Main Image Credit Putin, the Man on Horseback, has probably one last term before he rides into the sunset. Courtesy of the Office of the President of Russia
On Sunday, Russians vote in a presidential election that is in a effect a referendum on the performance of President Vladimir Putin.
That Vladimir Putin – who has served as either prime minister or president of Russia since August 1999 – is certain to be re-elected on Sunday to a fourth, and most likely final, presidential term is almost without a doubt. Constitutional limits prevent him from seeking a third consecutive term, while few view a return to the Putin–Medvedev ‘tandem’ – the interchange between the current president and the current prime minister to circumvent the constitutional terms limit – as viable.
The assumption must be that, from now until 2024, Putin’s main goal will be to cement his legacy. However, daunting domestic and external challenges threaten to diminish his place in Russian history – the war in Syria, Russia’s relations with Ukraine and the US, and the very question of succession.
Although Putin declared victory in Syria in December 2017, recent setbacks cast doubt on his triumphalism and suggest that Russia has additional battles, military as well as diplomatic, left to fight.
Clashes between Syrian government forces and opposition elements persist, with violence in East Ghouta drawing international condemnation of Damascus and Moscow alike. Meanwhile, Russia’s delicate balancing act in the Middle East looks increasingly untenable as tensions rise over the threat posed to Israel by Iran’s growing presence in Syria.
Putin faces domestic calls for a drawdown from Syria, and senior officers are seeking a way out of a civil war with no end in sight
Russian-led peace talks have faltered, with opposition elements refusing to engage with Damascus and, in the case of the Kurds, Ankara. Finally, the aggressive behaviour and severe losses suffered in recent weeks by Russian mercenaries in Syria reflect poorly on the Kremlin; Moscow is at best not in control of its own proxies and at worst deliberately provoking the US and its allies on the ground in Syria.
Putin faces domestic calls for a drawdown from Syria, and senior officers are seeking a way out of a civil war with no end in sight. Many ordinary Russians also oppose staying in Syria: an August 2017 poll suggested 49% felt that Moscow should end operations there, while 32% believed that Syria was likely to, or would inevitably, become a ‘new Afghanistan’ for Russia.
If Russia’s war aims were, in fact, to roll back Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), keep Bashar Al-Assad in power, and test and show off Russia’s military might, maintaining such a presence is no longer necessary and only invites a steady flow of coffins to Russia.
Moscow’s interests are best served by beginning a drawdown in earnest while focusing its diplomatic resources on the Herculean task of forging an effective Syrian peace settlement, one preserving Russia’s gains and preventing the collapse of its Middle East policy.
When it comes to relations with Kyiv, no rapprochement can occur until Moscow ends its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and relinquishes Crimea
While Putin still has a chance to improve Russia’s standing in Syria, he faces impossible odds in Ukraine and in Russia’s relations with the US. For Washington, no ‘reset’ with Moscow is possible until Putin, the personification of Russia’s alleged intervention in the 2016 US presidential election, leaves office.
Even then, Putin’s successor will have to reckon with a Democratic Party convinced that its defeat in that election (and, potentially, in this year’s mid-terms) due to Russian meddling. The successor will also have to contend with the Democrats’ determination to punish Russia by resuming democracy-promotion efforts around the world, and strengthening NATO, policies fiercely opposed by both the Kremlin and many ordinary Russians.
And when it comes to relations with Kyiv, no rapprochement can occur until Moscow ends its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine and relinquishes Crimea, outcomes that are, respectively, improbable and impossible under Putin.
Although Putin has floated the idea of a UN peacekeeping mission in Ukraine, there is little agreement on how it would work in practice. Furthermore, while talk of Crimea’s negotiated return has entered the national conversation thanks to socialite-turned-opposition figure Ksenia Sobchak, that solution lacks popular support while the peninsula’s annexation represents a cornerstone of Putin’s legacy.
Although an emerging consensus in Moscow holds that Putin’s fourth presidential term will be his last, the jury is still out on where his successor will come from
To see that, one need only consider the significance of the location of Putin’s final campaign rally and the date on which the presidential election takes place – the fourth anniversary of Crimea’s annexation.
The only challenge more complex than that of rehabilitating relations with Ukraine and the US is that of finding and preparing Putin’s successor. Although an emerging consensus in Moscow holds that Putin’s fourth presidential term will be his last, the jury is still out on where his successor will come from: United Russia; the power structures (the so-called siloviki, who represent the various intelligence services and armed forces); the All-Russia People’s Front (a movement started by Putin himself back in 2011); or somewhere else entirely.
A personnel revolution (kadrovaya revolyutsiya) initiated in Putin’s third presidential term would suggest he is grooming a new generation of apparatchiks to succeed him; conversely, the concurrent rise of figures from the security services to key political positions has revived talk of a ‘KGB takeover’ of Russia.
Putin’s Federal Assembly address, delivered on 1 March, grabbed headlines in the West with its bellicose nuclear rhetoric, but most of it actually focused on peace; when not threatening the United States, Putin was ‘vow[ing] to lift Russia’s struggling middle class’, as Western media reported.
Having governed Russia for nearly two decades, longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Putin has had more than enough opportunities to diversify Russia’s economy and eliminate corruption
Yet promises of economic relief and hints at political reform belie the reality of Putin’s rule: having governed Russia for nearly two decades, longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Putin has had more than enough opportunities to diversify Russia’s economy and eliminate corruption.
But instead, he has chosen to leave Russia reliant on energy exports and, by extension, global oil prices, while contributing to the growth of corruption and restricting political freedoms.
Whomever Putin selects as his successor and whatever their domestic affiliation may be, they will inherit not only a host of daunting foreign policy dilemmas and domestic economic and political problems, but also a repressive apparatus that has proven to be effective as a tool of controlling politics and managing dissent and will be tempted to adapt it to their own ends.
Putin’s greatest legacy will likely have nothing to do with Damascus, Kyiv or Washington. Instead, it will consist of the political system he will bequeath to his successor, one which still prizes central control over all other alternatives.
Lincoln Pigman is a student at King's College London's War Studies Department. His research interests include the national security affairs and domestic politics of Russia. He has reported from Russia for the New York Times and Jane’s Intelligence Review.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.