By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
With the Russian presidential campaign entering the final straight, Vladimir Putin will give his 2018 state-of-the-union address on Thursday. The set-piece speech to parliament, timed days before his certain re-election on March 18, comes as national political attention is increasingly shifting forward to 2024.
That date, when Putin will be constitutionally required to step down from power, will end a remarkable period in Russian history in which he will have been prime minister or president for 25 years from 1999. Extraordinarily, this is a longer period at the top than all the Soviet Union’s supreme leaders except Joseph Stalin.
While Putin is widely criticized abroad, especially in the West, he remains popular in Russia and is polling massively ahead of his nearest rival. Indeed, in this context, the president’s biggest challenge is not winning on March 18, but trying to whip up enough popular interest in the contest to ensure a respectably high voter turnout.
With attention already turning to 2024, there are at least four key scenarios for the future of the country’s governance from then on. These presume, although this is by no means certain, that Putin remains fit and healthy enough to stay in office for six more years, when he will be 72 (around Donald Trump’s age today), and that he remains politically popular.
Firstly, and perhaps most optimistically, is that Putin will finally step back in 2024 and allow free and fair elections in Russia. However, this appears the least likely option at this stage, not least because any genuinely new administration might ultimately launch significant retrospective probes into his many years of power.
A second scenario is that Putin seeks to change the constitution, which prohibits any one person being elected more than twice consecutively. While this may be his ultimate end-game, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that he would be able to secure it, especially if his political luck finally goes south in the next six years — a real possibility fueled by potential foreign policy misadventure or domestic economic travails.
A third option is that he seeks to groom a trusted successor to take power while Putin retained influence, directly or indirectly. One variant of this scenario came in 2008, when he was prime minister and Dmitri Medvedev was president for four years.
There is speculation that Putin may seek to hold positions after 2024, ranging from prime minister, again, to roles such as Speaker of the Duma. While these options cannot be dismissed, if Putin’s goal is to become president again in 2030 he would by then be 78 years of age, when his personal health and political longevity could no longer be assumed.
Indeed, there are already some signs that his power is ebbing. Take the examples of turf wars and feuding at the top of the Russian elite.
Former economy minister Alexei Ulyukayev was sentenced to eight years in prison in December for soliciting a bribe from Igor Sechin, chief executive of the state oil company Rosneft, and one of Putin’s close associates. Such elite disorder could grow, significantly, in the coming six years, should the president’s political writ weaken.
Nevertheless, the fact that Putin could realistically remain in power post-2024 underlines his remarkable grip on power in Russia almost two decades after succeeding Boris Yeltsin. He has proved skilled in tapping into the post-Cold War national mood by forging a new sense of patriotism fueled by a growing economy.
This theme of national unity, and seeking global respect, is central to his re-election campaign, with Putin tapping into the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. This builds upon his mission since assuming power from Yeltsin of trying to restore Russia’s geopolitical prominence and prestige through international gambits such as the annexation of Crimea and the Syria intervention.
Yet while this has — so far — played well domestically for Putin, it has resulted in frostier relations with the West, and a key question remains in coming years how the relationship, specifically with the US, will fare. While Putin and Trump had hoped for a warming in relations between Washington and Moscow, events during the first year of Trump’s presidency may have already destroyed the window of opportunity for this to happen.
It is not only that new US sanctions have made relations trickier, but also that the Trump team is under significant pressure over the congressional and FBI investigations into alleged collusion with Moscow during the 2016 US presidential campaign.
Moreover, there have been significant US-Russia conflicts in the Middle East, including tension after US missile strikes last year on a Syrian military airfield following a chemical gas attack by the Assad regime.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were forceful in their criticism of Moscow at the time, with the latter saying that “either Russia has been complicit or simply incompetent” in Syria. And the spike in Washington-Moscow tensions even had Medvedev saying the two countries were “one step away from war” and had “totally ruined” relations.
Taken overall, with Putin’s victory certain, key questions remain, and not just over the post-2024 Russian domestic landscape. The nearer-term future of Moscow’s ties with the US and the wider West remain in flux, and Trump’s proposed reset of relations now looks as though it might be in the deep freeze.
*Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.