What Putin’s Unsurprising Re-Election Bid Means for Russia’s Future
After months of waiting for the formal, if anti-climactic, announcement that he is in fact seeking another term as president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin (or his political team) decided to eschew a formal presentation in favor of an apparently impromptu declaration. On Dec. 8, at a ceremony in the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall to award medals to soldiers engaged in the “special military operation” in Ukraine, the Russian president decided to use the opportunity to respond to questions from medal recipients and soldiers’ mothers about his future plans, rather than wait for his Dec. 14 press marathon to offer his formal reply.
With his back to the cameras covering the event and the microphones straining to pick up the conversation, Putin indicated he had been wrestling with the decision, but that he was now ready to announce that he would run for another term of office. The calculated hesitation and the framing of the choice as that of a reluctant leader bowing to the requests of the people has direct connections to Russia’s past as reflected both in history and in opera and film: the great procession of the people to Alexandrovskaya Sloboda in 1564 to beg Ivan the Terrible to reverse his abdication and resume his reign, or the 1598 demonstration at the Novodevichy Monastery to offer the throne to the regent Boris Godunov. (It also bears remembering that both leaders, upon (re)gaining power, undertook new sets of purges—in particular, campaigns to decapitate the Russian elites.)
Putin’s affirmative response to the request to continue as president, in the shadow, as he put it, of Russia’s past military glory, fits not only into this historical pattern but also into an emerging narrative that Putin needs more time to finish the job he started 25 years ago: restoring the Russian state and defending it against what is now described as a proxy war with the West over Russia’s future. At stake in the latter, as Putin sees it, is the existential question of whether Russia will remain an independent pole of power and a distinct political-cultural civilization, or whether it will be broken up and brought under Euro-American management. Putin, having failed to convince the West to accept his requests for modifying the terms of the Cold War settlement, believes he has been forced to use other means—and as he said at the beginning of the conflict in 2022, he was determined not to leave this matter for his successor.
To the extent that the Putin system echoes that of Napoleon—who embraced the referendum as the tool for French citizens, and especially the military, to ratify his decisions at several key points—Putin wants the 2024 elections to confirm that he is the only option for seeing the Ukraine conflict to a successful close. Polling suggests that most Russians either support Putin’s continued leadership—or are resigned to his re-election. The challenge here will be for the Kremlin team to generate sufficient enthusiasm to get people to cast ballots, against attitudes that voting doesn’t matter because votes don’t count or “everything has been decided.” Before his disappearance, jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny also described 2024 as a “referendum” on Putin and urged his supporters to vote for any other candidate.
This leads to several questions. The first is whether Putin will want an election that serves to show unanimous consent for his continued leadership vis-à-vis genuinely competitive candidates, or whether—as has traditionally been the case—his competitors will be selected to ensure he wins with his usual 70-some percent of the vote. If we look at the 2018 campaign, one of those contenders—Vladimir Zhirinovsky—has died, while the others, from Communist Pavel Grudinin to socialite Ksenia Sobchak—cannot make any credible claim to being wartime leaders who can navigate the challenges of Western economic sanctions and military assistance to Ukraine. (Both the Communists and the Liberal Democrats will decide by the end of the year who, if anyone, will carry their standards, while the “Just Russia” party is likely to endorse Putin.) The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin earlier this year removed the one figure who could claim military victories from the Ukraine campaign, but who also called out the corruption and dysfunction of the Russian political system as the main culprit for Russian setbacks. Meanwhile, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, whose defensive strategy was key to dashing Ukrainian hopes for a successful counteroffensive, has been sidelined and marginalized. In contrast to Ukraine, where speculation is rife about political rivalry between President Volodymyr Zelensky and commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny, Russia presently lacks any senior military figure who is not part of Putin’s camp. Of the people who have either declared or expressed interest in running, other than the currently-detained Igor Girkin (“Strelkov”)—who played a pivotal role in establishing the separatist entities in Eastern Ukraine in 2014—we have a collection of little-known figures whose main role seems to be to legitimize the process by ensuring that there will be other names on the ballot. Journalist Ekaterina Duntsova and physicist Boris Nadezhdin, who was elected in the 2000s to the Duma on the old “Union of Right Forces” ticket, offer themselves as future-oriented candidates, but are still in the phases of gathering signatures to qualify for ballot access.
But Putin, now in his 70s, cannot pretend that mortality is not gaining on him. With several reported health scares in the recent past, Russians—not only the political and business elites, but the general populace more broadly—are concerned about whether there will be an orderly process for succession. As part of his 2018 campaign, Putin hinted that he was trying to cultivate a next generation of leaders who could take over his system. Yet for the reasons discussed above, it is unlikely that his political team will use the 2024 elections to showcase possible successors, instead likely opting to focus on showing the world Putin has a clear mandate from the Russian electorate to finish the job. Nor is the current makeup of Putin’s senior team—starting with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin—portrayed as the source of Russia’s first post-Putin president. They have been seen primarily as the backups should something happen to Putin, but not viewed as Putin’s successors. Instead, the message seems to be that Putin, once re-elected, will start, over this next term, to finalize the composition of the next Russian political generation in time for a transition in 2030. And some of the figures who were in St. George’s Hall on Dec. 8 may become part of that next generation—people associated with the Ukraine operation and Russia’s decoupling from the West.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and editor of the journal Orbis.