‘Russia’s Political Transition Has Arrived Ahead of Schedule’

The entire Russian government has resigned as Putin charts his country’s political future—one that will certainly still include a leading role for him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Mishustin
Russian President Vladimir Putin named little-known Mikhail Mishustin, the head of the Federal Tax Service, as prime minister in a big shake-up that will shape Russia’s political future on Jan. 15. Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images

MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly began the country’s political transition Wednesday with a constitutional shake-up and the naming of a new prime minister, paving the way for the 67-year-old leader to continue driving Russian politics even after he formally leaves the presidency in 2024.

In his annual State of the Nation address, Putin proposed changes to the constitution in a series of moves that appear to pave the way for the term-limited president to assume a new position of power after he leaves office. A few hours after Putin’s address, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced on live television that he and the entire Russian government would be resigning, saying that the Russian president will choose a new government.

Putin later nominated Mikhail Mishustin, a 53-year-old technocrat who heads the Federal Tax Service and is best known for boosting tax collections and cutting graft, as Medvedev’s successor. Mishustin is a low-profile choice not seen as a power player in Moscow, making his prospects of transitioning into a major political force unlikely.

“Russia’s political transition has arrived ahead of schedule,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the political consultancy R.Politik and a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Putin is trying to make his transition more comfortable for himself, and getting rid of Medvedev, who was toxic for both elites and the people, is necessary.”

The shock statement came shortly after Putin spent most of his 80-minute address pledging to raise living standards and boost economic growth. Russia’s economy has lagged in recent years, and Medvedev and his government have been criticized for their poor performance and faced falling popularity. Both Putin and Medvedev appeared together in a choreographed announcement on state television, where cabinet ministers were told of Medvedev’s departure and the government’s resignation. The Kremlin said that Medvedev will take up a new post as deputy chairman of the Security Council, where he will answer to Putin, who chairs the body as president.

“We should provide the president of our country with the possibility to take all the necessary measures” to carry out the changes, Medvedev said. “All further decisions will be taken by the president.”

The flurry of changes set the stage for a new era in Russian politics and appear designed to give Putin the option of maintaining a large degree of influence even after leaving the presidency. During his address, Putin suggested amending the constitution to allow lawmakers to name prime ministers and cabinet members and to introduce a two-term limit for the presidency. The president currently has the power under the constitution to choose the prime minister, which is subject to approval by parliament, who then goes on to form the cabinet. Putin said that the package of reforms would be put to a national vote, although he did not specify when.

Observers and Russia’s political elites have long ventured guesses about Putin’s future plans and how he could look to amend the constitution to maintain power after his term limit ends in four years. While Putin maintains sweeping authority within the Russian political system, the Kremlin remains concerned about potential popular backlash that extending his power could trigger. When Putin returned to the presidency after a four-year hiatus, it sparked massive protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, and it caused a rift among elites. So this time, the Kremlin is treading carefully and looking to enshrine Putin’s future hold on the system while maintaining a veneer of democratic legitimacy.

“The timing was the surprise factor here, not the substance,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a Moscow-based political analyst. “Uncertainty can be an advantage for some leaders dealing with succession, but also a risk. This might mean that intra-elite infighting was heating up so much that they needed to eliminate the uncertainty.”

Some had speculated that the Russian leader would press ahead for a merger with neighboring Belarus that would create a new position for Putin as the head of a new unified state, giving him a way to skirt formal term limits. But Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has rejected such a measure and resisted Kremlin pressure. Another option for Putin to stay in charge would be increasing the power of parliament and the cabinet and trimming the authority of the president, then shifting into the prime minister’s seat, as Putin did with Medvedev as president from 2008 to 2012.

But the Russian president also hinted toward another potential route during Wednesday’s announcement. Putin proposed enhancing the role of the State Council, a government body with undefined authority, which could be used as a way for the leader to wield significant informal power after stepping down as president in 2024.

“Putin will stay inside the system and looks to be planning to stay engaged in strategic policymaking, but he also seems to be setting up a scenario where his potential successor can realize their own agenda,” Stanovaya said. “[Putin] remembers his bad experiences with Medvedev and he knows he will likely have some conflicts with whoever comes next as president. So, he wants to have mechanisms to manage those disagreements as he sets up his slow transition.”

Putin served two terms as president from 2000 to 2008 before shifting into the prime minister’s seat for four years to observe the limit on consecutive terms. Though Putin continued to call the shots as prime minister, he clashed with and remained critical of some of Medvedev’s moves—particularly Medvedev’s decision to abstain during a vote at the United Nations Security Council in 2011 to allow a NATO-led air campaign in Libya that helped oust the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi and plunge the country into civil war.

The exact motives for Wednesday’s decisions remain unclear, though domestic pressures could explain much of it. In his address, Putin focused on such issues as economic growth, tackling rising poverty, and endemic corruption. The Kremlin has struggled to boost Putin’s near-record-low approval ratings, which soared after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Real incomes have fallen by half in a decade amid a stagnating economy, under pressure from U.S. sanctions over the Crimean annexation as well as relatively low oil prices. The summer of 2019 also saw large street protests in Moscow and deepening disenchantment and malaise with the ruling United Russia party ahead of upcoming parliamentary elections slated for 2021.

“The succession question has been looming over the public and the elite for some time and Putin is looking to stop that pressure from building up even more,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior U.S. intelligence analyst focused on Russia and Eurasia and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “This is obviously something that has been carefully thought about and orchestrated for some time.”

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan