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Putin: Leader for Life?

Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reform and political shakeup could guarantee his domination of Russian politics for the long haul – but in what form? 

Vladimir Putin has been in charge at the Kremlin, one way or another, for the last 20 years. As speculation grew over who would take over after his presidential term ends in 2024, Putin surprised Russians and the world by introducing a constitutional proposal that could lay the groundwork for staying in power for life. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev resigned and was promptly replaced. How has Putin managed to hold onto power amid a faltering economy and growing pro-democracy opposition – and what is his next move?

Andrew Weiss joins Altamar to help explain Putin’s legacy and future. Weiss is the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in Russian and Eurasian affairs. Previously, he was director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Russia and Eurasia. He moreover served as director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs on the National Security Council staff and is a prolific writer and commentator on Russian politics.

While political speculation from pundits worldwide went into overdrive trying to  interpret Putin’s motives, Weiss says the lack of certainty gives him a clear advantage: “Everyone now has to basically adjust to a new equilibrium, and there could be new alternatives, there could be new pathways for Putin to hold onto power, there could be new pathways for him to leave power, which is still a remote, but not a totally zero possibility. So, everything’s clearer to Putin, but the rest of us are just guessing, and we’ll know when we all know at the same time. He pulls surprises.”

According to Weiss, the cult of personality around Putin helps explain how he’s been able to maintain such a strong grip on power: “He is a person who sort of lucked into the job of a lifetime 20 years ago and managed to outperform rather dramatically. I think people, when they picked him, picked him because they thought he would be somewhat malleable.” Instead, “he proved himself to be a very cunning and wily operative, who, in a very tactical way, plays off his opponents’ weaknesses and then operates very tactically to gain some kind of advantage for himself.”

Putin’s political craftiness has helped him navigate a series of international crises throughout his two decades in power: “Whether it’s interfering in the U.S. election, or the policy on Ukraine, he definitely has proven that he’s really formidable.” However, Weiss has his doubts over whether Putin’s inclination towards asserting Russia’s power on the world stage may constitute the best strategy for Russia: “The long-term strategic consequences for Russia are quite potentially negative… In the case of the U.S., he’s created this image for himself as a formidable adversary of the United States, which is, I think, something that will hurt Russia long-term and make Russia feel far more insecure.”

Putin also faces uphill economic challenges to overcome in the coming years. The Russian economy under Putin “has basically condemned itself structurally to low growth, anemic growth, one or two percent, which if you’re an emerging market country like Russia, is way below what the norm is globally.” But Russia has also been stockpiling enormous oil reserves, which means it has “half a trillion dollars of money in the mattress to safeguard against some sort of either western pressure or dislocation globally,” reducing a major vulnerability the country might have had from external adversaries.

Looking forward, Weiss states that it’s harder than ever for the West to predict what could come next for Russia: “The West’s understanding and handle on things in Russia has been badly degraded both because the society has become more closed, and the level of access and interaction has been greatly reduced.” That means even a post-Putin future could remain problematic: “When you say ‘what are going to be dealing with in the post Putin-era,’ no one really knows, but we probably will be dealing with someone who has far less experience and is far less sophisticated than Putin… Anyone who comes after him is going to be his own kind of neophyte and I think that will create its own share of risks and uncertainties.”

To learn more about Putin and Russia’s future, listen to the newest episode of Altamar – available for download here.

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Episode 65