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Calculation, Chaos, And A Cosmonaut’s Speech: Five Takeaways From Putin’s Big Bombshell – Analysis

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By Steve Gutterman*

(RFE/RL) — The most obvious answer to the question of why Vladimir Putin is giving himself the option of seeking two more terms as Russian president is also the simplest one: He wants to stay in the Kremlin until 2036. Behind the scenes, it may be a bit more complicated.

Here are five takeaways about the Putin machinations, his possible motives, and the potential risks.

Will He, Won’t He?

After plenty of signals that Putin would take a more meandering road to remain in power after his current term ends in 2024 — the State Council, the Security Council, the State Duma, and so forth – he has laid out the straightest possible path by arranging to enable himself to run for a new term in 2024 and another one in 2030.

But will he do it?

It would be reasonable to assume that’s the plan. So far, betting against Putin taking every opportunity to retain as much power as possible has been emphatically a fool’s game.

But since he went public with plans for constitutional change in December, the process seems to have been all about creating options. So, it makes little sense to rule out the possibility that holding onto the presidency after 2024 is, at this point, still just an option.

A fan of control by all accounts, Putin may believe he has a better chance of maintaining control of the situation, and adjusting and implementing post-2024 plans, if Russians see that he is highly unlikely to be out of the picture than if he left the future more nebulous.

A shorter way of putting it is that he wants more maneuverability and fears he will lose it if he signals he’ll be leaving the driver’s seat in a few years.

An even shorter way: He doesn’t want to be a lame duck, a motive pro-Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov, among others, said may have figured into the decision.

Of course, even if running for a new term in 2024 is just an option now, having it as an option may make it almost inevitable that he takes that option. Some analysts say Putin is not interested in power for its own sake, but he has yet to prove them right.

Chaos And Calculation

Putin’s sudden push to change the constitution has been widely seen as part of a plan to retain power after 2024, with many of the proposed changes serving as a smokescreen for that goal or as sweeteners to entice Russians to vote for the document on April 22. But until March 7, when he made some remarks about stability and presidential terms that hinted that he might not want to vacate the Kremlin for a while yet, most of the things he said suggested that the one path he was perhaps least likely to take would be staying on as president.

That raises a question: Was this the plan all along or was the decision to pave the way for new Kremlin terms made more recently, amid uncertainty in the Kremlin about how to proceed?

A day before Putin’s appearance at the Duma, Russia’s lower legislative chamber, analyst and commentator Konstantin Eggert maintained that it was more than just uncertainty, describing unprecedented “chaos at the top” and suggesting that plans were shifting by the week or by the day.

And there was an unusual sense of chaos on March 10, when expectations that the Duma would quietly pass the package of constitutional amendments in the key second reading were disrupted by sudden calls for early parliamentary elections and the abolition of all presidential term limits. Possibly, though, the noise that broke the quiet was just the sound of a previously approved plan clicking into place.

Choreographed Cosmonautics?

For possible evidence that the fast-moving developments were as carefully calibrated as a rocket launch, just listen to the speech from Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space and the lawmaker who called for the change that would let Putin run again in 2024 and 2030.

For the occasion, acerbic analyst Stanislav Belkovsky suggested, it was the perfect speech and Tereshkova, now a Duma deputy from the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, the perfect person to deliver it.

“They handed her the precise text that should be delivered by a…person who is a symbol of our victories in space and the Soviet Union – the state to which Putin would like to return and whose glory he feeds upon,” Belkovsky told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “It was all done very smoothly.”

From Many, One

Less than an hour after Tereshkova spoke, the Duma approved the legislation to amend the constitution, with zero “no” votes in the second reading. Early on March 11 came the third and final Duma vote, and later that day the upper house, the Federation Council, approved it in a single vote.

Putin is expected to sign it on March 18, the date in 2018 when he was elected to his current term. And if it’s approved in the popular vote on April 22, the changes will take effect – all 390 or so of them.

They cover a lot of ground, from issues such as god and same-sex marriage to a tweak of the wording on the metric system. But some analysts say that of the nearly 400 changes, all but one – the one made at the last minute on March 10 – are little more than window dressing.

The focus, for now and the foreseeable future, will be on the one change that will enable Putin to seek reelection in 2024 should he choose to do so. That was the unspoken focus, at least, in Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko’s superfluous appeal to fellow lawmakers to back the bill.

Putin has “raised Russia from its knees” and the new constitution “must consolidate all Russian society,” Matviyenko was quoted as saying — words that journalist Maria Antonova said made the vote “sound more like a referendum for Putin.”

The vote in the upper house: 160-to-1, with three abstentions.

A Lost Generation

Putin may hope that the expectation that he will stay in the Kremlin will give him a firmer grip on the country for the four years between now and the next election, which will be held in March 2024 if nothing changes. He also may hope that by creating that expectation now, he could wrong-foot opponents and weaken potential protests by Russians who wish he had left power long ago.

“People are unlikely to protest in large numbers over something that may or may not happen. And by the time 2024 rolls around, people may be inured to the idea,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, wrote in a Twitter thread on March 10.

But it also poses a risk, Greene added, writing that it “puts a big target on Putin’s back.”

“If anything,” Putin’s sudden move “raises the stakes,” he wrote. “Social mobilization is often most powerful when it includes a sense of ‘now or never’ — that if you don’t act now, the future will be lost for a generation or more.”

  • Steve Gutterman is an editor in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague. He has lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union off and on — mostly on — since 1989, including postings in Moscow with the Associated Press and Reuters.

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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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