It’s very hard for me to put my finger on why I suspect this, but I’ve had this gut feeling for some time that Vladimir Putin is seriously weighing whether or not to run for re-election in 2018. I decided that with Putin’s annual Q+A session coming up on Thursday, I might as well throw this out there, since the question will certainly come up during the Q+A.
To refresh your memory, Vladimir Putin already served two 4-year terms as president in 2000-2008. Until it was amended in 2012, the Russian constitution said that no one could be elected president for more than two consecutive terms, leaving open the possibility of additional terms as long as they weren’t consecutive. So Dmitry Medvedev, who at the time of the 2008 election was the sitting Prime Minister under Putin, was more-or-less handed the presidency and then appointed Putin as Prime Minister, the infamous “castling” maneuver.
In 2012, Putin waited until the very last minute to announce whether he would run for a third term, and even extremely well-informed, Kremlin-adjacent people were kept in the dark. The scuttlebutt is that he either actually was undecided about whether to run, or he wanted everyone (including his inner circle) to think he was undecided.
A lot of Russians think that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton played a role in convincing Putin to return to the presidency. This was partly because of Hillary Clinton’s public denouncement of the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections, and partly because–for reasons that only Obama, HRC, and maybe a few other former Democratic architects of Obama’s Russia policy (like Victoria Nuland and Michael McFaul) can understand–the Obama Administration made a point of ignoring the obvious fact that Putin was the man behind the curtain during Medvedev’s presidency.
Remember the hot mic moment in early 2012 when Obama told Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility after his re-election, and Medvedev answered that he’d “transmit this to Vladimir”? Even Medvedev wanted to make it absolutely clear that Putin was still in charge.
But Obama and his team, inexplicably, decided to treat Medvedev as if he was an independent political entity that the US could somehow build up as an alternative to Putin, which worked spectacularly if the only goal was to piss off Putin, but achieved nothing else.
After Putin was elected to his third term, the Russian constitution was amended to make it clear that from that day forward, no one could serve as president for more than two terms, consecutive or not, and at the same time the length of a single presidential term was extended to six years.
So under the current constitution, Putin can run for one more six-year term.
But does he want to? I think he’s considering not standing for re-election. Like I said, it’s hard to articulate why, but I’ll try anyway.
- The next six years will be hard. Russia is beset by a number of challenges, and sanctions are only one of them. Demographics, oil prices, slow growth in its key trading partners in Europe and China, increased outlays on the military, plus long-neglected plans to reduce corruption, upgrade Russian infrastructure, diversify the economy and reduce the proportion of GDP represented by state-controlled businesses (which will necessarily involve stepping on the toes of top members of his inner circle). Putin is a populist, not a policy wonk, and he’s already been credited with “lifting Russia up off its knees.” The potential successes of the next 6 years look very small-ball, particularly in the foreign policy arena where Putin does some of his best work–the best that he can realistically hope for is to gradually rehabilitate his international image while at home, Russians grumble about unpopular reforms and an anemic economy.
- It opens the door to solving some difficult problems that are easier to solve with Putin not being president. The first would be Ukraine. The feud between Russia and Ukraine is very painful and inconvenient for both Russians and Ukrainians, and needs to be fixed very soon. This is extremely difficult as long as Putin is president of Russia, since Ukraine’s post-revolution government has used hatred of Putin as a unifying symbol. If Putin stays on for another 6 years (or, let’s be realistic, probably even longer), it will mean solidifying Ukraine’s status as a Western-oriented country on Russia’s borders, one where Russian interests are shut out and Ukrainian children are brought up to believe that Russians are the enemy. That’s an unacceptable outcome for most Russians. Then, of course, there are the Western sanctions, which would be much more fixable by a new presidential administration, and the need for foreign investment to kick-start the economy.
- His loyalty/patronage network is becoming a burden. Putin is famously loyal to his friends, and Putin’s friends tend to become embarrassingly wealthy. Putin’s judo-sparring partners, his former personal chef, his musician buddy from back in the day–these are just a few Putin friends who have acquired wealth far beyond the limits of their business acumen. The problem is that Putin’s patronage of his friends is one of the few things that Russians really don’t like about him. As long as Putin stays in power, he’ll feel personally obliged to help and protect his inner circle, a group of people who are widely loathed and disrespected even by many Russians who love Putin. Also, Putin is constantly being lobbied by his patronage network to resolve conflicts and settle turf disputes. Particularly with the non-ideal economic situation, unlikely to improve over the short term, Putin faces a number of situations where he’ll have to go against the interests of some of his most loyal cronies.
- Putin enjoys surprising and confounding his critics. Everyone in the world expects Putin to run for president in 2018, and probably to stay in power for the rest of his life. No one expects him to do anything other than run for president in 2018 in a boring campaign against a couple of carefully selected opponents and win by a huge margin.
- There’s no better time to negotiate terms than right now. Putin’s now “the most powerful man in the world,” according to CNN.
Putin could literally name his terms. He can anoint a trusted successor, have laws passed to give him and his family immunity, be named to a top government post (either an existing one or one created especially for him)–the sky’s the limit. You have to remember that Putin is a relatively young man (64) who’s in great health. He could easily live another 25 or 30 years. His popularity in Russia is near its peak. It’s difficult to imagine how he could maintain an approval rating above 80% for the next 6 years (esp. since they could be difficult years, economically), and then what? If he just returns to being a private citizen, he has no guarantees. If the Russian constitution is amended to keep him in power even longer, he’ll have to constantly watch his back and he’s basically locked in to a president-for-life scenario.
- He could pull another “castling” move and run for a fourth term in 2020. Let’s imagine that Putin doesn’t stand for re-election, and instead of switching places with Medvedev, he switches with Lavrov (foreign minister) or Shoigu (defense minister). Lavrov and Shoigu are both extremely popular in Russia, loyal to Putin and highly regarded abroad, and would easily win any election in which Putin isn’t running. I don’t think that Putin would want to be Prime Minister again, since there will probably be a number of unpopular but necessary reforms implemented over the next few-to-several years. But it’s not hard to imagine Putin returning to the presidency after some time away.
- The 2018 World Cup in Russia. This sounds stupid, but one of the most painful experiences that Putin’s had during his presidency was the politicized Western media coverage of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. I’m sure that he (along with most Russians) is dreading the inevitable onslaught of negative “Putin’s Russia” stories that will be filed by Western reporters during the World Cup. A new presidential administration (depending on who it’s led by, of course) would allow a “reset” (loaded word, I know) of the narrative.
Of course, this is a long shot, so I’m not brave enough to call it a prediction. First of all, it’s extremely rare for anyone to voluntarily give up power. Secondly, one of the forces keeping Putin interested in staying in power is pressure from his inner circle, who tell him that he’s absolutely indispensable.
It’s kind of like a more extreme version of why Hillary Clinton won’t go away: there are so many rich and powerful people who’ve thrown in their lot with the Clintons– and so much Clinton fatigue that the one thing that’s almost certain to happen once the Clintons are out of the picture, the new Democratic leadership will make a point of breaking with the Clinton legacy–that the Clintons’ patronage network continues to flatter and urge Hillary Clinton to stay in the game. For Putin’s network, the risks of a post-Putin Russia are unknowable but probably dire–even if Putin negotiates guarantees and immunities for himself, these won’t cover his friends.
So I’ll hedge my bets and say this: I think Putin is considering not running for re-election, but that he most likely will run.