Vladimir Putin has contended — with a nod to the chaos swirling in the West and to Russia's tumultuous history — that the most precious thing a leader can offer his country is stability.
Why it matters: Putin has not made Russia rich, free or particularly happy. But he imposed stability and has maintained it for two decades through his own blend of force and skill. Putin's current term expires in 2024, and the constitution bars him from seeking another.
Zoom in: Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow and a former Russian military officer, does not believe Putin will change the constitution to become "president for life." Thus, he says, “2024 will be the last year that Vladimir Putin will be president of Russia."
- "Everyone will see that this guy is not for the future, which means that his real power will wane," Trenin says. "So yes, his time is coming to a close."
- Others disagree. "He will be in power as long as he can," says Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch infamously jailed by Putin in 2003. "The methods he can use will vary, but he will be very keen to stay in power as long as he’s alive."
Two specific methods have been floated, beyond a constitutional change:
1. Putin forms a commonwealth with Belarus, maintaining presidencies in both countries but placing himself above them.
- Some in Belarus fear the groundwork is being laid through Russian propaganda, and Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko is due to meet Putin on Saturday to discuss bilateral ties — though he insisted this morning that Belarusian sovereignty is sacrosanct, per Reuters.
2. Putin builds himself another powerful role — like chair of the National Security Council — and oversees a staged transition from that perch.
- That path was paved by Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev, who began to bring his three decades in power to a carefully choreographed close in March.
Where things stand: Putin will be 71 when his term expires. He told the FT in June that he had been thinking about succession "since 2000."
- But he has no obvious heir, and as longtime diplomat and Russia expert Daniel Fried puts it: “If you break down institutions, every succession is a crisis.”
The big picture: The "mafia-esque structure" Putin has built requires loyalty within elite circles and support from the public, says Alina Polyakova of Brookings.
- He has ensured that those with wealth or power "owe all of what they have to Putin himself," while masterfully controlling his public image.
- “At this point, it’s impossible to distinguish between Putin the man and Putin the system," she says.
- "There could be another head at the top, but that head would have to be just as good as Putin at managing all of these competing interests.”
Zoom out: The Russian system collapsed twice in the 20th century, in 1917 and 1989–1991.
- In the century since the Russian Revolution, Trenin says, Putin's tenure does indeed stand out for its stability.
- Now, he says, "We are facing a high degree of uncertainty in Russia."
The bottom line: "This transition will never be very smooth and will never be very happy even," says Trenin. But history will judge Putin on its outcome.