Toward 2024 and Beyond: The Fate of Vladimir Putin’s Reign, Part I

Toward 2024 and Beyond: The Fate of Vladimir Putin’s Reign, Part I

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In this series of essays on “The Roots of Russian Conduct,” I have examined Russia’s national interests and how the Putin regime pursues them. I started with the most important national interest for any authoritarian regime: the survival of its leader and his close circle of supporters. I then examined other essential Russian national interests, from preserving the state, to the pursuit of key foreign policy goals, to maintaining a vibrant economy, and ended with the critical role civil society plays in Russia.

In this essay, the final one in this series, I return to the most vital national interest: the fate of Vladimir Putin and his ability, his plans, and even his desire to hold on to power until 2024—the end of his current term as president of the Russian Federation—and perhaps beyond, as far as 2036. Significant developments over the past year raise questions about the fate of the president and raise concerns, anxieties, and even fears among the power structure and the elites, as well as society as a whole, about Russia’s future.

In Part I of this essay, I examine the current state of affairs in Russia and Putin’s vision of the future of the country. In Part II, I look at prospects for Russia after Putin and offer some possible scenarios that Russia could face when the reign[1] of Putin comes to an end.

Setting the Scene: How 2020 Has Impacted Vladimir Putin and His Plans for the Future

2020 promised to be a good year for Putin and his regime. Plans were set to mark the triumphant 75th anniversary of Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) with a grandiose military parade on May 9 attended by a broad representation of world leaders. The parade and the other activities associated with this monumental achievement were orchestrated to focus the world’s attention on Russia as the primary successor to the Soviet Union and on President Putin as the leader who had returned glory to Russia as a world power after years of recovering from the collapse of the Soviet empire. This was especially important to Vladimir Putin whose popularity had been steadily declining and who many Russians believe was losing his effectiveness as a leader. Serious questions were being raised about how much longer Putin would retain the reins of power and what would happen after he departed. The Victory Day parade was designed as a quick shot in the arm of national pride that would boost Putin’s ratings and distract, at least temporarily, from growing anxiety about the declining standard of living and uncertainty about Russia’s political future.

2020 was also important to Vladimir Putin as the year in which amendments to the Constitution would be introduced and adopted to bring about much-needed changes to the governmental structure and the administration. These amendments were heralded as an opportunity to breathe new life into the fundamental law of the country by updating and modernizing a constitution that had been adopted in 1993 during Russia’s early tumultuous years under President Boris Yeltsin. The introduction of this amended constitution was portrayed by the Putin regime as a vital step toward modernizing the political framework of the country and providing more clarity to its future.

2020 was seen as a year in which the Russian government would successfully increase investment and progress in realizing the “12 national projects” program that was launched in 2018 to focus on massive infrastructure development, major boosts to health and education, and large-scale economic modernization. The projects, as designed, were to be completed in six years at a projected cost of $400 billion.

Instead of a promising and productive year, 2020 turned out to be an annus horribilis, to cite a phrase popularized by Queen Elizabeth when referring to an earlier disastrous year.[2] 2020 will always be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic—a devastating, global disease that has had an untold impact on the entire world. Russia, which ranks third in the number of infections, has been particularly hard hit, and the long-term impact of the disease is yet unknown. In the short term, however, the pandemic has turned a year of promise into a year of disruption and uncertainty.

The toll the pandemic has taken and continues to take on the lives of Russians at all levels of society is devastating. Although the official number of deaths in Russia is quite low (there is much doubt about the veracity of the official data), the number of infections is very high. This has put a huge strain on the Russian health care system and the economic and social life of Russian society. It has furthered uncertainty about the ability of the Russian government to ensure the health and well-being of the Russian people and has intensified citizens’ concerns about their future and that of their country.

This anxiety and uncertainty have only grown over the way the government has handled the pandemic. From the start, President Putin cut himself off from society. He went into isolation in his residence outside of Moscow and emerged only on rare occasions. He turned over responsibility for managing the response to the pandemic to local officials who responded in various ways depending on their resources and capabilities. Putin’s aloofness was acknowledged with increasing frustration and even anger. His popularity dropped to a low of 59 percent in April and May. Subsequently, it has risen slightly, but not enough to repair the damage done by the nationwide mismanagement of the pandemic response.

Putin’s Victory Day parade had to be postponed from May 9 until June 22. The Kremlin put pressure on Moscow’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, to end the city’s lockdown a week before the parade. Despite the mayor’s warning that it would be much safer if Muscovites watched the parade on television, thousands came out onto the streets, many without masks or social distancing, to partake in Putin’s delayed triumphant event. Hardly any of the invited international guests arrived for the festivities. The parade was a success but far from the glorious event Putin had originally planned. The liberal media and opposition leaders criticized the parade for its huge expense and the health danger it posed to all those participating and attending the event—all to stroke the ego of one person, Putin.

The amendments to the constitution were drawn early in the year and were quickly approved by the lower and upper houses of the Russian legislature and signed by President Putin. He insisted that a nationwide referendum be held (although it was not legally required) so that the people could voice support for the changes to the constitution, one of the most important of which allowed Putin to run for two more terms as president if he so decided.

Because of the pandemic, the referendum was postponed from April 22 to July 1. During the buildup to the referendum, a massive campaign was launched to get out the vote. Voting took place over a week. Voter fraud and manipulation were widely evident, and Putin, who viewed the referendum as a personal vote of confidence, sustained a victory with 77.93 percent of the voters approving the constitutional amendments. Rather than resolving many of Russia’s constitutional problems, the amendments failed to clarify some issues and contradicted others. Moreover, the question about Putin’s tenure was now postponed. This further exacerbated the succession issue and increased anxiety among the elites and society about what will happen when Putin’s term as president eventually ends, be it in 2024 or as late as 2036.

2020 brought about a downturn in the economy. The pandemic was a major cause of economic hardship, particularly for small- and medium-sized businesses, many of which will likely never recover from their losses. On the macroeconomic level, the pandemic had a significant impact, but it was surprisingly smaller than many had anticipated. What was not expected and what had an immediate short-term effect on the economy was Russia’s oil price war with Saudi Arabia in March and April. It was triggered by Russia’s refusal to reduce oil production to keep prices at a moderate level. Although the price war was short-lived, the rapid drop in oil prices delivered a significant blow to Russia’s struggling economy. As the year progressed, the economic situation did not improve. The value of the ruble against the euro and the dollar declined. Economic stagnation became more deeply embedded, and greater uncertainty swept across the nation as economic, social, political, and health concerns worsened.

In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated. 2020 confirmed that the process of accepting and adjusting to the changes that accompanied the demise of the Soviet Union was still ongoing. The war in eastern Ukraine persists, and Russia continues to disrupt efforts by the Ukrainian government to build a stable, independent state. In Belarus, massive, nationwide demonstrations against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime erupted following a fraudulent vote on August 9 to reelect Lukashenko as president. Those demonstrations continue undeterred. The people demand that Lukashenko step down, end the arrest and torture of demonstrators, and release all political prisoners. The people want a new, fair election, followed by the adoption of a democratic constitution. This has placed the Kremlin in an increasingly awkward position. Putin openly continues to support fellow autocrat Lukashenko but understands that if he ignores the demands of the Belarusian people, who are not anti-Russian, he risks turning them against Russia.

Russia’s foreign policy challenges have been further exacerbated by the outbreak of war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within the territory of Azerbaijan. An intermittent war between the two Caucasian nations has been waged since 1988. Numerous efforts over the years to negotiate a peace settlement have failed. The current war is particularly challenging for Russia, which has a special interest in the region and is one of the three countries of the Minsk Group charged by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to try to bring peace to the region. The other two members are France and the United States. Russia has a military base in Armenia and is the largest supplier of arms to that country. Armenia and Russia are joined as allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia also has close ties with Azerbaijan and does not want to damage that relationship.

Unlike previous armed conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey has become actively engaged in supporting Azerbaijan with military equipment and personnel, including reportedly having sent about 200 Syrian fighters to support Azerbaijan. In recent years, Russia and Turkey have drawn closer together, despite serious differences over Libya, Syria, and other issues. Turkey’s involvement on the Azerbaijani side could put an additional strain on Russian-Turkish relations. Recently, Russia brokered a truce between the warring parties that favors Azerbaijan as the dominant force on the battlefield. Russian peacekeepers, to be joined by Turkish military observers, will monitor the peace accord and oversee measures to implement the agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. This agreement, however, does not mean the end of the multi-year conflict. It is only a temporary step to stop the bloodshed as the sides prepare for their next steps. Russia did gain in stature in the region, but so did Turkey, which appears for the first time to be a major player in the South Caucasus. It is unclear how Turkey will further assert itself and how its relationship with Russia will be affected.

Central Asia, far from the Russian capital but an integral part of the former Soviet Union, has seen yet another revolution in Kyrgyzstan—the third since the Soviet Union ended in 1991. Large-scale demonstrations against fraudulent parliamentary elections, held on October 5, 2020, led to the election being annulled and the storming of government buildings, including a prison where a mob freed a leading political opponent of the regime who immediately declared himself president and prime minister of the country after the latter two were forced to resign. Russia has always had close ties with Kyrgyzstan and has a military base in the country; however, it does not exercise significant influence over the political scene and has little choice but to stand by as the Kyrgyz try to resolve their internal problems.

Large-scale demonstrations have not been limited just to Russia’s periphery. Protests have also broken out within Russia itself over several events, including a massive oil spill in Russia’s Arctic region, pollution of the waters off the Kamchatka peninsula, and limestone mining on sacred lands in Bashkortostan. The most notable case is the protest movement that has been going on uninterrupted since July 11 in the city of Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East over the arrest of the regional governor, his replacement by Moscow with an ineffective puppet of the Kremlin, and, increasingly, in opposition to President Putin and his regime. Although most of the protests have been peaceful, there have been instances when security forces have clamped down violently on the demonstrators. Despite the sporadic oppressive measures, frequent inclement weather, and the protracted duration of the protests, the citizens of Khabarovsk remain steadfast in their commitment to their cause. Although Khabarovsk is thousands of miles from Moscow, echoes of the demonstrations reverberate throughout the country. So far, they have not spread to other major Russian cities, but the citizens of Minsk and Khabarovsk have exchanged comradely greetings and voiced support for each other’s efforts to foster change. The Kremlin undoubtedly hears these popular cries against arbitrary and authoritarian rule from both east and the west with considerable concern. The question for the Kremlin is how long can these protests be ignored, and will they have consequences for Russia and the future of Putin and his regime?

The most shocking event of 2020 and one that has potentially serious ramifications for the Kremlin was the poisoning of prominent opposition figure Aleksey Navalny with the deadly poison Novichok. He was stricken during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and survived due to the quick thinking of the pilot who made an emergency landing in Omsk and by the response of the emergency medics who met the plane and administered the antidote atropine to counteract the effects of the nerve agent poison. Several days later, after failed attempts by the local authorities to prevent his departure, Navalny was flown to Germany where he was treated. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation, and the doctors are optimistic that he will make a full recovery. Navalny plans to return to Russia after he has recovered to resume his work as a leading political opposition figure focused on exposing corruption at the highest levels and working to get pro-democracy candidates elected at the local and regional levels.

What will happen when Navalny returns could further inflame political tensions within the Putin regime. Finger-pointing and the “retirement” of a senior official at the Federal Security Service (FSB) are already raising concerns that the poisoning of Navalny may have been a step too far even for the Putin regime and could create additional turmoil and anxiety within a regime that is increasingly concerned about its future.

The European Union reacted to Navalny’s poisoning by imposing sanctions on six Russian senior officials and one scientific institute. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly vocal in expressing Germany’s anger over this crime, which many have accused Putin of having ordered or at least tacitly approved by creating an environment where such egregious actions could take place without consequences for the perpetrators.[3]

Indeed, 2020 has been an annus horribilis for Putin and his regime. The level of uncertainty and anxiety among the elite and society over the future is higher now than a year ago. There is still no roadmap or plan for political succession. In fact, by pushing the decision point beyond 2024 to maybe as far as 2036 Putin has caused further apprehension and made the task of charting a path forward for the country and its leadership even more complex. When coupled with his actions and decisions that appear to be oriented primarily toward consolidating his legacy by providing more time and space to plan his future and ultimate departure from the pinnacle of power, Putin has, whether intentionally or not, contributed to the disruption of the tenuous equilibrium that has provided a semblance of cohesion in the country.

As we explore the options for Russia without Putin, we should first look more deeply into the nature of the Putin regime and the vision Putin has for the future of the country. Although much depends on policy decisions and furtive machinations behind the Kremlin walls, unexpected internal and external events can play an influential role in determining a path forward. Nothing could better illustrate this point than the devastation COVID-19 has brought to Russia.

The Russia of 2024 or 2036 may look significantly different from the Russia of 2020. But if the country fails to undergo meaningful change, it could remain mired in stagnation and antiquated ideas and ideologies that retard its development and relegate it to the position of a weaker, less influential authoritarian player on the world scene.

The Nature of Putin’s Regime

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company who spent 10 years imprisoned in Putin’s Russia and is now in exile fighting for a democratic Russia, has described Russia as a country that “is run by individuals with an archaic view of the world.” Putin, like many of his closest advisors and colleagues, has a worldview that was formed during the Soviet era. As a child growing up on the streets of Leningrad, fighting against bullies in a poor working-class neighborhood, dreaming of joining the KGB, and eventually entering the ranks of this most despised and feared Soviet organization, Putin saw life through the prism of struggle and confrontation. He witnessed this both in Russia and abroad as a KGB officer where he served in Dresden, East Germany, when the Berlin Wall came down and communist regimes collapsed, first in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union. The young KGB officer felt disillusioned and angry and was forced to struggle to find a place in a new world that seemed hostile, but also offered opportunities to those who were cunning and willing to fight for what they wanted. Through a combination of connections, good luck, and determination, Putin succeeded beyond his expectations and reached the pinnacle of success when he moved to Moscow to become head of the KGB, then prime minister in the closing days of the Yeltsin regime, and finally president of Russia—a post he has held now for more than 20 years.

As president, Putin has used the tools, connections, and skills he has acquired over his lifetime to achieve his goals. In so doing, he has shown flexibility and acuity in ruling Russia, but essentially, as Khodorkovsky argues, Putin’s thinking is “archaic”—it is rooted in the past and is outmoded. It no longer serves the interest of the country and can no longer guide the course of Russia’s development today and into the future. When Putin said in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” one cannot help but wonder if deep down Putin was also reflecting on his personal loss.

For much of the last 20 years, it has been assumed that Putin is an all-powerful leader who stands at the top of a “power vertical” and is the ultimate decision-maker. Although there is no doubt that Putin is an autocrat whose power and authority have been largely unrivaled and unchallenged, there is an increasing realization that this description of Putin’s power has become inadequate and outdated. It is now clear that the regime Putin put in place and nurtured over the years is becoming brittle and inflexible and is less capable of reacting to the many challenges the country faces.

Russian analysts and foreign observers have increasingly focused on what they see as the “illusion” of Putin’s omnipotence and the effectiveness of his regime and have been highlighting instead the weakness, venality, and decreasing efficacy of the Russian leader and his coterie of bureaucrats, cohorts, and sycophants. This depiction of Putin and his regime has become more widespread this year as Putin has been essentially secluded in his “bunker” residence, allowing decisions regarding the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to be made by underlings as the economy has deteriorated and as popular demonstrations and demands for change have been ignored.

Andrew Higgins writing in the New York Times as far back as two years ago asked rhetorically:

Is Mr. Putin really the omnipotent leader whom the critics attack and his own propagandists promote? Or does he sit atop a state that is, in fact, shockingly ramshackle, a system driven more by the capricious and often venal calculations of competing bureaucracies and interest groups than by Kremlin diktakt?

Higgins cites Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann to illustrate his argument: Schulmann contends:

Russia today resembles not so much the rigidly regimented country ruled by Stalin as the dilapidated autocracy of Russia in the early 19th century. The ruler at the time, Czar Nicholas I, presided over corrupt civilian and military bureaucracies that expanded Russian territory, led the country into a disastrous war in Crimea, and drove the economy into a stagnant dead end.

Tatyana Stanovaya, writing in May 2020 for the Moscow Carnegie Center, uses a musical analogy to describe the Putin regime. Stanovaya opines,

The Russian regime is less and less like a well-tuned orchestra with a confident conductor, and more and more like a cacophony in which every musician is trying to play louder and get more attention than everyone else. No one is focusing on the harmonious sound of the symphony. Instead, institutional and corporate priorities take precedence over national priorities and are carried out at the latter’s expense. This political divergence has been provoked by Putin’s political absence and fueled by a general fear of an uncertain future and lack of clarity regarding Putin’s plans.

She further explains that

[P]reviously, Putin orchestrated the overall political context, ensuring political convergence and a single logic dictated from above, even if the system did not always function properly. Now Putin is distancing himself from the system that he built, and we are seeing the emergence of a polycentric system with an unpredictable arbitration mechanism: a system Russia knows only too well from the 1990s.

Stanovaya describes the following operational guidelines for the Putin regime today: “As this polycentric system becomes more operationally apparent, the previously guiding principle that anything that Putin had not expressly allowed was forbidden, has now been replaced by the practice that anything that Putin has not expressly forbidden is allowed.”

The glue that seems to hold the regime together is loyalty to Putin. Although loyalty to the Russian leader might be reassuring to Putin’s ego and his daily needs, it can result in overlooking initiatives and activities members of the elite pursue that are in their interests but may not be in the interest of the country or even those of Putin and his administration. The result is a further weakening of the regime.

As the elements of this emerging polycentric system—the security services, the billionaires, the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin’s close inner circle, the bureaucrats and technocrats, and others—vie for influence and attention, Putin finds himself increasingly challenged to manage them as best he can, recognizing that he cannot fully control them or respond adequately to the ongoing needs of the country.

Undoubtedly frustrated by his inability to exercise proper control over a country that is going through turbulent times—the pandemic; a weakening economy; mounting environmental catastrophes; growing internal discontent with his inaction in addressing the systemic failures in the country; and loss of influence over countries that were part of the Soviet Union but are now undergoing war, revolution, or internal turmoil—Putin has been raising the profile of the security services and resorting more and more frequently to the use of force to regain control over an increasingly complex and poorly managed country. The noted British expert on Russia, Mark Galeotti, described the declining effectiveness of Vladimir Putin in the following manner. Writing in Intellinews on September 14, 2020, Galeotti said:

Putin is succumbing to the same problem as most authoritarians over time, becoming a caricature of himself. Older, less flexible, more dependent on a shrinking circle of yes-men, more detached from his own country, the temptation is to rely more on force and fiat, while his cronies take the fullest advantage of his indulgence to enrich themselves and prosecute their private feuds.

The most blatant use of force was the recent assassination attempt on the life of the prominent opposition leader Navalny. Many see this as an act of weakness rather than a strength of the Putin regime, as the failure of the Kremlin to control the more aggressive elements of its regime. Navalny’s poisoning was not the first, and will certainly not be the last, attack on Russian opposition figures. Such attempts in the past, many of which have resulted in the death of outspoken opponents of the Putin regime, have, unfortunately, become all too common in Russia. Prominent liberal journalist, Yulia Latynina, who herself was forced to flee Russia because of repeated attacks on her and her parents, wrote recently in the independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, that the poisoning of Navalny “is a sign that political violence and assassinations are now accepted at any level.” Anna Arutunyan, writing in The Moscow Times, grimly comments that this attack “just reveals the extent to which the Kremlin has weaponized its incompetence in the service of dark power.” One of the most prominent observers of the Russian scene, Masha Gessen, agrees about the increasingly dark nature of the Putin regime. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa quotes Gessen who says that “the poisoning of opposition figures has become a terrifyingly normal aspect of the country’s political life, and there’s apparently nothing Putin cares to do about it, or can. That toxin has surfaced not for the first time and, certainly, not for the last.”

The growing negative assessment of the Putin regime is not only shared by leading analysts and journalists. It has also penetrated Russian society. According to reporting by Steve Gutterman of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a survey conducted by the independent Levada Center from July 13 to August 8, 2020—before the poisoning of Navalny—cast a dark shadow over the Russian domestic scene. According to Gutterman, “one journalist said the survey gave off ‘last days of Rome vibes.’” The Levada Center survey asked respondents to describe the current situation in Russia. Gutterman reports:

38 percent of respondents picked “the loss of order and the growth of anarchy”—the largest proportion and far more than at any time since Levada began conducting the poll in 2005. Meanwhile, 17 percent said the country was headed toward authoritarianism and dictatorship, while 22 percent—fewer than ever before—chose “the development of democracy.”

As the Putin regime moves forward—a regime that is focused primarily on maintaining control as it prepares for the eventual transition to a post-Putin Russia, it faces a multitude of domestic challenges and it struggles to maintain its internal cohesion at a time when Putin appears weakened and the regime projects an image more of impotence than of power. Yaffa, writing for The New Yorker on August 21, 2020, made the following observation: “The more Putinism drifts into its late-stage geriatric period, the more jumpy, insecure, and rash the system and its members become.” This does not bode well for the country and emits danger signals about the stability of the regime and what it might mean for the country.

The Constitutional Amendments: An Effort to Secure Putin’s Future

The amendments to the Constitution were intended to update the Yeltsin Constitution of 1993, alter some of the internal administrative relationships, preserve Russia as a strong presidential republic, and rally society in support of the president by introducing changes to certain societal norms and by holding a national referendum to demonstrate this support. One of the important intended consequences was to defuse the mounting tension over the succession issue and give Putin more flexibility in deciding his future. By adding a provision that allows Putin to serve up to two more six-year terms as president,[4] should he elect to do so, Putin hoped to reset his relationship with members of the elite by reducing their incentive to focus on a post-Putin Russia and to defuse what was already becoming a search for a successor as the elite jostled for new power positions in their struggle for self-preservation rather than focusing on their work. Russian journalist Konstantin Remuchkov reminds us that “the tradition from Byzantium is to intrigue rather than work. Putin doesn't want to encourage that.” The amendment that permitted the extension of Putin’s term did lower the fervency but did not eliminate the inevitable search for a successor; it just made the process more protracted and less intense.

Potentially, one of the most significant changes to the constitution was updating the status of the State Council that until now has been a peripheral presidential advisory body that includes regional governors. An amendment to the Constitution elevated the State Council to a formal state body tasked with determining “the main direction of domestic and foreign policy.” Who is to head the State Council is not specified in the constitutional amendment, but it is made clear that the body will be formed by the president. There is much speculation that should Putin step down as president in 2024 or later, he could assume the role of head of the State Council, thereby continuing to wield power, just as former president Nursultan Nazarbayev has done in Kazakhstan.

The problem with this scenario is that if Putin as president emeritus becomes head of the State Council and is a rival to the new president in exercising power, such an arrangement could threaten to weaken the presidency and, consequently, the governing of the country. It appears that this would be contrary to Putin’s strong belief that Russia can only be run by a strong president. Putin made this clear in a comment he made on March 3, 2020. “Our country will not do well without strong presidential power,” Putin asserted. “We do not have stable political parties, which, say in Europe, have been maturing for centuries.” Putin made a similar point two months earlier. Commenting on the frequent collapse of parliamentary governments in Europe and the frequent long delays in forming new governments, Putin said: “Can you imagine how Russia would live without the government for six months? It’s a disaster! Believe me, this is just impossible, this would cause huge damage to the state.” Nevertheless, the option for Putin to realign the apex of political power is now open to him should he eventually decide to exercise it.

As an added guarantee to protect his future, Putin drafted a law that the legislature quickly approved and was signed by Putin. This law grants former presidents and their families immunity for life from criminal prosecution—a promise that Putin himself made to former President Yeltsin before the latter stepped down from the presidency on December 31, 1999. Putin’s draft legislation is consistent with the newly adopted amendments to the Constitution and with Putin’s strong belief in the sanctity of the institution of the presidency and the need to maintain stability and continuity in the country. Although it would reassure his safety for the future, this legislation is not about protecting one person; it is about defending an institution.

Putin’s Vision of Russia’s Future

President Putin has weathered a stressful and disappointing year, but he has succeeded in revising the Constitution in a way he believes will strengthen the presidency and will allow him to maintain control throughout the remaining years of his current term and beyond, should he elect to serve past 2024.

Structurally, Putin has reinforced his position through certain institutional changes. As he moves forward, he also relies on his guiding principles, ideological tenets, and historical experience to help him chart his path forward over the coming years. As part of this process, Putin must maintain a delicate balance between the three pillars of the Russian state—the presidency and its administration, the elite, and civil society. Managing this balance has always been challenging, but it will be even more so as Putin moves toward 2024 and beyond.

Putin sees the synthesis of absolute presidential power with the ideological conviction and propagation of the thesis of antithetical Western Russophobia and threats coming from the West as the foundation for the policies he and his administration pursue to ensure the sovereignty and survival of his regime for as long as he remains in power. Putin’s anti-Westernism is an essential element in his pursuit of policies that are designed to protect and strengthen Russia.

Putin is critical of both Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s attempts to draw closer to the West. He sees their policies as not only naive but also dangerous. He is convinced that the West is determined to undermine and weaken the Russian state and that any attempt to establish closer ties with the West could be perilous for Russia. Putin’s anti-Westernism not only serves his policy interests, but it also appeals to a large segment of the Russian population that has traditionally been suspicious of the West and has rallied around the Kremlin to present a united front against alleged “Western evil intentions.”

President Putin appears satisfied with the current structure of government and the policy framework he has created, but he recognizes the potential for missteps that could jeopardize his options for the future. In an interview on June 21, 2020, Dmitry Peskov, the president’s spokesman, was asked if the president was “happy with the system in place.” Peskov responded:

One, the president is happy with the system in place. Two, the system has demonstrated that it can hold up under stress. The president has already explained the situation’s potential threat. This honestly is, let’s say, a feature of our bureaucratic and national world. But that absolutely doesn’t mean that the system doesn’t work in conditions of power changing hands. Power changes, there’s a constant rotation process happening, and it would be wrong to ignore this.

Peskov was referring to the issue of succession and a statement made by President Putin that he was considering running for reelection in 2024. The threat Putin is trying to avoid is that if he were to step down in 2024, this could disrupt the “normal rhythm” of government work as early as 2022, as state officials at various levels would begin searching “with wandering eyes” for potential successors. “We need to be working, not searching for successors,” Putin said.

There is another set of missteps that Putin is concerned about, and that is avoiding the errors Gorbachev made with his reform program of the 1980s known as perestroika that continued in a different form and scope under President Yeltsin in the 1990s. The predicament Putin faces is that he and his advisors acknowledge that some type of reform is needed but they must introduce changes without losing control of the process, as both Gorbachev and Yeltsin did. Under Gorbachev, perestroika led to the unraveling of the entire Soviet economic system and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under Yeltsin, the turmoil of economic changes from a socialist to a capitalist system created chaos and grave economic hardships that culminated in Yeltsin’s resignation and his replacement by Putin.

Putin and his administration are wont to use the word “reform” to avoid its association with past efforts under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, as well as certain measures the Kremlin itself has taken during the past 20 years. Yet, people are increasingly eager for change. Putin must find a way forward to improve the economic situation in the country without losing political control or releasing the centripetal forces that are always lurking in the background in Russia.

This is a most formidable task. It is unclear what the path forward will be. Some say that Putin has already reached a dead end and does not know how to circumvent the many obstacles that exist; some obstacles are innate to Russia, other obstacles Putin and his regime have themselves created. Many experts agree that Putin’s options are limited and there is little cause for optimism that life in Russia will change significantly in the foreseeable future. The historical efforts at reform, which Putin fears and eschews, combined with the traditional model of governance that is rife with corruption and lack of any equitable societal representation, impose barriers that Putin cannot and will not overcome.

Alexander Baumov stresses that Putin’s anti-Westernism and his “disdain for democracy” are key factors that limit Putin’s options. Ever since Putin delivered his political diatribe against the West at the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, the Russian president has been moving further and further away from any interest in adopting elements of the European model. Instead, he has created a state that Baumov describes as “unashamedly authoritarian in design.” If Putin or any successor should ever want to return to the European model to effect change in Russia, Baumov argues, he “would have to dismantle the entire political legacy that this regime has built.” To do so, could be extremely disruptive and could lead to turmoil and chaos—a direction that Putin (and perhaps his successor) would reject.

Stanovaya agrees that Putin’s options are limited. She acknowledges that Putin has restored order to Russia following the disruptive years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has raised Russia’s profile on the world stage; he has modernized the military; and he has brought stability to the economy, despite a growing sense of stagnation. At least, as Stanovaya points out, “pensions and salaries are paid on time and regularly indexed, the banking system is stable, and so on.” The question now, however, is how can Putin continue to mobilize society in support of his regime and its policies?

Successful implementation of the 12 national projects appears to be the cornerstone of the Kremlin’s plans for the economic advancement of the country, and Putin is putting more and more technocrats into positions of authority to ensure that competent hands are directing the day-to-day work on these projects and to reduce systemic corruption that has repeatedly hampered the development of numerous large-scale projects in the past and continues to plague Russia’s development schemes today. Whether the goals to advance these projects will be met hinges not just on the technocrats or even on the orders emanating from the Russian president. They also depend significantly on the numerous obstacles that are inherent both in the Russian environment and in the nature of the authoritarian regime Putin has created.

Stanovaya sums up best the predicament the Putin regime faces as it moves toward 2024 and perhaps even beyond. Stanovaya asserts:

The regime appears increasingly precarious, but this is not to say that it will collapse: it still has plenty of resilience, and the public is disoriented and fearful of things getting worse. It’s more that this divergent, even contradictory, reaction to problems has two consequences for the state. It will be unable to enter into dialogue should the public start to become politically active, and it is losing its consolidation, making it unable to speak with one united voice.

But at some point, Putin will leave the scene, either due to natural causes or to a conscious decision by the Russian president that his time as leader is over and he needs to pass on the reins of power to others. There is also the possibility that the decision for Putin to step down may be made by others against his will. No one knows how and when the Putin regime will end, but there are many theories and possible scenarios about a post-Putin Russia. In Part II of this essay, I will explore some of the issues that could frame a post-Putin Russia and offer some intriguing scenarios about a future Russia.

Washington, DC
December 2020

[1] I used the word “reign” to note the protracted nature of Putin’s rule and the similarity in the way he exercises or fails to exercise power with the rule of some of Russia’s most notorious emperors. I believe that one can draw comparisons with two very different Russian emperors: Nicholas I (1825–1855)—the reactionary and repressive autocrat who was nevertheless responsible for significant territorial expansion, economic growth, and industrial development; and Nicholas II (1894–1917)—the well-intentioned autocrat, who initially supported reform but in the end was unable to meet the challenges of the country.

[2] Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth called 1992 an annus horribilis because of three royal divorces, a devastating fire at Windsor Castle, and several scandals involving members of the royal family.

[3] A separate essay on Alexey Navalny appears in my essay series “Occasional Essays on Contemporary Russian Issues” and provides an update on events since this essay was written.

[4] This change to the constitution has also been codified into law by the Russian legislature.

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