Why you should care
Because eventually he has to leave the stage.
Vladimir Putin has been such a dominant figure in international relations since coming to power in 1999 that it’s hard to imagine a world without him. Moreover, Russia is so large — spanning 11 time zones — and so diverse in ethnic and socioeconomic terms, that’s it’s equally difficult to foresee Russian reaction to the absence of someone who has really functioned much like the czars of old. But nothing is eternal, not even in Mother Russia, so sooner or later, things will change.
That transition can come about in many ways, and each will bring its own set of implications — for Russia, for the United States and for the rest of the world. Here are three scenarios to consider:
A first scenario depends on fate more than a timetable. As a teetotaler and nonsmoker who appears to be in very good health, the 64-year-old Putin seems almost certain to live well beyond the average male life span in Russia, which in recent years has increased from the late 50s to the mid-60s. But longevity is ultimately unpredictable, so it’s worth thinking about what happens if fate deals a surprise.
Unlike the old soldiers that Gen. Douglas MacArthur memorialized, autocrats don’t often “just fade away.”
If Putin dies, surviving political officials would follow constitutional guidelines — at least initially. These call for the prime minister to become acting president and, during a three-month period, to prepare a new election.
The current prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, is heavily invested in the existing system, having served as president from 2008 to 2012 (following Putin’s first two terms). He and Putin openly swapped offices, with Medvedev becoming prime minister in 2012, when Putin gave up that post to return to the presidency. The switcheroo was so transparently arranged that it provoked large protests in 2012 by Russians who wanted more choice than the Putin-Medvedev minuet permitted.
Other leading political and business figures also have heavy stakes in the power system Putin created. Power under Putin has become highly centralized in the hands of an elite circle rather than embedded in well-established or protected institutions. Moving away from this arrangement would pose too many risks to influence and wealth, so there is likely to be a conspiracy of sorts to maintain Putin’s system and continue dividing the spoils.
That said, a system led by someone else could put more effort into improving relations with the U.S., as Medvedev seemed to try during his stint as president. Don’t hold your breath, though — Putin’s success in challenging the West and extending Russian influence is popular with the public. Still, a softening of tone, as under Medvedev, is possible.
A second scenario, allowing for Putin’s seemingly robust health, is that he runs for another term next year with the likelihood of a win that keeps him in office until 2024, making him the longest-serving Russian leader since Stalin. Technically, he would have to step down then.
If this scenario plays out, count on Putin to groom a successor just as former president Boris Yeltsin plucked him from obscurity in 1999. And as with Yeltsin, Putin will be searching for an heir who will preserve his system and protect him from retaliation — or prosecution — by those he has imprisoned, pushed aside or held down. In this scenario, Putin, at age 71, would aim to become a respected elder statesman and a behind-the-scenes puller of strings.
The third scenario, we might call Putin Forever or, more accurately, Putin for Life. Unlike the old soldiers that Gen. Douglas MacArthur memorialized, autocrats don’t often “just fade away.” Putin could seek to amend the constitution to permit more than two consecutive six-year terms. This would be controversial, but he could probably get away with it if he maintains his current dominance of the parliament, the party system, the economy and the media — and assuming his opposition remains in the fragmented state we see today.
This is too far into the future to confidently foresee what it would mean for U.S.-Russia relations, but it’s a fair bet that in both of the latter scenarios, Putin would continue to pursue his three central goals: maintenance of domestic power, dominant Russian influence in the regions immediately adjacent and projection of Russian power into key global regions. If Putin failed to retain power or simply followed the constitution and stepped aside, any successor would be tempted to embrace the same strategy, given its resonance with the public and with long Russian tradition.
But wait — is it possible Russia could change more fundamentally, either under a Putin successor or under a Putin-led regime feeling strong public pressure? This is what the U.S. hoped for, and what occasionally seemed to be happening, in the decade following the U.S.S.R.’s collapse in 1991.
One hindrance to this is the absence of a strong, united opposition and the successful stifling of those who persist. Regrettably, many figures that the U.S. would see as real reformers were discredited in the 1990s because of the economic and social chaos of those years, as Russia underwent a too-rapid economic privatization that was easily exploited by former regime apparatchiks to enrich themselves.
One wild card for Putin and his heirs is the widespread disgust with corruption, which is the stimulus for the protests this week in close to 200 Russian cities. Russian businesspeople speak freely to visitors of bribery by government and security officials, and the average person must see this all too often in trying to manage their lives. Hence, their willingness to risk taking to the streets.
Might this be the nucleus of a serious movement for change? Maybe. It depends crucially on the leadership and commitment of the country’s growing middle class — now estimated at about 20 percent. But on the other side of the equation is something that one experienced businessman said to me during my last trip to Russia: “The social contract here is simple: Stay out of politics, and you can have a very nice life.”
John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.