The Russian Constitution requires President Vladimir Putin to step down in 2024 after two terms, but a constitutional amendment passed in 2020 would reset the presidency back to zero, effectively allowing Putin to remain President until 2036.
Putin has not elaborated on what his plans are for 2024 and beyond, but he is in a position the former Russian President Boris Yeltsin found himself in 20 years ago and must now choose a succession plan that considers his political safety and longevity.
Putin has placed himself at the centre of a Russian political system with a structure that rests not on ideology, but upon a complex system of favours given and received, interpersonal relationships, and dependencies. No major decisions are made without Putin, and he is relied upon as an arbiter of disputes in a network that former United States President Barack Obama likened to a criminal syndicate. Major political and economic players have delayed thoughts of their own place in a post-Putin Russia and subdued their resulting machinations in response to the possibility of extending Putin’s reign, but Putin will need to enter 2024 with a clear strategy for the future.
Putin would be well aware of what legal fate may await him if he simply retires: since 2000, eight leaders from four states of the former Soviet Union (Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine) have faced prosecution after leaving power. On top of this, there may be the threat of extra-legal prosecution by coup or assassination, and Putin would further fear staying in power for too long only to be removed by political rivals. There appear to be three options for Putin going forward in 2024.
Putin may choose to remain as President, but this seems unlikely. Putin’s approval rating is 66 per cent as of June 2021, but that figure falls to 48 per cent when Russians are asked if they would like to see Putin as president in 2024; this further declines to 31 per cent for the 18-24 age demographic. Putin cannot rely on an approval boost through national fervour as he did following the conflicts in Georgia and Crimea, and the consequences of COVID-19 have further compounded the impact of a decade-long period of near-zero economic growth and stagnation. Putin’s foreign policies have further exacerbated Russia’s economic situation: interventions in Crimea and Ukraine led to Western sanctions and economic isolation, and Russian diplomatic tactics resulted in 60 diplomats being expelled from the Czech Republic in April 2021 and disputes over oil payments with Belarus in March 2020.
Putin’s control at home has also deteriorated, as shown by weeks-long protests in the Khabarovsk region after Moscow detained a popular governor in 2020; regional elections whereby citizens ‘protest voted’ for any candidate other than Putin’s in 2019, and street protests in over 100 Russian cities in January 2021 as a result of the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Disputes between elites that may have previously been private have entered the public arena and Putin himself was unsuccessful in preserving the European University at St. Petersburg from developers.
Another option for Putin is re-employing the ‘castling manoeuvre’ that he used to step back from the presidency from 2008-2012, handing it to his ally Dmitry Medvedev. Putin prepared the public for this switch in 2007 by repeatedly stressing the dangers of having too much political power in located in one person, the same language he repeated in his 2020 speech to the Parliament regarding constitutional amendments. If Putin were to return to the position of Prime Minister, his successor will likely be relatively unknown, as Medvedev was before 2008 and as Putin was before becoming President himself.
Prime Ministership seems unlikely considering it opens Putin up to the threat of dismissal from his President, and while Medvedev was President he was able to form his own Kremlin entourage, was blatantly courted by the West as a progressive alternative to Putin, and made foreign policy decisions that infuriated Putin.
Putin may have one other option for retaining power safely: leaving the presidency to become the head of the Security Council. Nursultan Nazarbayev was the first President of Kazakhstan until he handed the position to a successor in 2019, retained his own power as the Chair of the Security Council, and now enjoys a form of prestige as elbasy: ‘Father of the Nation’. The first leadership transition since independence took a similar route in Singapore and this is perhaps the most likely scenario from those outlined, considering it safeguards Putin’s security and his legacy without leaving a power vacuum. Putin has not mentioned joining the Security Council, but in feeding expectations that he will run for President in 2024 and concurrently employing language last used before he took the role of Prime Minister in 2007, Putin could cultivate this strategy securely while maintaining its disguise from the view of political threats.
Russian politics have been dominated by Putin for the last 20 years. He has more experience than any of his international peers, and whatever he chooses to do it will likely be obfuscated until the last moment of the final act. The result will reverberate through Russian society, politics, and history, as well as the world stage.
Shaun Cameron is a postgraduate student working in Bangkok, Thailand.