Eighty percent poll ratings, almost four years to go before the next elections, and the chance to stay until 2024—what’s not to like for Putin? The outside world, and the majority of Russians, suppose that he will stay that long, if not longer. However, if we were to judge by the actions of Putin and his immediate circle, we would conclude that they have little confidence in the durability of the people’s love for the Russian President.
Russia today is a state in thrall to a distorted narrative. Putin has to stay in control of that narrative. The institutional structures of the state have been deprived of their independent meaning, leaving the Kremlin, and therefore Putin, both exalted and isolated. There is a considerable range of questions about Putin personally and the system he has promoted that will not simply disappear. If only one of them were allowed to become a focus of public dissatisfaction, especially as a particular illustration of a wider problem, the regime would be threatened. Lies and repression remain necessities. So too now is the securely implanted perception of Fortress Russia, surrounded by enemies and doing its duty in Ukraine.
Putin’s sacralization as national leader is reinforced by the absence of any other visible contender for power and the interdiction of significant argument over policies determined through him. There is a constitutional process for his replacement as President in 2018 or 2024, as the case may be. If he left the Kremlin before presidential elections could be held on the regular timetable, then the Prime Minister, for now the poorly rated Medvedev, would act as interim President for three months.
But Putin will not go voluntarily. He would be taking a huge personal risk if he left office in 2018, or even, on present form, in 2024. Appointing his long term and obedient associate Medvedev in 2008 led in the end to the airing of unwelcome ideas and to street protests. Any successor to Putin now would be bound to show himself (or notionally herself) as seeking to become his own President; in case of need Putin would be the ideal scapegoat. But Putin is also the prisoner of the course he has followed since his return to the Kremlin in May 2012. The risks of that course are mounting, be they for Russia’s economy, for its confrontational relationship with the outside world (and not just the West), or for its internal stability.
There may well be those in Putin’s immediate circle who recognize the dangers they face over the next couple of years. It is possible that, if his health came into question, or if it seemed to them that he was ready to take some gamble too far, at least some of them might seek to combine against him. They have after all their fortunes and safety to look to. But they are also complicit in what has been done over the past fifteen years, and their overall objective would be to preserve the essential characteristics of this period. Few if any of Putin’s inner circle have political credibility. Choosing a safe successor would mean choosing the political orientation of the next President—supposing that plotting Putin’s overthrow were even a practicable option. A whiff of liberalization would bring its own risks. More intense Russian nationalism, others. A caretaker in case of ill health or Putin’s death would prolong the period of contention as to Russia’s future course, not resolve it.
Putin’s immediate colleagues are not the only Russians who have a stake in the present system and stand to lose from its decay. But the majority are beneficiaries rather than principal actors. Moscow remains the political center of Russia’s political life and fortunes. The present regime would not be so insistent on the dangers of color revolutions, or so willing to turn to semi-legal groups like anti-Maidan, exploit criminal groups and interests, or organize mass demonstrations, if Russia’s leaders were confident of their grip, even after reducing the 2011-12 protest movement to virtual impotence. Russia has become a country suspended in potential anarchy, not a state ready to evolve in harmony with itself.
Western policymakers need therefore to contemplate the risks of eventual breakdown in Russia. That is not to say that Russia is, for us, too big to fail. Nor is it to urge us to bring about regime change. Neither option is practicable or desirable for the West to prevent or to undertake. We should, however, act in the case of Ukraine in the knowledge that what Russia is doing there is not as the Kremlin claims because of the threat to Russia from the West, but because of the developing crisis within Russia itself. Putin is not to be appeased by Western concessions, or necessarily by the West abandoning Ukraine. The respect we owe to Russia is to its people, not to its regime. Change can now come only with a new regime, whose birth may well be rough.