Wheel of Fortune and The Emperor tarot cards

What Next? The Implications of Putin’s Reelection

March 22, 2018
Peter Rutland

In Russia, as in other authoritarian regimes, elections are mostly non-events: rituals that the regime has to go through to maintain its narrative of popular legitimacy, both for domestic and international audiences.

As a result, the fact of Putin’s reelection on March 18 leaves key questions unanswered, and tells us nothing about the likely future trajectory of Russia. This makes it very hard for Western leaders to craft an effective long-term strategy toward Moscow.

What are the key uncertainties surrounding Russian politics today? Two stand out. First, will Putin be able to follow through on his promise to break with energy dependency and create a more diversified, “knowledge-intensive” economy? Second, will the Russian political system be able to put in place a Putin successor without triggering a damaging intra-elite struggle for power? That kind of factional infighting, in turn, could spill over into social unrest, perhaps paving the way for an even more repressive regime.

Overhauling the Economy

Having a “strong man” in the Kremlin through 2024 could mean that Putin is free to embark on radical policy reforms over the next few years. However, the fact that he has been unable to do so since 2012 belies that scenario. It seems more likely that Putin, fearful of disrupting the status quo, will continue on his current cautious path, rather than seriously tackling the corrupt and monopolistic practices that prevail in key sectors of the Russian economy.

In the run-up to the presidential election back in 2012, Putin published half a dozen newspaper articles in which he laid out his thinking about various policy issues. And after that election he issued the “May decrees” ordering government ministers to execute various policy changes, including boosting pay for workers in the health and education sectors for example.

We are not likely to see any such legislative burst in the wake of the March 2018 election. Putin has shown no sign of enthusiasm for policy innovation. His address to the Federal Assembly on March 1 had no surprises on the domestic front. Russia’s dismal economic performance over recent years means that there is no money available for radical policy innovation. Liberals could take solace from the fact that Putin did not embrace Trump-style economic nationalism, something that he has been encouraged to do by some in the business community (such as Boris Titov, presidential candidate and head of the Party of Growth) and nationalist economists (such as Sergei Glazyev). On the contrary, Putin reiterated—as he has repeatedly since 2000—his understanding that to be a great power Russia needs to be integrated into the global economy and stay at the forefront of global innovation, hence we must “also open the country to the world and to new ideas and initiatives.”

The good news for Western observers, and for companies interested in doing business in Russia, is that Putin has preserved the pro-market economic team that has brought monetary and fiscal stability to Russia over the past 18 years. The team consists of Finance Minister Anton Siluanov (age 54), Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin (age 35) and Central Bank head Elvira Nabiullina (age 54). Inflation is below 3 percent, the government deficit is 1.5 percent of GDP (and is based on the cautious assumption of a $40 oil price in 2018) and government debts are a mere 8 percent of GDP. Last month the main standard-bearer for the liberal camp, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, released a plan to reduce the state’s role in the Russian economy.

That said, economic nationalism is on the rise worldwide—with a Trump-led trade war looming, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching a “Make in India” movement in 2014 and Chinese President Xi Jinping tightening state control of the economy in China. However, Russia has relatively little to fear from a trade war, since it is already subject to Western sanctions, and oil and gas are typically exempt from trade restrictions.  

Successor Dilemma

The big unknown is what will happen in 2024, at the end of Putin’s term—and what effect that will have on decision making over the next six years. Will Putin, who will be 71, continue in power—either by changing the constitution, or by once again swapping jobs with a placeholder like Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev? Or will he designate a genuine successor, and step aside?

No one knows the answer to these questions. Finding a successor to Putin will not be easy. Such a person will have to be acceptable to the siloviki, the security officials whose influence has grown strongly over the past decade. He must also be presentable on the international stage, so as not to scare away foreign investors and trading partners. He will have to have a common touch, a personality that can be fashioned into a credible populist icon. Finally, he must be strong enough to control the rival factions within the elite, and to provide guarantees for the freedom and property of Putin and his inner circle.

Five men come to mind as prospective successors, trusted by the elite and with the potential to be sold to the public as an effective leader. Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012, would represent continuity with the Putin presidency. He is perhaps the most likely choice. He is not a popular figure: As of November 2017 a majority of the Russian public disapproved of his performance. However, a Putin endorsement could be sufficient to keep Medvedev’s rivals at bay. Sergei Shoigu, currently defense minister, is the second-most popular politician in Russia after Putin (26 percent trust versus Putin’s 55 percent), but he has no experience in business or foreign affairs, having spent most of his career in the civil emergencies ministry. Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor, was formerly the head of the oil-rich Khanty-Mansi province. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Trutnev, a former regional governor and natural resources minister, is intelligent and a proven manager. Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff and former head of Rosatom, is the most pro-market of the group. It is hard to imagine any figure from outside this inner circle, or from a younger cohort, being selected as the successor.

Shoigu, Sobyanin and Kiriyenko are all from a mixed ethnic background. Shoigu comes from Tuva on the Mongolian border, Sobyanin is part Mansi, a people of the Arctic north and Kiriyenko’s father was Jewish. This could be a problem, since many Russians harbor negative stereotypes about ethnic minorities and may be reluctant to see one as president of Russia.

If it came to be understood that Putin will be stepping down in 2024, that could trigger a surge in factional fighting as rival elites try to promote their favored successor. That is a worrying scenario, since the default position of the Russian state (and, it seems, the Russian people) is a preference for order—and the leader who emerges from that contest may be more repressive than Putin. Moreover, in this month’s election, the nationalist, anti-Western, openly anti-liberal candidates jointly pulled in about 20 percent of the vote, while the liberal ones managed less than 5 percent. A leadership struggle could well extinguish those remaining fragments of liberty which Russians enjoy, such as an open internet.

That outcome would also of course be bad for the United States. Since around 2008 U.S. policy toward Russia has largely been built on the premise that it is impossible to do business with Putin, a man whose behavior is still shaped by Soviet-era values. Washington assumed it could ignore Russia until a post-Putin leader emerges—on the assumption that the next leader will be more amenable to cooperation with the West.

That notion turns out to have been deeply flawed. With Putin likely to be ensconced in the Kremlin for another six years, it is time for a change of course. Sadly, that is unlikely to happen, since Russia and the West have been driven even further apart by a series of unfortunate events: the atrocities of the Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria; the investigation of Russian hacking of the U.S. presidential election; the Olympic doping scandal; and, most recently, the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal. Like it or not, the West will have to find some way of dealing with Vladimir Putin.


Peter Rutland

Peter Rutland is the Colin and Nancy Campbell professor in global issues and democratic thought at Wesleyan University.

Photo by AlbanyColley shared in the public domain.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.