Putin, Forever: The Russian President Remains as Inscrutable as Ever

Peter Rutland is Professor of Government at Wesleyan University.

This piece originally ran on Transitions Online on 16 March.

Is Vladimir Putin a master manipulator? Or is he a genius of improvisation? 

Does he have a master strategy which governs his every move, carefully thought out in advance – or is he erratic, winging things in nervous response to unexpected developments? 

Is he strong and decisive, or insecure and prone to panic?

You would think that after 20 years in office, the hoary old question of “Who is Mr Putin?” would long ago have been put to rest. But that is far from the case. 

Russian politics has been a roller-coaster over the past few months. On January 15 Putin stunned observers by firing his government and proposing constitutional amendments, which meant that after he leaves the presidency in 2024 power would be redistributed between the parliament, the Security Council and State Council.  

An officially-sponsored public debate ensued, in which a commission considered over 900 constitutional amendments and came up with a bill to put before the State Duma. While Putin’s initial January proposals seemed to diffuse power away from the president, the amendments in the 68 page bill now before the Duma considerably strengthen the powers of the president, giving him the right to fire top judges and to block legislation even when the Duma has overridden a presidential veto. 

Then on March 10, as the constitutional amendment bill was up for second reading in the Duma, Putin pulled another surprise. In answer to a question from Duma deputy Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut, he said he was open to running for a third term as president in 2024, assuming that the Constitutional Court agreed that his current term would not count towards the two-term limit. Putin explained “We’ve had enough revolutions.” That opens the door to him staying in power until 2036.

Within 24 hours, both chambers of parliament and two thirds of regional legislatures had approved the amendments, which are now being reviewed by the Constitutional Court. The proposed amendments are to be put to a national plebiscite on April 22, which will be test of the Kremlin’s capacity to mobilize public support. (This process, incidentally, does not conform to the procedure for amendments laid down in the 1993 Constitution.) 

Political scientist Pavel Salin argues the amendments will turn Russia’s “super-presidential” system into a “super-super-presidential” regime. One wit posted online a version of the Russian constitution in which every reference to the “president” has been replaced with “Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”

The amendments include a host of eclectic proposals such as appeals to family values, guaranteed indexation of pensions, recognition of Russians as a “state-forming ethnic group,” and a nod to the “God” of Russia’s ancestors. Presumably this is part of a strategy to increase popular support for the changes – and to boost turnout in the April plebiscite. Putin is following in the footsteps of the Central Asian leaders, all of whom extended their presidential terms back in the 1990s. In 2004 Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka held a referendum to abolish term limits, opening the door to serving as president for life. He was followed by the leaders of Azerbaijan in 2009, and Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in 2012.

Some analysts, such as the respected Tatiana Stanovaya, argue that this must have been Putin’s plan all along – he never intended to step aside. However, simply announcing that he was changing the constitution to become president for life might have triggered a surge of popular unrest, as happened in 2011 when he said he was returning to the presidency after a stint as prime minister. So instead Putin muddied the waters by unleashing a two-month long public debate about constitutional changes, slipping in his plan to stay on as president as an afterthought, when people had lost interest.

An even more Machiavellian analysis is that Putin still has no intention of staying on after 2024. The January announcement triggered a flurry of speculation and elite faction-fighting, and thus Putin is merely pretending that he might stay on after 2024, in order to damp down the unrest. But then at an unexpected moment between now and then he will announce his resignation from the presidency.    

On the other hand, an alternative interpretation is that back in January Putin was unsure what to do, or even genuinely committed to stepping aside, but then he changed his mind. This explanation is plausible given the momentous developments that have occurred in global affairs in the past two months. 

In Syria, an offensive by Russian-backed government forces on the rebel-held Idlib province led to the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers on February 28. Retaliatory air strikes by Turkey brought the risk of direct conflict between Syrian and Russian forces, while President Erdogan appealed to NATO for assistance. On March 5 Putin and Erdogan agreed on a ceasefire, which seems to be holding. 

Meanwhile, the covid-19 outbreak that began in China in January has caused a global recession – with trade flows, stock markets and oil prices declining precipitously. The final straw was the failure of Saudi efforts to persuade Russia and other oil producers to cut output by 4% to match the fall in global demand. Energy minister Aleksandr Novak rejected the Saudi proposal at the OPEC+ meeting in Vienna on Friday March 6 – and the Saudis responded angrily, pledging to boost their own output by 30%. That sent the oil price plunging from $52 to $35. 

These international developments surely weighed heavily on Putin’s decision-making. It cannot be a coincidence that the collapse of oil talks in Vienna occurred just four days before Putin told the Duma that he might want to stay on for a fifth term. 

Similarly, back in 2011 the threat posed by the Arab Spring and NATO’s military intervention in Libya were crucially important in persuading Putin to return to the presidency. 

It is hard to say what is preferable – a leader with a master plan, or a leader who changes his mind in response to changing circumstances. Either way, Putin’s penchant for repeated and abrupt reforms undermines the efforts of those who want to see more stable and transparent political institutions in Russia. Putin has got used to a “fire-fighting” management style. And that seems to be what the Russian people have come to expect from their leaders: a late January poll found Putin’s approval rating stable at 68%.