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Argument

Putin Wants the World to Keep Guessing

The Russian president’s goal isn’t necessarily to be president for life. Unless it is.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin adjusts his sunglasses during the MAKS-2005 International air and space show in Zhukovsky, Russia, on Aug. 16, 2005. MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin does like to surprise. The Russian president’s political-theatrical impresario Vladislav Surkov may have left the administration, but the boss showed he can still manage a big reveal on Tuesday. Having launched a series of constitutional reforms and notionally handed the matter first to the legislature and then a later public vote, Putin allowed himself to be called to speak to the State Duma, the lower chamber of the legislature, on the subject of resetting term limits—which would allow him to remain in power until 2036.

In an act of cheesy melodrama, he said he thought there should be a hard two-term limit. Then, after a breath, he conceded that if the Duma thought the clock ought to be reset to zero and the Constitutional Court agreed, he would accept that.

Of course, this was all choreographed. The initial proposal had been made by the 83-year-old Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman in space and an iconic figure of Russian triumph. Although Putin notoriously dislikes coming into Moscow, and the security preparations surrounding any presidential movements take hours, when Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin invited him to weigh in on the issue, he was there in 90 minutes. Besides, Volodin is Putin’s former first deputy chief of staff—not a man to try to bounce the boss.

So does this mean we know what is going to happen in 2024, when Putin’s current time in office is set to run out, and that Putin will rule until 2036, when he’ll be 83? No, of course not—the man himself probably doesn’t know, either.

This is, after all, classic Putin. One of the most problematic Western myths about him is that he is some kind of deep and subtle schemer, the geopolitical grandmaster playing three-dimensional chess with the world. He is actually quite the opposite, the judo fighter seeking and reacting to the opportunities that arise. His real strength is his capacity to move quickly, decisively, and unexpectedly.

This is especially evident in his response to the so-called 2024 question. Last year, uncertainty within the elite about what would happen after he had come to the end of his constitutional term and whether “Putinism” could survive without Putin began to became a genuinely destabilizing force.

For a while, Putin remained aloof from the debate. On one level, this reflects a wider disengagement from much of the real work of the presidency. He may still be active on the international scene, but he has been neglecting much of the day-to-day domestic governance that, in such a hyperpresidential system, demands the boss’s attention. Frankly, he has appeared tired and bored, more eager to shed than retain many of the duties of the presidency.

On another level, though, this is his usual approach, sitting back and letting others pitch their favored solutions to the problem of the day. And they did. Some advocated an outright presidency-for-life, others sidestepping into a strengthened prime ministership. Others proposed enforced union with neighboring Belarus so that Putin could sidestep into a new role as president of his new joint state, although this was never a serious option.

Others focused instead on guarantees for ex-presidents, to make retirement a more tempting option. In a system where the rule of law takes second place to the cannibalistic realities of power, one of the key challenges is how anyone hands over the position and status from which wealth and security flow. Some sketched halfway houses between the Kremlin and the retirement home, positions that would still give Putin some kind of leverage, role, and protection.

So which did Putin go for? Pretty much all of them.

A great deal can happen in four years, from Putin finding a successor he feels he can trust to his health deteriorating (rumors abound that he is seriously ill, although none yet with any evidence behind them). The national mood is also unpredictable: at present, 45 percent of voters want Putin to stay on, 44 percent to quit in 2024.

So, in his usual style, he is creating a range of options and putting off any decision until later. The Constitutional Court will approve the proposed zeroing of the term clock unless this too is a bit of political theater, to allow Putin to accept it with dignity and demonstrate his willingness to follow the rules. But that need not mean that he will stand again in 2024, just that he can.

He has other possibilities. The State Council, presently a poorly defined advisory body, is being reconstituted as part of the new constitutional changes, although no one quite knows as what. It may be that its chair will be vested in the kind of powers, perks, and immunities that might make it a possible new gig for Putin.

The same is true of the Security Council, which since he appointed his former prime minister and loyal factotum Dmitry Medvedev to become its deputy chair could be reshaped to suit.

Part of the constitutional reforms is a proposal that any former president has the right to become a senator for life in the Federation Council—the upper house of the legislature—with immunity from prosecution. That would be a handy kind of retirement with honor and security.

Beyond that, who knows what could still emerge? Back in 2016, the maverick nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky raised eyebrows by seeming to suggest that Putin should be crowned tsar. Part of his role as one of Russia’s fake opposition leaders is to entertain and distract, and the idea seems ludicrous today. It is a brave Russia-watcher who ever says never, though.

This way, Putin keeps everyone guessing, his options for the future open, and his centrality in the system. Strategic ambiguity is crucial for him, in that as soon as his elites know—or think they know—what will happen in 2024, they will be looking for ways to bend that to their advantage. He might not become a lame duck president—Putin and his position are too formidable for that—but he might begin to limp a little. More to the point, it would open and deepen divisions within the elite at a tense and uncertain time, and one of the takeaways Putin has drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union is that a divided state is a vulnerable one.

Besides, we must acknowledge that we know painfully little about the deliberations in Putin’s closest circle. The people to whom he is closest are not his ministers or even his political technologists. Many of them are now ultra-rich oligarchs, men for whom Putin has been a lucrative patron and an unyielding krysha—“roof,” or “protection” in Russian criminal and now political slang.

While Putin can undoubtedly arrange himself a safe and comfortable post-presidential existence, their terror is no doubt that a successor may well want to elevate his (and it likely will be his, not her) own cronies, and perhaps throw some of them under the bus as symbolic scapegoats for two decades of industrial-scale embezzlement.

A new generation of men-who-would-be-king (or tsar) may be looking to find ways to ease Putin’s transition out of office, but these cronies are likely trying to persuade him to stay. Putin is known to change his mind. Indeed, he probably changed his mind about 2024, initially indicating that he definitely would not stand again, and then apparently opting to leave that door open. The battle for Putin’s future will thus continue for as long as he wants it to.

Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His recent books include We Need To Talk About Putin and the forthcoming A Short History of Russia. Twitter: @MarkGaleotti

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