VLADIMIR Putin's death could trigger a scenario that allows bad actors to get their hands on nuclear weapons amid political chaos in Moscow, experts fear.
Kremlin loyalist Nikolai Patrushev, 70, has been touted as a potential replacement - but it's not known who succeeds Putin if he becomes incapacitated or dies.
Russian expert Taras Kuzio, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, revealed there will be "infighting at the top of the Kremlin over who will be the one to take over".
Experts have speculated that Russia could strengthen its relationship with the East, or become a failed state in a post-Putin world.
CHALLENGE TO THE US
Geopolitical expert Brandon J Weichert warned that a savvier figure could succeed Putin and a future Russian state could potentially form an authoritarian axis with China.
The axis could become so powerful that it threatens the western ideals of democracy and freedom, posing a challenge to the US.
China hasn’t formally endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but Beijing and Moscow have signed cooperation agreements in the financial sector and on the supply of gas.
Beijing and Moscow conducted joint military drills and signed a military cooperation pact last year.
Meanwhile, the ruble has rebounded to pre-war levels as it strengthened its position against the dollar - despite crippling sanctions imposed on the Russian economy by the West.
Weichert warned: “A long-term disconnection from the Western economic system may make Russia stronger, more independent, and more durable.
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“The West used the economic nuclear option against Russia (sanctions) but in the long run, they could adapt, fight and overcome."
In a post-Putin world, Russia could deepen its ties with China, according to Weichert.
He explained: Members of the Siloviki (Putin's inner circle) have always favored trying to bring Russia closer to Asia.
“It’s a self-defense mechanism away from totally suffering economically and financially, particularly, in the wake of western sanctions.
“They think it’s better to have a relationship with the East than a hostile one, especially as the West isn’t interested in being Russia's friend.”
There would be an evolution of authoritarianism if China and Russia deepen their relations, Weichert says.
A new Russian state could form relations with Iran, North Korea, and Syria - potentially creating a Eurasian alliance.
Then, Latin American states such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela may be absorbed into the alliance.
Research fellow Isabel Sawkins, of the Henry Jackson Society, said: "There’s a history of relationships between the Soviet Union and Latin America."
A future Russian state’s relationship with China would begin with loose cooperation before Beijing would become the "centerpiece", according to Weichert.
He said: “Moscow may be the muscle as it has the hard military capability but Beijing would be the brains.
"The West could be creating a Frankenstein's monster.
“But, ultimately Russia would become a vassal state of China’s new empire."
Weichert said a post-Putin Russia-China partnership would look similar to the relationship between Moscow and Belarus.
Weichert explained that Putin’s successor will have to be respected if they want to consolidate power.
He said: “The only one who might be able to hold it together is Patrushev but he’s not a spring chicken.
“At some point, they will run out of people who are competent and capable enough to run the country.”
Excluding Patrushev, Weichert fears there isn’t anyone that can command the same level of respect as Putin.
But, Kuzio doesn't believe Russia would collapse and splinter into different republics.
He said: "Russia's more likely to return to what it was like in the 1990s - a chaotic and failed state where regional governments didn't listen to Moscow."
WEAPONS IN WRONG HANDS
Weichert fears that multiple power centers would emerge if Putin's successor is unable to maintain cohesion.
He warned that it may provide an opportunity for organized crime groups to try and exploit.
Weichert said: “They would try to jockey and gain power like a Game of Thrones situation where the strong king is gone and all the others are trying to use their influence to get to the number one spot."
In the 1990s, western leaders feared nuclear weapons and WMDs could end up in the hands of authoritarian regimes following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The US and its allies formed the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to "secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in the former Soviet Union states".
Around 30,000 nukes were spread over four countries when the USSR collapsed.
And, at least 40,000 tons of chemical weapons were present, according to the Arms Control Center.
If the Russian state collapses and a similar program doesn't exist, Weichert fears nukes could end up in the hands of terrorist groups.
In post-Putin Russia, military or intelligence leaders that have access to weapon systems may want to enhance their power or make money.
Weichert fears officials could use those missile systems as leverage.
They would be sold to the highest bidder and flogged potentially on the black market.
Kuzio predicts that Ukraine will win the war by the end of 2022 or the start of 2023, ultimately leading to Putin's demise.
He claims western governments believe that if they continue to supply weapons to Kyiv and it leads to a Ukrainian victory, then it's the end for Putin.
The US Air Force revealed that Washington DC has committed around $2.6billion in security assistance to Ukraine so far.
Kuzio said: “The impact of western sanctions, new weapons coming from the West, and high levels of casualty will go up even more.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky claimed on April 30 that Russia had lost more than 23,000 soldiers in the conflict so far.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union lost around 15,000 troops over 10 years in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
Kuzio forecasts that Russian losses could reach at least 50,000 by the end of the conflict.
He said: “That’s when the infighting and squabbling begin at the top.
“Western sanctions take between three and six months to have an impact so that’s why I think by the end of the year.”
Kuzio believes that infighting will also start if Putin continues to show a “sign of weakness”.
He said: “A dictator should never show a sign of weakness.
"On the issue of Putin’s health, I think some of it is probably speculation and exaggeration, but there’s no smoke without fire.
“There’s definitely something going on. If you look at a photo of Putin in 2014 and a photo of him today, there are two different faces. There’s something going on with his health.”
Kuzio says that Putin is more “paranoid and conspiratorial”.
Former Vice Chief of Staff of the US Army General Jack Keane (Ret.) told Fox News: “He’s all about staying in power. That’s his motivation. He will do anything to stay in power.
“The alternative, he knows full well, by a successor who doesn't agree with him, could mean the end of him - his demise.”
Photos of the strongman have emerged of him puffy-faced while body language experts have speculated that he may be suffering from a serious breakdown.
An investigation by Proekt media revealed the tyrant is “constantly” accompanied by a doctor specializing in thyroid cancer.
The report states that thyroid cancer specialist surgeon, Yevgeny Selivanov, has flown to be beside the Russian leader no less than 35 times in Sochi.
Putin met several people who has tested for Covid during the pandemic and he was forced to self-isolate in September 2021, after several people close to him were struck down.
Researchers in 2015 claimed they identified signs in Putin's gait which could point to Parkinson's disease.
The team noticed how Putin had a tendency to keep one arm pinned to his side.
It has also been claimed he had been treated for cancer.
Political analyst Valery Solovei claimed Putin underwent surgery in February 2020 and another Russian source went on to claim it was an abdominal cancer operation.