Russia is difficult to govern at the best of times and there were, and are, a range of issues that allow Vladimir Putin to retain the Presidency. Very few Western political leaders could cope with managing the country, the economy or the international politics. Leaders such as Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern, Boris Johnson or our Scott Morrison would be eaten alive in Russia. Like him or hate him, Putin is wily and tough – but is his time as leader coming to an end?
This year and next will be pivotal for Russian domestic politics and international relations, with events in both arenas poised to have a determinative impact on Russia’s trajectory for years, if not decades. With Putin’s omnipresence a defining feature of Russia’s strategy, how domestic political rivals and international players manoeuvre in and around his path will significantly shape the global geopolitical landscape.
Putin’s current term does not end until 2024 and a referendum in 2020 gave him the ability to remain president until 2036. When his formal tenure ends however, won’t just be a matter of preference.
Putin is wary of leaving office with Russia in any political, social, and economic disarray and will only step aside when he can be confident of a steady transition to a successor of his choosing. He is looking ahead to the State Duma elections in September to serve as a bellwether for his voluntary departure timeline.
If Putin’s United Russia party does well in September, Putin has a three year window to pursue a relatively smooth transition. If United Russia does not have a particularly strong showing, Putin is likely to stay on after 2024, hedging his bets that he can improve transition conditions over time.
Whilst international observers will focus on September’s State Duma elections, the status of Alexei Navalny is also filled with risk for Putin. Various governments, notably the US, have protested his imprisonment and this has prompted EU members to also express their displeasure. Russia significantly depends on the EU for the importation of its oil and gas so the enactment of additional sanctions, curtailment of supply contracts or other punitive measures would not pass unnoticed in Russia.
From an risk perspective, it is difficult to ratify Putin’s cost-benefit analysis on Navalny. Russia’s domestic political landscape and economic outlook are largely stable but the country will not benefit from additional negative international attention. One of the enduring issues in Russia is that it resents not always being accorded its rightful place in the international sphere so the treatment of Navalny weakens Putin’s international credibility.
I think 2021/22 will be a pivotal for Putin with a convergence of domestic and foreign policy issues. Coupled with the Black Swan event we know as covid, there are very real implications for Russia’s economy and Putin’s political future not to mention thornier strategic concerns and goals.
Putin knows that expanding Russia’s realm of influence requires varying degrees of focus to most points of the globe: westward to the EU, east to the USA and various points south to the Balkans, the Middle East and management of the expanded relationship with China. While many European countries remain transfixed by covid, their economies and other internal issues, 2021/22 is a prime time for Russia to double down to build influence and re-build relationships, notably with the US and some in the EU.
The success, or otherwise, of Russia’s international relationships will pay a role in Putin deciding to hang up his boots from day-to-day politics. It is unlikely that he will retire altogether – he will remain a kingmaker in Russia for many years – but at 68 years old, mortality is beginning to make its presence felt. If Putin is confident that he can handover a domestically strong and internationally relevant country, the Putin era will draw to a close.