However, the changes are also sufficiently cautious that Putin will be able to halt the transition and ensure his political supremacy indefinitely if he deems it necessary. Above all, Putin probably seeks to ensure that he and his family are safe and immune from investigation if he steps back from public life.
Keeping one foot in the political sphere is a form of insurance policy. The problem is that Putin’s power rests on informal relationships, rather than formal positions, making it difficult for everyone — including the rest of the Russian leadership — to accurately gauge his intentions at any given time.
The irreplaceable Putin
The problem of finding a successor has always been difficult, given how Putin has combined informal networks of relationships, as well as the powers of the presidential office, to make himself the center of Russia’s political system. Putin has connections to the major elite factions — from economic managers to security service veterans — who respect and trust him to act as an arbiter of disputes between competing political groups. Putin’s dilemma is that this system makes it difficult to groom a replacement without undermining his own position.
Instead, he has cut this Gordian knot by opting to try to change the system itself by amending the Russian constitution — weakening the presidency while boosting parliament’s powers, limiting the president to two terms total, instead of consecutively, and creating a formal channel for governors to influence national policy. His goal with these latest changes is to remove the political system’s excessive reliance on a single individual while also removing the conditions for a future leader to become as politically dominant as he has been.
Potential successors will still be working for Putin
This project won’t be completed overnight — and Putin will no doubt aim to create the conditions for an orderly competition between potential successors as president. The choice of Mikhail Mishustin as the new prime minister plays into this strategy. A technocrat and former head of the tax service, Mishustin has a reputation as a competent manager but reportedly no real political profile or ambitions of his own.
Mishustin’s main goals will be to implement unpopular economic reforms — and absorb the public backlash for doing so — to reinvigorate the economy after years of stagnation. However, his secondary goal will be to enforce discipline among the political elite as the succession kicks off properly.
As the former head of the tax service, he will have been privy to the financial details of his new colleagues, a potent asset in a country where political infighting usually takes the form of well-timed leaks of compromising material and evidence of corruption. Putin probably appointed Mishustin to help oversee and regulate the transition to the new political system, with Mishustin’s eventual replacement much more likely to become Putin’s heir.
Putin’s best-laid plans could stumble
That Putin has at last revealed a plan for the succession does not mean he will be successful in executing it. First, Russians have become increasingly restive as their living standards have stagnated or declined since 2014. Putin’s rule, while authoritarian, has always depended on the tacit consent, if not active support, of the populace. If Mishustin and his cabinet cannot restore economic growth, more and more Russians will withdraw that consent, undermining political stability.
Second, Putin’s constitutional changes also function as a political “escape hatch” that will allow him to continue to exercise power — either through the Russian parliament or through the State Council, a semiofficial advisory body to the presidential administration — once his current term expires in 2024. From Putin’s perspective, this is a necessary safety measure should the succession not go as planned. But by effectively hedging his bets, Putin will also keep the rest of Russia’s elite uncertain about whether he wants to truly relinquish power and discourage them from transferring their loyalty to his successor.
A lot still could happen
While Putin undoubtedly has lit the fuse on the succession process, it is unlikely that even he has a clear end state in mind. The very fact that the Kremlin is actively and openly considering a post-Putin leadership, or even simply a less Putin-centric one, will in and of itself have unpredictable political consequences.
For example, while Putin has proposed a legally unnecessary referendum to approve his proposed amendments, such an attempt to reestablish his popular legitimacy could just as easily become a focal point for opposition protests. Above all, if the Kremlin falls short on generating the economic growth and improvement in living standards that traditionally underpinned its political legitimacy, Russia may find that no succession strategy will be able to preserve the regime.
Daragh McDowell is head of Europe and Central Asia at Verisk Maplecroft. A Russia specialist, he holds a DPhil from Oxford University, where he focused on the legacy effects of the Soviet Union on Russia’s foreign relations.