With the March 18 polling day closing in, the Russian presidential campaign is moving into top gear this week following President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 state-of-the-union address on Thursday. The set-piece speech, in which Putin outlined a multi-year domestic and foreign policy agenda, comes as national political attention is increasingly shifting forward to 2024.
That date, when Putin will be constitutionally required to step down from power, could bring an end to what has been a remarkable period in Russian history that has seen him as prime minister or president from 1999 to 2024. Extraordinarily, this is a longer period at the top than all the Soviet Union’s supreme leaders, except Joseph Stalin.
While Putin is widely criticised abroad, especially in the West, he remains very popular in Russia and is currently polling massively ahead of his nearest rival, according to election surveys. Indeed, in this context, the president’s biggest challenge is not winning on March 18, but trying to whip up enough popular interest in the contest to ensure a respectably high level of turnout.
With attention already turning to 2024, there are at least four key scenarios for the future of the country’s governance from then onward. These presume, which is by no means certain, that Putin remains fit and healthy enough to stay in office for six more years when he will be 72 (around Donald Trump’s age today), and that he remains politically popular throughout the period.
Firstly, and perhaps most optimistically, is that Putin will finally step back in 2024 and allow free and fair elections in Russia. However, this appears the least likely option at this stage, not least because any genuinely new administration might ultimately launch significant retrospective probes into his many years of power.
A second scenario is that Putin seeks to change the constitution which prohibits any one person being elected more than twice consecutively. While this may be his ultimate end-game, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that he would be able to secure it, especially if his political luck finally goes south in the next six years which is a real possibility fuelled by potential foreign policy misadventure, or domestic economic travails.
A third option is that he seeks to groom a trusted successor to hand over power potentially under terms which could see Putin seeking continued influence over power directly or indirectly. One variant of this scenario came in 2008 when he served as prime minister to president Dmitri Medvedev for four years.
Going forward, it is speculated that Putin may seek to hold positions in 2024 onward ranging from prime minister, again, to roles like Speaker of the Duma. While these options cannot be dismissed, if Putin’s goal is to become president again in 2030 he would by then be 78 years of age when his personal health and political longevity could no longer be assumed.
Indeed, there are already some signs that his power is ebbing. Take the examples of turf wars and feuding at the top of the Russian elite
For instance, former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev was sentenced to eight years in prison in December for allegedly soliciting a bribe from Igor Sechin, chief executive of the state oil company Rosneft, and one of Putin’s close associates. Such elite disorder could grow, significantly, in coming six years should the president’s political writ weaken.
Nevertheless, the fact that Putin could realistically remain in power post-2024 underlines his, current, remarkable grip on power in Russia almost two decades after succeeding Boris Yeltsin. Putin has proved very skilled in tapping into the post-Cold War national mood by forging a new sense of patriotism fuelled by a growing economy during much of the period.
This theme of national unity, and seeking of global respect, is central to his re-election campaign with Putin tapping into the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. This builds upon his mission since assuming power from Yeltsin of trying to restore Russia’s geopolitical prominence and prestige through international gambits like the annexation of Crimea and the Syria intervention.
Yet, while this has — so far — played well domestically for Putin, it has resulted in frostier relations with the West, and a key question remains in coming years how the relationship, specifically with US, will fare. While Putin and US President Donald Trump had hoped for a warming in relations, events during the first year of his presidency may have already destroyed the window of opportunity that could have existed for this to happen between Washington and Moscow.
Here it is not only the fact that new US sanctions have made relations trickier, but also that the Trump team is under significant pressure over the congressional and FBI investigations into alleged collusion with Moscow during the 2016 US presidential campaign. Moreover, there have been significant US-Russia tensions in the Middle East, including after US missile strikes targeted Syria last year following an earlier poison gas attack perpetrated by the Damascus regime. US Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were forceful in their criticism of Moscow at the time with the latter saying that “either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent” in Syria. And the spike in Washington-Moscow tensions even saw Medvedev saying the two countries were “one step away from war” and had “totally ruined” relations.
Taken overall, with Putin’s victory almost certain, key questions remain not just over the post-2024 Russia domestic landscape. In addition, the nearer-term future of Moscow’s ties with the US and the wider West remain in flux with Trump’s proposed repositioning of relations now looking as though it might be in the deep freeze.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.