played a role in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and supported armed separatists in eastern Ukraine) or anybody else wins the war [for power].

Unfortunately, there are no reasonable people within the elite, those with power. Liberals are very weak. There are some liberals within the Putin circle – people like [longtime Kremlin strategist Sergei] Kiriyenko, people like [Aleksei] Kudrin, people like [Anatoly] Chubais — but these people don’t have physical power. In a failed state — and in my opinion Russia has become a failed state — the one with the biggest gun wins. Those liberal forces, both within Putin’s circle and in general in Russia, unfortunately don’t have this power; they can’t use it.

RFE/RL: Another colorful figure is Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, the “notable Chechen academic,” as you dubbed him in your article, who was ready to replace Wagner troops with his own Akhmat detachment in Bakhmut. What realistic or unrealistic ambitions might Kadyrov have in this power struggle?

 I think that actually the majority of experts kind of exaggerate his ambitions. I don’t think that he has any kind of presidential ambitions or even more. If you look at what he’s doing in his republic, he has been putting his relatives in major posts within the republic. It’s ridiculous. I think he has appointed more than 25 or 30 members of his family in the most important posts in Chechnya.

RFE/RL: A monarchic approach?

 Exactly. In my opinion, he just wants to be where he is right now: the leader of Chechnya, the king of Chechnya, a guy who can do whatever he wants in Chechnya and continue receiving federal money. It’s an amazing state within the state that’s being financed by all Russians. Chechnya, I think, is more than 90 percent dependent on money from the federal budget. So, I don’t think that he has any other ambitions rather than to just stay there in power and die on his throne and give his power to one of his relatives.

RFE/RL: Let’s move on to the less colorful figures then. We have this myriad of clans, like [Security Council Secretary Nikolai] Patrushev, the [billionaire Yury] Kovalchuk, the [oligarch Igor] Sechin, and so on. How would you assess their chances of coming out on top?

Well, of course, all of them are different. It is believed — well, I think it’s a fact — that Kovalchuk is the second [most powerful] person in the country. He’s one of the closest to Putin, and definitely he was the one who knew about the invasion, and maybe he was the one who influenced this decision. We don’t know, but that’s what the majority of experts think.

Simultaneously, those people who are considered to be the oldest friends of Putin — like Sechin, [Rostec defense conglomerate CEO Sergei] Chemezov, Kovalchuk — there are a lot of fights between them as well. For instance, [Transneft head Nikolai] Tokarev, who used to serve with Putin in the KGB in Germany, is constantly fighting with Sechin, who’s also an old-time friend of Putin. In some cases, they’ve even resulted in criminal cases against people. People within the inner circle can’t start criminal cases against each other, so what they do is that second or third people, subordinates [do it], and it hasn’t changed.

And sources are telling me that those fights have intensified in the last year because the pie is becoming smaller. They understand that the risks are higher, and, of course, they want to protect their clan in the best way, and they want to weaken other clans. It’s all going on behind the curtain. But the most important, the majority of them, we don’t see them.

RFE/RL: In your piece, you kind of partitioned those into three major camps. One of them was “bloodthirsty,” which contained people like Prigozhin and so on; then we had the “privileged,” which included Putin’s inner circle, more like oligarchical, finance-minded persons; and then there was this “dark horse” of “patriots,” people who want to remove the upper echelons of Kremlin power because of corruption and incompetence, but they also want to win the war. How is this race shaping up?

The best option for Russia — and not only for Russia, but for Ukraine and the whole world — would be if the clan of the “privileged” wins. What I mean by that is that within this inner circle of Putin — I mean, there are no good people, all of them are corrupt, all of them are involved in different crimes — but there are some people who are more reasonable than Prigozhin or Strelkov.

And if the coalition of these people realizes in the end that they can stop the war and can change everything in Russia really quickly — imagine a situation where this coalition of clans brings the head of Putin to the International Criminal Court and promises that “we will withdraw all the troops from Ukraine on the borders of 1999, we give security guarantees to Ukraine, and in return the West guarantees our safety — ours and our assets — cancels all sanctions, and let’s start from the beginning.”

I believe that the West, which is really already tired of the war, will agree to that, because it will mean the victory of Ukraine, the end of the war, and the start of a new relationship with Russia. It actually would be the best-case scenario. And I really hope that the coalition of what we call the “privileged,” will sooner rather than later understand it; otherwise, Russia will be stuck somewhere in between Prigozhin and Strelkov. And this is not a very good option.

RFE/RL: What happens if Ukraine wins the war on the battlefield?

 We all hope that it will happen, that Ukraine will win on the battlefield. It would mean the start of chaos in Russia and the start of this “war of clans” that we’ve discussed…the start of Smuta (the so-called Time of Troubles in Russian history from 1598 -1612.) And then we’ll see who wins this war.

We can’t predict the scenarios afterwards. The range is so wide — from complete chaos and the transformation of Russia into a kind of African state with gangs and constant fighting on the streets to a transformation into a democratic country in 20 years or 50 years. I don’t know. It will depend on who’s going to win this war for the throne.