Putin inauguration May 7, 2024

Expert Survey: What to Expect From Putin’s Fifth Term?

May 10, 2024
RM Staff

This week on May 7, Vladimir Putin was sworn in as president of Russia for a fifth time. In his inauguration speech, the Russian autocrat—who seems determined to wrestle the crown of Russia’s longest ruler from Josef Stalin—vowed to “continue to build a multipolar world and an equal and indivisible security system…together with our partners in Eurasian integration” [aka China and Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors]. In the 705-word address, Putin – who has been running Russia since the evening of Dec. 31, 1999, also claimed to be prepared for a dialogue with Western countries, with whom Russia has fallen out on Putin’s watch due to its aggression in Ukraine, but conditionally. “The choice is theirs: whether they intend to continue trying to contain Russia’s development, continue the policy of aggression, the relentless pressure they have been exerting on our country for years, or seek a path to cooperation and peace,” he said. So what should we expect from Russia’s relations with the West, as well as with China and post-Soviet Eurasia, during Putin’s new term? And just how long may his rule last? 

We posed these questions to several of America’s leading Russia experts, and this is what they said.  

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, and Brookings Institution non-resident senior fellow Angela Stent said they were skeptical that Russia’s relations with the West may undergo a significant improvement for the duration of the war in Ukraine, while Paul Saunders, president of the Center for the National Interest, believes even an end to that war “will probably not be sufficient” to attain such an improvement as long as Putin remains in charge in Russia. Although Putin said in his inauguration speech that Russia was willing to talk to the West, as long as the latter did not seek to undermine Russia, “it is unlikely that relations with the West will improve as long as the Russia-Ukraine war continues,” Stent wrote in written answers to RM’s questions. “Even a victory by Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election would not necessarily change this dynamic, and the Kremlin understands this,” she added. In contrast, Brandeis University Professor Gary Samore believes that a Trump victory may lead to an improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow. “If Trump is elected and Russia wins the war (e.g. Russia captures Kyiv or forces Kyiv to accept a humiliating ceasefire), Putin may try to improve relations with the U.S. (a new arms control treaty to replace New START) and Europe (restore economic ties and lift sanctions) and reduce dependence on China,” according to Samore.

As for Russia’s relations with China, both Center for the National Interest senior fellow Andrew Kuchins and Angela Stent believe Putin will attempt to further strengthen Russian-Chinese ties. “That relationship will strengthen, since Beijing now believes that Russia will prevail in its war with Ukraine and Xi wants Putin to remain in power so that the two countries can continue to create a ‘post-West’ order,” Stent wrote. Legvold concurs with Stent’s assessment of where relations between Moscow and Beijing are likely to head on Putin’s watch. Russia will continue to “forge closer relations with China,” even if “the United States and China do manage to balance the tension between rivalry and the need for cooperation,” according to Legvold’s answers to RM questions. Kuchins also expects Russian-Chinese alignment to strengthen in Putin’s new six-year term, but rules out an alliance between the two countries unless there is a military conflict over Taiwan, while Samore and Saunders both note the likelihood of growing Russian dependence on China.

As for the duration of Putin’s reign, Kuchins expects Putin to rule for “as long as his health is reasonably robust,” while Samore expects the Russian dictator to rule even longer—until he dies in office” (never mind constitutional limits, which Putin has bent before). Saunders explains that the dilemma of succession may force Putin to rule for life. Stent acknowledges that Samore’s prediction is a distinct possibility, noting that there is no reason to believe that Putin will appoint a successor during this term. Yet, that does not necessarily mean Putin will rule until his death. “Many Russians believe he will rule for life. But Putin can—and sometimes does—surprise,” she writes.

Please find our survey questions and the experts’ full replies below.

Survey questions:

  1. What do you expect from Putin in his new six-year term with regard to:
    1. Russia’s relations with the West (U.S., EU, allies)?
    2. Russia’s relations with China?
    3. Russia’s war in Ukraine and Russia’s policies toward post-Soviet neighbors in general?
  2. Will Putin aim to rule for life, or do you expect him to appoint a successor, perhaps, in this fifth presidential term?

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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Andrew Kuchins

Senior Fellow, Center for the National Interest; Adjunct Professor, Johns Hopkins SAIS; Visiting Scholar, William & Mary

I expect Putin to continue to seek to pick off European states from the current EU/NATO consensus. This could be facilitated by election of the most right-wing leaders in Europe with lots of elections coming up. Germany and France are the big prizes here. Russia’s ties with China will continue to strengthen, but there will be no alliance unless perhaps in the event of military conflict over Taiwan. With Russia cut off from the West and the Ukraine war going on, Moscow will continue to seek to strengthen ties with Belarus, Moldova, Central Asian states, as well as the South Caucasus, but I do not see this being done by military force but rather via economic and political means.

The length of Putin’s rule, and I have always thought this, will be mainly determined by his health. He lived through Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Yeltsin when all were seriously incapacitated by health issues, and it was not a pretty picture. Still, he could be still ruling as an octogenarian as long as his health is reasonably robust.

 

Robert Legvold

Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, Columbia University

Answer 1: Six years is a long time. Predicting the evolution of Russia’s relations with the United States, Europe and China over this period is close to a fool’s errand, not the least because, in recent Russian history, six-year intervals have produced big surprises. In spring 1983, shortly before the downing of the KAL 007 and the near [nuclear] miss in the Able Archer exercise, who would have been prescient enough to predict that in 1989 the Soviet Union would be four years into Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and two years from its ultimate collapse? Or going back six years to spring 2018, notwithstanding the steep deterioration already underway in U.S.-Russian relations, how many would have predicted Putin’s rash and tragic decision in February 2022 and where we are now?

So, the picture may look quite different in 2030 from what it is today. But, if so, in what ways? The answer will depend on, beyond the denouement of the war in Ukraine, the impact of other large factors and how they interact. I write “denouement” of the  war, because there may be no war’s end, only an uncertain stalemate, with both sides exhausted and immobilized or the Ukrainian side ravaged and beaten on the battlefield, but unwilling to agree to anything that looks like its formal acceptance, or a Russian side stymied, perhaps even pushed back on the battlefield, but aggrieved and girding itself for a long-haul military confrontation along a front extending from the Arctic to the Black Sea, with a new 830-mile Finnish border, and Ukraine as a security ward of NATO (whether a member of the alliance or not). 

The most immediate of the other large factors is the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November. In the worst case, Trump wins. In the worst of the worst cases, a Trump administration then abandons Ukraine and throws the NATO alliance into disarray. While that would sorely complicate the war in Ukraine, it is unlikely to change, let alone improve, U.S.-Russian relations. Putin would presumably focus on the opportunity this creates to press Russia’s military advantage in Ukraine, rather than on the improbable chance of improving U.S.-Russian relations, particularly if the U.S. public and congressional attitude, as is likely, remains intensely hostile and the sanctions regime solidly in place. 

By February 2026, however, when New START expires, if the war in Ukraine, while unresolved, has begun to wind down, the Russian basis for refusing to engage in a search for successor arrangements may have weakened and the dangers from an unregulated nuclear competition may have begun to sink in. If so, Moscow may decide that the better part of wisdom is to pick up the dialogue where it stopped in the weeks before the 2022 invasion. While steps in this direction will not alter a fundamentally deeply corroded relationship, a dialogue, difficult as it will be, if sustained, could ease the way to a broader Russian-NATO exploration of potential guardrails—including risk reduction measures as well as transparency and monitoring arrangements—rendering safer Europe’s new, extended and potentially volatile central military front.

Whether progress at this level, if achieved, leads elsewhere will depend on another large factor: how impenetrable the Russian leadership’s increasingly alienated weltanschauung is. If the Putin regime or any leadership likely to follow continues to believe not only that it has no Western option but needs none, because Russia’s future is only with China, the BRICS and a so-called “world majority,” it is difficult to see how any time in the next six years even small positive steps in the U.S.-Russian and Russian-NATO security relationship can significantly change the currently paralyzed and friction-laden state of affairs.

If, however, some combination of war fatigue, economic peril, disappointment in the relationship with China or leadership change occurs, those in charge in Moscow may want to rethink the way they are framing Russia’s place in an evolving international order and, as part of that, the need to return to Russia’s historically central but vexed relationship with the West. The United States has been and will remain at the heart of Russia’s conception of and approach to the West. Therefore, how well or poorly the United States handles the effect of a shift in the impulses driving Russia foreign policy will determine where this could lead.

Answer 1.B: One other large factor that will shape the course of Russia’s relations with the West and with China is the interaction between the two. If the United States and China do not manage skillfully their deepening strategic rivalry and the two slide into a full-blown cold war, Russia’s choices will be stark. In the less likely case, to preserve some level of independence and room for maneuver, it might seek to draw closer to Europe, countries that will also be struggling to remain free of a U.S.-China cold war’s most damaging effects. More likely, however, the force field of a U.S.-China cold war, combined with an unrepaired U.S.-Russian relationship, will destroy Russia’s freedom of choice and it will end up an active part of a new fraught bipolar system.

If over the next half decade, the United States and China do manage to balance the tension between rivalry and the need for cooperation, in the near term little is likely to change in Russian foreign policy. It will, one would predict, continue to forge closer relations with China, pursuing ever more elaborate forms of military and economic cooperation, continue to feature partnerships with the BRICS and countries in the global south and treat India as an ersatz Western option. But at some point, depending on the outcome of the Ukrainian war, a genuine Western option may come to be seen as less unnecessary or remote. Then, if the dance is done together, Russia might be willing to explore small steps with the United States chipping away at the deeply encrusted layers of mistrust and recentering the relationship on its cyclical historical path. And with Europe too, if the Europeans decide that European security can only be built with, not against Russia, a Russian leadership, sooner rather than later, may return, tentatively, to the challenge of defining its place in Europe, which has been at the center of its foreign policy since the 16th century. 

 

Gary Samore

Professor of the Practice of Politics and Crown Family Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, Brandeis University

I think Russia's relations with the West and China will depend mainly on the outcome of the U.S. elections and the outcome of the Ukraine War—victory, defeat or stalemate. If Trump is elected and Russia wins the war (e.g. Russia captures Kyiv or forces Kyiv to accept a humiliating ceasefire), Putin may try to improve relations with the U.S. (a new arms control treaty to replace New START) and Europe (restore economic ties and lift sanctions) and reduce dependence on China. If Biden is elected and Russia loses the war (e.g. Russian forces are expelled from captured Ukrainian territory), then I think tensions between Russia and the West will remain high and Moscow will become more dependent on Beijing as a junior partner. The interesting middle case is a continued stalemate—the existing lines of control become the basis for armistice (the Korea War model)—which is probably the most likely outcome or the war. In this case, I suppose Russian relations with the U.S. and Europe will remain tense, and Russia will look to consolidate ties with China, Iran, North Korea, etc., as both Ukraine and Russia prepare for the next round of fighting.   

I expect Putin to die in office, just like [Josef] Stalin or Mao [Zedong].    

 

Paul Saunders

President, Center for the National Interest

Putin seems likely to continue his current course, that is, largely abandoning the U.S.-Russia relationship until he sees reasons to think that the United States will respect Russia’s key interests as he defines them, and selectively engaging with European or other U.S. allies where possible in order to secure things that Russia needs and to contribute to divisions within U.S. alliances. Ending, slowing or freezing Russia’s war in Ukraine will probably not be sufficient to change the former but could create new possibilities to do the latter.

Absent new opportunities for trade and investment elsewhere that can replace or improve upon Russia’s past relationship with Europe (and to a much lesser extent with the United States, Japan and South Korea), Putin will have few options other than continued economic and technological dependence on China. Interesting questions surround whether an increasingly capable and self-assured China might become less sensitive to Russia’s pride, e.g., in its role in Central Asia, and more competitive with some Russian exports, e.g., arms and nuclear reactors. To the extent that such developments harm Russian political or commercial interests, Moscow may assemble a longer list of grievances vis-a-vis China than it has today. Russia’s energy relationship with China could also become even less satisfactory for Moscow than it is today if China’s evolving energy system requires fewer imports.

The war [in Ukraine] is the great unknown. That said, observers should consider how Putin has been able to continue the war as long as he has when Western officials believe that Russian casualties far exceed those in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (over a much longer time period) or the Russian effort to defeat Chechen rebels—military operations that Russia gave up on, in no small part due to public opposition. The answer seems to be that unlike in the other two cases, Russia’s leader appears to have been largely successful in defining the purpose of the war, and what is at stake for his country, in ways that most Russians are willing to accept and to which very few are prepared to object publicly (due to repression of dissent). 

With respect to Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors—at least those outside NATO—these will probably remain a central focus of Russia’s national security policy and of its economic and diplomatic outreach. Russia will be hard-pressed to assert a leading role globally if its immediate neighborhood is insecure or unstable. A preeminent role in the region is also an important element in Russia’s self-image as a major power deserving of respect and deference.

Putin may have already tried and failed to appoint a successor in 2008, when he permitted Dmitry Medvedev to become president. Yet appointing someone stronger and more effective than Medvedev (perhaps preconditions for having a successful leader of Russia in Putin’s eyes) may conflict with Putin’s personal interests in securing his own future; someone truly capable and powerful (and probably younger, too) could quickly become dangerous. This dilemma could drive Putin into ruling for life. Continuing confrontation with the United States and its allies probably makes that more likely rather than less. Putin seems increasingly to see himself as a uniquely capable individual whose subordinates cannot match his experience or wisdom. He may believe that great dangers to Russia require a great leader—and that no one could do better than he.

 

Angela Stent

Author of "Putin's World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest”; Non-resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

The main message from Putin’s speech at his fifth inauguration is that Russia under his rule has become stable, on its way to victory in Ukraine, with no threat of domestic unrest or military defeat by the West.  Although Putin said Russia was willing to talk to the West as long as it did not seek to undermine Russia, it is unlikely that relations with the West will improve as long as the Russia-Ukraine war continues. Even a victory by Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election would not necessarily change this dynamic, and the Kremlin understands this.

Putin will continue to pursue closer ties with China. That relationship will strengthen, since Beijing now believes that Russia will prevail in its war with Ukraine and Xi wants Putin to remain in power so that the two countries can continue to create a “post-West” order. But bilateral economic ties have recently declined and major Chinese banks, facing secondary sanctions from the West, are increasingly reluctant to do business with Russia. Moreover, China is wary of the burgeoning Russian-North Korean relationship.

Russia’s war with Ukraine will continue for the foreseeable future and, unless Western weapons and assistance arrive in Ukraine soon, Russia will continue to advance slowly in the Donbas region. Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and civilian population will continue unabated. Russia under Putin has become a militarized society. Russia’s ties to most of its post-Soviet neighbors have survived and readjusted since the outbreak of the war with Ukraine and this trend will continue. The most significant realignment is in the South Caucasus, with deteriorating ties with Armenia and stronger ties to Azerbaijan and Georgia. Georgia’s European path could be derailed in the next six years while Armenia’s may be strengthened. Yet Armenia has limited options given its location.

While no ambassadors from the EU attended the inauguration—and neither did the U.S. ambassador—some European countries, including France, did send representatives. Russia may be isolated from the West, but not from the rest of the world. In the next six years, Russia is likely to strengthen its ties with what Moscow terms the “world majority.” Russia’s anti-Western stance and its support for Hamas and the Palestinians have attracted support from many nations in the Global South and this dynamic will persist.

When Tula governor Alexei Dyumin met with Putin last week, there was immediately speculation that he could become the anointed successor in Putin’s fifth term. So far, Putin has been reluctant to name a successor and there is no reason to believe that he will during this term. Many Russians believe he will rule for life. But Putin can—and sometimes does—surprise. 

The opinions expressed in this survey are solely those of the respondents. Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.