Since a dominant electoral victory earlier this year anointed him to a fourth presidential term, Russian President Vladimir Putin has had little to cheer about. In recent weeks Russia has suffered a massive coordinated expulsion of diplomats from more than 20 countries in response to the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy living in England, a stock market crash unleashed by a new round of U.S. sanctions on Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin and a domestic political crisis precipitated by a disastrous fire in a Siberian shopping mall that killed more than three dozen children.
But even before these recent troubles, it was clear that Russian politics had reached a paradoxical point. With nearly 77 percent of voters casting a ballot in favor of the president, the 2018 elections were Putin’s best electoral showing in his nearly two decades of power. Bolstered by genuine popular support combined with authoritarian measures, Putin’s grip on power for the time being remains tighter than ever.
Russia’s Constitution bars Putin from serving more than two consecutive terms as president. For this reason he took a hiatus from the presidency after his first two terms and ran the country from the post of prime minister while his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev, kept his presidential seat warm.
Up again against term limit restrictions, between now and 2024 Putin will either have to again groom a successor or upend Russia’s constitutional order and claim the mantle of president for life. Either route is fraught with risks.
The last time Putin played the presidential succession game back in 2008, he was a vigorous 55 years gold. As 2024 approaches, he’ll be in his 70s. Potential challengers seeking to replace the most powerful person in the world will surely be taking note of any misstep indicating that age is getting the better of Putin.
Similarly, in 2008 power in Russia still rested at least to some extent on institutions and political parties such as United Russia, which then was a dominant force in Russian politics. Ten years on, political power in Russia is hyper-personalized, with public officials’ authority derived not from rules or displays of capability but from claims of proximity to Putin himself.
As shown by the experience of China’s Communist Party or the PRI’s decade-long rule in Mexico, institutionalized power is transferable, meaning that a regime’s identity and basic contours outlive its leaders. Personalized regimes, on the other hand, are shaky and unpredictable.
Rewriting the Constitution so that he himself can remain president only delays, but does not resolve, Putin’s succession problem. Hyper-personalization, the flip-side of Putin’s dominant rule, means that no sooner than Putin even contemplates retirement, a scramble for power unlike anything Russia has seen since Soviet times is likely to begin.
The longer Putin waits to relinquish power, the more volatile this power struggle will be, and the less capable an increasingly aged and enfeebled Putin will be of shaping its outcome.
The paradox of Putin’s weakness at a moment of apparent strength also stems from a fundamental shift in the roots of his popularity. During his first two terms in office, support for Putin in large part reflected a booming economy.
While oligarchs and cronies of Putin certainly benefited from this growth, so did the average Russian. At times in the early 2000s, real wage growth was over 20 percent. Against the backdrop of the 1990s, during which Russians suffered from a catastrophe akin to America’s Great Depression, the turnaround in living standards under Putin was all the more dramatic.
But Russia’s economy has never fully recovered from the global economy crisis of 2008-2009, and for several years the combination of low oil prices and Western sanctions have added to Russia’s economic woes.
With fewer successes to point to on the domestic front, Putin has turned his gaze abroad. His annexation of Crimea, intervention in the Syria conflict, and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have made Russia a geopolitical player on a global scale for this first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Russians, accustomed to the international prestige that superpower status affords, have responded predictably. Since the March 2014 Crimea annexation, Putin’s popularity ratings have never dipped below 80 percent, a remarkable phenomenon even when compared to the already remarkable string of popularity ratings that consistently have been at 60 percent or higher since Putin came to power in 2000.
Putin’s current deal with the Russian people, however, is much less sustainable than the social contract underlying his early years of power. While popularity based on economic growth may dwindle when the economy slow, the new model of Putinism requires outright sacrifice on the part of the Russian people.
The direct cost of reacquiring Crimea and playing games with Western elections are the economic sanctions that limit Russian elites’ ability to travel or own assets abroad while inflicting pain on all of Russian society as the economy falters.
Meanwhile, the longer Russia’s role in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts drags on, the more Russians will question why resources are being devoted from domestic projects to support adventurism abroad. Even more risky from Putin’s perspective is the possibility that with time more Russians will pierce the veil of state media and realize that their own citizens are dying far from home.
Ultimately, short of an unimaginably masterful geopolitical bargain, Putin will confront a stark choice between losing face on the international stage in an effort to free Russia from economic sanctions or becoming caught in a cycle of increasingly bold international gambits that distract from problems at home while further diminishing Russians’ living standards.
To be sure, Russians have shown historically that, more than most nations, they will stick by their leaders when a siege mentality sets in. Nevertheless, Putin surely must pine for the early days of his reign when political and economic success were intertwined, rather than directly in conflict.
In short, Putin may be at the height of power today, but this power is more insecure than ever. As a result, Russia’s always unpredictable politics are less predictable than ever. Whether Putin is capable of engineering an end game worthy of a remarkable two decades in power remains to be seen.
Jordan Gans-Morse, an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project, is the author of Property Rights in Post-Soviet Russia: Violence, Corruption, and Demand for Law.