How Improved U.S.-Russian Relations Could Weaken Putin’s Case for Remaining in Kremlin Until 2036

Vladirmir Putin and Donald Trump Sitting in Chairs with Flags Behind, adapted from image at whitehouse.gov

(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Paul Saunders – July 8, 2020)

Paul Saunders is a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy at the Center for the National Interest.

Considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s stated preferences and Moscow’s reputation for “managing” Russia’s voting, it hardly seems surprising that the Central Election Commission (CEC) claimed an overwhelming level of public support for constitutional amendments that could allow Putin to remain in office until 2036. Though Putin may intend to rely on the results of the referendum to remain Russia’s president indefinitely, the plebiscite first and foremost reinforces his present-day power, which is likely a more immediate concern for a leader approaching what would otherwise be the end of his final term. A more nuanced understanding of Putin’s possible motives-and how the U.S could shape them in its policy toward Russia-could facilitate Russia’s leadership transition rather than hinder it.

American media accounts of the voting have understandably though superficially emphasized Putin’s longevity in power—including four terms as president and two stints as prime minister—and presume that he seeks to remain president until 2036, if not beyond. Some have pointed out that Putin is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, while others have noted for some time that he is the longest-serving Russian leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Though the latter comparison raises some questions about how to count Putin’s four-and-a-half years as prime minister and, for that matter, the years before Stalin fully consolidated his rule, it does provide a useful yardstick in thinking about Putin’s time in office. His next approaching milestone has a rather different symbolism, however; in roughly eighteen months, his tenure (including the asterisked years as prime minister) will surpass that of Russia’s last emperor, Tsar Nicholas II, who reigned from 1894 until the Provisional Government took over shortly after Russia’s February 1917 revolution. Bolshevik revolutionaries shot Nicholas II and his family nine months after the October 1917 Revolution, which established Soviet Russia and its Communist government. Though Russia does not appear to be nearing a comparable event, polls do demonstrate dissatisfaction with the authorities’ conduct and the direction that the country is headed.

With roughly 68 percent turnout and almost 78 percent support according to the CEC, Putin can claim that an absolute majority of Russia’s voters backed the amendments, which also included a variety of populist economic and social measures, but required a single up-or-down vote.

Western accounts have appropriately questioned the accuracy of these official vote figures. Historically, Russia’s post-independence referenda and elections have been carefully managed to ensure the leader’s desired outcome. Indeed, as outside observers have developed increasingly sophisticated statistical methods to detect voting anomalies, Russia’s election managers appear to have caught up and, as one Washington Post headline put it, seem to be giving election forensics experts “the statistical [middle] finger” in generating numbers in official vote returns that conform too closely to the random distributions analysts seek.

From this perspective, while May survey results from Russia’s only prominent independent polling organization, the Levada Center, did show that 66 percent of Russians surveyed said that they would certainly or most likely take part in the referendum, it is difficult to judge whether the CEC’s reported turnout reflects Levada’s quality polling or the CEC’s careful tailoring of its data. The fact that Levada found only 44 percent of respondents expressing support for the amendments, with 32 percent opposed and 24 percent undecided, justifies a certain skepticism. That said, the poll did take place five weeks before the voting, when the referendum had not yet been rescheduled following its March postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic. Putin had more time to make his case, though it would be a remarkable political feat to persuade all the undecided voters and a third of the amendment opponents to change their minds in so short a time.

Elements of the Russian president’s case for the amendments suggest why Putin might have wanted 78 percent support (and thus an absolute majority of all voters) rather than some lower share. Perhaps most notable were his comments in a highly publicized June 22 interview on the state television channel Rossiya as the week-long vote was about to begin. Without the amendments, Putin said, “experience tells me there will be searches at various levels of government for possible successors instead of normal rhythmic work in two years.” Some translate Putin’s statement more vividly, in language that seems more authentic, with Russia’s president referring to subordinates “darting their eyes in search for possible successors.” (See here for the quote in Russian.) Either way, this frank comment—in which Putin appears to refer to the jostling among potential successors and their allies as his second presidential term wound down in 2007-2008—acknowledges the challenges he expects to face if Russia’s elites begin to consider him a lame duck.

Becoming a lame duck is a serious problem for any leader, in politics or elsewhere, and whether selected in a democratic election, a party congress, a shareholder vote or (as in Putin’s case) by a predecessor in declining health. With a clearly defined end date to the leader’s role, human nature relentlessly turns everyone else’s thoughts toward the next leader and how best to position oneself to succeed during and after the transition, just as Putin explained to Russia’s voters. This inevitably weakens a sitting leader, whose directives and preferences have diminishing weight when set against those of an imminent future leader. Putin could hope that strong public approval of measures that could allow him to stay in office would serve as a clear signal to elites that they cannot count on Putin’s departure in 2024, that he can turn out the Russian public to support him (even if not to the extent that official voting statistics might suggest) and that they should continue to follow his instructions.

Thus, as Marlene Laruelle pointed out in a thoughtful and comprehensive article before the constitutional vote, Putin has more than one potential motive for seeking constitutional changes that could allow him to remain in power beyond 2024. He might want to stay, or he might want to leave, but to do so at his own time and in a tightly controlled manner. Russia’s elites know this too, of course, so a Putin who wanted to maintain his effectiveness until the last possible moment of his leadership would have a strong incentive to hint at staying in office longer than he might intend to do so. Yet he would simultaneously face countervailing pressure to imply that he might not stay; that is a good way to reassure dissatisfied Russians, whether elite or public, that they can passively wait for their president to leave office rather than actively working to remove him. Putin took precisely this ambiguous approach in the Rossiya television interview, stating that he “did not rule out” seeking another term. There is an obvious model here: declining in health, popularity and effectiveness, Russia’s first post-independence president, Boris Yeltsin, resigned early to manage his own transition from office.

Internationally, Putin might also desire to demonstrate to foreign counterparts that he could be in office until 2036 to strengthen his hand in dealing with them; since most relationships rely upon a degree of reciprocity, Putin’s longer time in office could reassure partners that he will have time to deliver on his commitments. Nevertheless, Putin’s domestic (and personal) calculations are probably far more important than such concerns, which look more like a collateral benefit than a motive. Moreover, the prospect of possibly having to deal with Putin between 2024 and 2036 seems like a remote concern for most Western leaders, whose own political processes don’t allow for such planning. If he succeeds in what now seems to be a troubled re-election bid, U.S. President Donald Trump would be completing his second term in 2024; German Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down in 2021 if not sooner and French President Emmanuel Macron faces a 2022 election. Reelected in 2019, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson might last until 2024, though it is questionable whether his foreign policy plans could extend so far considering his country’s tumultuous domestic politics and looming withdrawal from the European Union.

Putin’s potentially extended leadership could matter most in setting the tone with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who won an indefinite term in office when China’s National People’s Congress abolished his country’s two-term limit for presidents in 2018. (Notably, some have speculated that Xi similarly feared becoming a lame duck before his second term ended.) With his own extension now behind him, the Kremlin leader is in a stronger position to work with Xi—and the two could, in theory, make long-term plans for the Russia-China relationship. The change probably likewise bolsters Putin’s standing among other enduring authoritarian leaders, especially in the Middle East, with its monarchic dynasties, for whom Russia’s president could begin to resemble a peer. The Russian president likely doesn’t need such help in dealing with weakened partners like Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, each of whom faces immediate domestic and foreign policy challenges that likely preclude thinking too much about events so far in the future. Assad in particular depends on Putin in the here-and-now.

Aside from this somewhat better negotiating position, Putin’s possibly extended longevity does not appear likely to change Russian foreign policy toward the United States or others too significantly. The Kremlin’s poisoned relationships with America and most of its European allies defines much of Russian foreign policy; in the absence of functional relationships with Washington and other key Western capitals, Moscow has little alternative but to look elsewhere, including in its relations with Beijing, Iran and Turkey. This in turn stokes further U.S. and European suspicion about Russia’s strategic aims, making it even harder to repair Russia’s frayed ties with America and its allies. That U.S. ties to some European governments are also fraying helps Moscow in further dividing its adversaries, but pursuing this approach only further undermines Russia’s relationships with both the United States and many European nations.

Turning back toward Putin’s future, Russia’s bad relationship with the United States-its most dangerous opponent-could simultaneously encourage him to stay in office longer and help him to justify doing so, by sustaining an environment of enduring crisis. As difficult as it might be to imagine in today’s environment, stabilization and eventual slow improvement in U.S.-Russian relations could gradually weaken Putin’s case for remaining Russia’s president until 2036. Re-establishing a functional relationship with Russia could also help the United States in competing with its more dangerous challenger, the People’s Republic of China. A functional relationship doesn’t necessarily mean cooperation and it certainly doesn’t mean friendship; its sole requirement is that Washington and Moscow discuss their differences and pursue pragmatic efforts to manage them where possible. U.S. domestic politics has prevented this in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Recognizing that U.S. leaders have little choice but to plan to deal with Putin for quite some time, current and future U.S. officials could benefit from a more functional approach to Putin’s domestic political motives and aims.


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