Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated on Monday that he intends to retain political influence when he steps down from the presidency.
Mr Putin’s announcement that he will to head the United Russia party list of candidates in the December parliamentary elections surprised most observers and diplomats, but delighted businessmen.
Moscow’s stock market hit an all-time high as foreign investors concluded that Russia is now set to benefit from stability and political continuity.
Yet investors – and quite a few Western diplomats who like the idea of continuing to deal with the 'devil you know' - may be rejoicing too soon, for what President Putin is trying to do has no precedent in Russia’s modern history, and could just end up fuelling greater uncertainty.
Having presided over eight years of economic growth largely due to high oil and gas prices, Mr Putin remains highly popular with the electorate. He is legally barred from seeking a third presidential term but, if he wanted, this obstacle can be quickly removed.
A constitutional amendment can be passed by a two-thirds majority of parliament; Mr Putin’s allies control far more than that, and have implored the president to stay in power.
But Mr Putin knows that, if he changes the constitution, he will be accused by Western governments of dictatorial tendencies; Russia is already criticised for its human rights record. So, he seems to have adopted a different method to retain control.
Two weeks ago, Mr Putin abruptly appointed Viktor Zubkov – a little-known bureaucrat from his inner circle – as Russia’s new prime minister. Immediately thereafter, officials in Moscow hinted that the real purpose of this move is to groom Prime Minister Zubkov for the presidency when Mr Putin steps down.
And now, Mr Putin has made the next logical step. By accepting the leadership of United Russia – the country’s biggest political formation – he could become the next prime minister. 'Heading the government is quite a realistic proposal', Mr Putin said of himself this Monday.
It all sounds cleverly simple: a figurehead new president will be elected in order to respect existing constitutional provisions, while Mr Putin continues to run the show as prime minister.
Nevertheless, the implications are far from straightforward.
To begin with, this scenario will also require a fundamental constitutional change. Until now, Russian prime ministers were merely the president’s servants, evidently not a position Mr Putin wishes for himself. So, if Putin becomes prime minister, top powers will have to be granted to the government, rather than the head of state. No such arrangements have worked in Russia's entire long history.
Furthermore, Russian prime ministers are not popular for long: they are expected to take controversial decisions on pensions, food subsidies or local budgets. Mr Putin retained his popularity precisely because until now he has kept himself above this fray; it would be strange if now he is prepared to sink deep into the political mud.
A way around the problem does exist: under the Russian system, someone heading a political party into parliamentary elections does not need to become an MP; Mr Putin could, therefore, become a kingmaker from the sidelines.
But this scenario will be even more confusing: governments and investors will have to deal with officials who, despite their formal titles, will have no real power, while the man who really pulls strings in Russia will have no official position.
Mr Putin knows that, ultimately, his power depends on the loyalty of the security services and the military. As long as he has these two key institutions, it really does not matter what position he holds.
The main question – which even Mr Putin cannot answer at this stage – is whether the security services and the military will not be tempted to switch their loyalty to other politicians. For, even if Mr Putin becomes prime minister, Russia will have a head of state which, at least according to the country’s current constitution, is also the supreme chief of the armed forces and the security services. It is not hard to imagine the mess which will prevail in Moscow, as the military and the intelligence services play off one politician and power base against another. Far from ensuring stability, Putin’s decision to cling to power only guarantees uncertainty.
Two conclusions, however, can already be drawn with some confidence. The science of Kremlinology – of predicting who is 'up' and who is 'down' in Moscow by the careful observation of otherwise irrelevant details – will enjoy a quick revival. And Mr Putin is attempting to achieve what nobody ever succeeded doing in Russia before: leaving power and remaining in power at the same time.
Director of International Security Studies, RUSI
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.