Vladimir Putin announced on Sunday that he will trade places with current president Dmitry Medvedev next year, running for the presidency while Medvedev settles for the number two spot of prime minister. Under revisions to the Russian constitution, the presidency has been lengthened from a four-year to a six-year term, and presidents can run for re-election once. Twelve more years!
The announcement was hardly a surprise, of course. Despite appearances and titles, Putin has largely been running the show in Moscow even since Medvedev formally became the country’s chief executive in 2008, and virtually no one is surprised that Putin will seek to regain his formal status as president next year or that he will, in all likelihood, be elected overwhelmingly by the Russian electorate in reasonably free and open voting. Unless he either becomes ill or Russia experiences a great downturn during his first six years, he will dutifully be reelected in 2018. If all goes according to plan, Putin will remain in power until he is 72. Speculation about anything past 2024 is not worth making.
While exhibiting the beauty and inevitability of a mud slide (an analogy I crib without permission from an old University of Alabama dean), this is not particularly good news for the United States or the region, at least in term of promoting greater democratization and independence for the countries and peoples there. Russians apparently do not care terribly about such matters; what they care about is what Putin delivers.
Putin is attractive to the Russian (and especially ethnic Russian) majority in the federation. A robust and charismatic figure, Putin has three obvious sources of attraction. First, he is a dynamic and forceful leader who, particularly in the minds of Russians, projects an image of strength and importance of their country in the world. Just as we are entreated not to “mess with Texas,” the image of Vladimir Putin is that you had better not mess with Russia either.
Second, Putin is committed to restoring Russia’s place as a major power in the region and the world. This determination, which is related to the first source of his attraction, rings very much true to the Russian electorate. One of Russian history’s major themes is the quest for status as a world power. While most Russians do not look back at the old Soviet days with much poignancy, they do remember favorably the fact that the Soviet Union was an acknowledged, even feared, superpower which held sway within its region and was, for many purposes, the major peer of the United States. Russians want to return to that status; Putin, by word and deed, offers them what they believe is the best chance to do so. This perception stands in stark contrast with the image of the affable Medvedev, who appears much too bland and compliant for Russian tastes. Think Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Third, Putin is a consummate politician. His rise to power happened to coincide with Russia’s emergence as the world’s second largest exporter of oil and largest exporter of natural gas (especially to Europe, which is highyl dependent on Russian supplies), and he turned this windfall into two advantages for himself and his country. Internally, Putin has skillfully used energy revenues essentially to “buy off” the voting public with the largesse of government disbursements that have improved the material conditions of many Russians. He became, during the 2000s when he was formally in the presidency, one of the two particular experts in what Thomas L. Friedman calls “petrolist” politics, using oil revenues to bolster support and, not entirely coincidentally, to erode democracy. It is a Faustian bargain of sorts, but one the Russian people have accepted as a necessary tradeoff for their own prosperity and sense of national resurgence.
Internationally, energy exports give Russia leverage they have lacked since the end of the Cold War. While Russia retains a nuclear force roughly equivalent to that of the United States, that is not enough to insure Russian prestige and acceptance as a”super” power: to many, it is still a “Third World country with nuclear weapons.” Oil and natural gas change that, since the world is hungry for energy, and especially for energy that does not come from the unstable Middle East: Russia may still be a Third World country, but energy makes them more consequential, and Putin both knows this and how to exploit it.
Will Putin return to his old ways when he returns to office? There is no reason to think he won’t. What will this mean for the United States? The answer somewhat depends on how the US government decides to treat a new Russian regime, but it will definitely dampen American enthusiasm for Russian movement toward “normal” status in the region and world and dim any hope that Russia will soon evolve into a full-scale western democracy. It will also mean a more assertive Russian stance toward the “internal abroad” (those ethnically non-Russian parts of Russia that seek autonomy or independence–think Chechnya and Dagestan) or the “near abroad” (the former Soviet republics on its periphery–think Georgia). Russia will almost certainly act in ways of which the United States disapproves, and the results will almost certainly return greater strain to those relations.
Russia still has its problems, which Putin cannot wish away. Russian demographics are still horrible, and population decline will continue and hamper Russia’s return to major status. The rate of exploitation of Russia’s oil reserves cannot be sustained long before they begin to become depleted. Russia needs to be looking toward new bases of influence beyond energy, and buying off the population only serves short-term, not long-term goals. These are Russian realities that face any Russian leader.
As yesterday’s indicates, Valdimir Putin is back. He never really went away, but in March, the Russian public will put him back in the driver’s seat, while his understudy, Dmitry Medvedev, will be consigned to the rumble seat. It is not particularly good news, but there is not a whole lot that can be done about it.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. This essay first appeared at his blog What After Iraq?.