Six More Years For Putin: Five Things To Watch For – Analysis


By Mike Eckel

(RFE/RL) — After being declared the victor of a presidential election in March, an outcome that was never in doubt, Vladimir Putin starts a new six-year term with an inauguration ceremony in the Kremlin on May 7.

There’s less certainty about what comes next, but there are strong clues: more men for the Ukraine war, new taxes to fund the war, new personnel shuffling within the Kremlin, new threats for NATO, and new suppression of dissent.

The clearest indications came in Putin’s state-of-the-nation speech in February. Most notable, said Tatyana Stanovaya, a veteran expert of Russian politics, was how confident Putin and the Kremlin seem about Russia’s geopolitical position.

“This is not empty propaganda, but a reflection of plans for ideological expansion, the export of ‘Putinism’ to Western countries, and active work with potential ‘friends,'” she wrote in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the time. “In other words, the geopolitical battlefield for values is once again moving to Western territory, and Putin feels more confident than ever.”

“The horizons of this ‘holy war’ have now expanded,” she said.

War Is (Not) Over

More than two years into the mass invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces currently have the momentum, building on the symbolic victory of capturing the industrial city of Avdiyivka in February and advancing further against Ukrainian forces.

The cost, in terms of Russian soldiers and equipment, is on a scale not seen since World War II, with upward of 320,000 soldiers killed or wounded and thousands of weapons, tanks, vehicles, and weapons systems destroyed, according to Western estimates.

The country’s industrial base has kicked into higher gear, churning out an increasing number of weapons and equipment.

Sourcing personnel has been more problematic. Putin ordered a mobilization of around 300,000 men seven months after the start of the full-scale invasion, an acknowledgment that the war was not going to be a cakewalk. The order reverberated through Russian society, prompting an exodus of people fleeing abroad.

Military planners induced thousands of “kontraktniki” into volunteer service, using above-average wages and other lucrative compensation, such as death payments for widows and survivors.

Signing bonuses for new contracts are up to 700,000 rubles ($7,600), according to research by the Bank of Finland’s Institute for Emerging Economies — a sum greater than the annual average salary as of 2022. In Russia’s poorer regions, where average wages are even lower, the financial incentives for volunteering to fight are even greater.

Planners have tapped the vast prison population, offering inmates pardon or amnesty for crimes committed in exchange for military service. By some estimates, up to 100,000 prisoners may have ended up fighting in a force whose casualty rates are also believed to be well above that of regular units.

Military commanders also have tweaked and fudged contractual obligations. Some inmate soldiers have reportedly been refused promised discharge after short-term service and instead told they’ll be released only when the war ends. Commanders have cut back furloughs and rest-and-relaxation holidays for some units, angering relatives and fueling a grassroots movement called The Way Home, which challenged officials, advocating for troop rotations.

Another round of mobilization does not appear imminent, experts say. Despite enormous losses — Russia has lost more troops since February 2022 than the Soviet Union did in an entire decade fighting in Afghanistan — commanders appear intent to continue the patchwork system of recruitment.

“In 2024, the Kremlin will need to decide: If the number of losses remains high as it is today, as it was during the last several months…the Kremlin will need to find more soldiers,” said Pavel Luzin, an expert on Russia’s military-industrial sector and researcher at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

The Kremlin will either have to do another mobilization “by force, by coercion,” Luzin said during a March 14 forum organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis, or it will have to send a greater number of conscripts to fight in Ukraine. Both options would be highly unpopular.

Currently, all Russian men between 18 and 30 are required by law to serve 12 months in the armed forces, but those conscripts aren’t allowed to be sent abroad or into combat.

More Guns, Less Butter

Russia’s economy has been transformed and put onto war footing. The country’s vast industrial base has been tooled to churn out the weaponry needed to keep pace with Ukraine’s destruction of it.

In the first two years, the Kremlin earmarked more than 30 trillion rubles ($325 billion) for the war effort, and experts estimate the share of gross domestic product taken up by military and security spending will exceed 8 percent this year.

That government spending has helped the economy defy Western sanctions, with predictions of 2.6 percent or more growth this year.

Money for the war effort has come in large part from government coffers filled with petroleum dollars. The Finance Ministry said in January that it expects to bring in 11.5 trillion rubles ($125 billion) in revenues from oil and gas sales this year, with China and India being the main buyers.

But the government has also burned through its rainy-day savings, and government data show nearly half of the national wealth fund had been depleted as of the end of 2023.

During his February state-of-the-nation speech, Putin signaled the Kremlin was looking to tweak the Tax Code to raise more revenues and shift the tax burden onto higher earners.

The government is considering raising the personal income tax from 15 percent for those earning more than 5 million rubles to 20 percent and hiking corporate tax rates from 20 percent to 25 percent, according to the Russian news site Important Stories and Bloomberg.

That would help plug a 1.6 trillion-ruble ($17 billion) hole that the Finance Ministry has forecast for 2024.

Changing Of The Guard

During the speech, Putin also mentioned the creation of a new national elite, emphasizing that those who fought in the war or otherwise gave full-throated support for the war effort should be afforded privileged positions, either in society or in the government itself.

Among the current “elite” are Putin’s advisers — his inner-circle confidants, the powerful Presidential Administration, the wider government headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin — a group that has been relatively stable in recent years.

Some of his confidants are aging. General Valery Gerasimov, the 68-year-old chief of the Russian General Staff and overall commander of the Ukraine war, for example, is beyond the mandatory military retirement age. The head of the powerful Federal Security Service, Aleksandr Bortnikov, is 72, a year older than Putin, and rumored to be ailing.

“What is inevitable is that the Russian military will get more prominent in Russian politics,” Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert on Russia’s security services, said during the March 14 forum. “And every war in Russia — it doesn’t matter how disastrous it was — nevertheless produced very popular generals who played a really significant part of Russian politics.”

Some of the proposals Putin laid out in his speech included the establishment of five new “national projects” focusing on major social policies will require substantial new funding and likely the creation of a new deputy prime minister.

“For many years now, Putin has avoided a major reshuffle among Russia’s top officials in order to head off any speculation about power transitions or successors. Now, however, he has little choice but to empower a major new political player,” political commentator Andrei Pertsev wrote.

If major shuffling does take place, one name to watch is Sergei Kiriyenko, who is an influential behind-the-scenes player in the Presidential Administration, an entity responsible for engineering all aspects of the presidential election. He’s also been the Kremlin’s point man on the occupied Ukrainian territories of which Moscow has illegally claimed ownership.

Kiriyenko was the “viceroy of the Donbas” who could “keep moving up through the ranks,” one former government official told the Russian news site Meduza.

Another is Aleksei Dyumin, a former Putin bodyguard who is now governor of the Tula region.

“It’s not a question of legitimacy. It’s a question of demonstrating control of the system and sufficient loyalty among the elites to produce a result that the Kremlin wants,” said Thomas Graham, who served as senior director for Russia on the White House National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.

“Beyond that — and I don’t think the Kremlin thinks in terms of democratic legitimacy the way we might mean in the West — that is not something that’s top of mind,” he said in March.

‘Destruction of Civilization’

Putin’s domestic popularity has been undergirded by the prosperity that a growing middle class enjoyed beginning in the 2000s, as well as his image as an even-keeled leader following a turbulent decade under his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

His popularity is also propelled by a strongman persona, committed to bringing back the global might that many Russians recall from the Soviet period. That includes standing up to the West, NATO, and in particular the United States, which the Kremlin perceives to be an existential threat.

Putin’s bellicose rhetoric, which stretches at least as far back as 2007 when he began likening the United States to the Nazi Third Reich, has worsened since his last election in 2018 — and further in the run-up to the Ukraine invasion in February 2022.

During his speech before parliament, Putin bragged about Russia’s nuclear arsenal and threatened to use it against Western nations if they intervened more directly in the Ukraine war.

That would result in “a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore the destruction of civilization,” Putin said.

“They must ultimately understand that we also have weapons…that can hit targets on their territory,” he said.

In a signal on the eve of Putin’s inauguration, the Defense Ministry announced plans for exercises simulating the use of tactical nuclear weapons, calling the drills a response to what it said were “provocative statements and threats” by Western officials.

Putin’s legacy is consumed by the outcome of Russia’s war on Ukraine conflict, analysts say: if not outright victory, he wants some other result that would allow him to claim victory. That, plus the efforts by the West to prevent the subjugation of Ukraine, means the belligerent rhetoric will continue.

Additionally, other experts warn, the Kremlin and military commanders may be emboldened to challenge NATO and the United States in other places or in other ways, depending on the course of the war and how much Western nations waver in their support for Ukraine.

Some European leaders have suggested the Kremlin might be confident enough to test NATO directly, to see how and if the alliance would actually respond to Russian hostility.

Dissent Will Not Be Tolerated

Since at least 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency after a four-year stint as prime minister, the government has squeezed civil society, NGOs, rights groups, independent media, and others. Scores of people and organizations have been blacklisted, threatened with prosecution, bankrupted, or driven out of the country.

The war in Ukraine further accelerated the move toward police-state policies, with lawmakers criminalizing anyone who questions the war or voices opposition.

A former lawmaker named Boris Nadezhdin who espoused an anti-war stance was embraced by many Russians opposed to Putin and the conflict. But he was blocked from running in the presidential election by the authorities on a technicality.

In February, the beleaguered opposition suffered another blow when Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader who was increasingly hailed as a figurehead leader, died in an Arctic prison. Some who turned out to pay their respects during Navalny’s funeral are now being targeted by police.

By all estimates, the repression of dissenting voices will only increase in Putin’s fifth term. The Kremlin’s hope is that society will be cowed into acquiescence, or apathy.

“It’s true that the Kremlin does not like widespread public unrest. They are concerned about what that means for the stability of the regime,” Graham said. “To a certain extent they’re paranoid about that, because I think they exaggerate the destabilizing aspects of public protests. But they are concerned about that and have been concerned about that for decades.”

“They are concerned about anything that demonstrates initiative, or spontaneity on the part of the population, and much prefer political apathy and people who don’t engage in politics,” Graham said. “The stability of the system is actually based on apathy.”

  • Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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