As 2017 approaches its close, and as the Presidential election in March next year looms closer, the rumour mill in Moscow is working over time speculating about Putin’s intentions.
Whilst most expect Putin to run again, there are some suggestions that he is thinking of an exit, and is considering nominating a successor.
Names which typically get mentioned are Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister, who was Russia’s President between 2008 and 2012, and Lieutenant General Alexey Dyumin, who is currently the Governor of Tula Region.
I have no idea what Putin’s plans are and I doubt that any one of those speculating does either, though I am sure that the top people in the Kremlin all know. However, I would personally be very surprised if Putin decides not to run again.
Not only does his immense popularity all but guarantee his victory, but there is no indication that anyone else is being prepared to take over from him, which I would expect to be visibly the case by now if Putin really has decided not to run.
The two candidates that most often get mentioned – Prime Minister Medvedev and Lieutenant General Dyumin – are cases in point.
Medvedev has had a low profile recently, and especially because he was President previously I would have thought that if there was a plan for him to run again steps would have been taken by now to bring him forward and to raise his profile.
As for Dyumin, he is clearly an interesting man, with an impressive record in Russia’s military and intelligence services, who apparently played an important role in the events in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014.
Moreover as an ex-military officer he is the sort of person who would be likely to appeal to what might be loosely called the “left patriotic” side of Russia’s political spectrum.
However Dyumin’s entire career up to his appointment in 2016 as the Tula Region’s Governor was in the military, intelligence and security services.
He has no background in Russia’s central civilian institutions – the Presidential Administration and the Russian government – whilst his position as Governor of the Tula Region, though a very important one, places him well outside the centre of power in the Kremlin.
Dyumin is clearly someone to watch, and his appointment as Governor of the Tula Region may have been intended to bring him closer to the Russian people and to give him experience of Russia’s civilian administration in preparation for greater things.
However it is important to remember that the Tula Region is an important centre of Russia’s defence industries, so appointing a military officer as its Governor at a time when the Russian military is in the throws of a complex period of rearmament is perhaps not quite as surprising as it is sometimes made to appear.
Regardless, it seems on the face of it unlikely that Dyumin’s time is now.
At 45 he has plenty of time ahead of him, and if at some point he is given a job in Russia’s government or in the Kremlin he will become someone to take very seriously.
However realistically, if he is being considered as a possible future President, then that looks more likely to be in 2024 than in 2018.
There are other possible candidates who might at a stretch stand in Putin’s place in the election next year.
Obvious names are Sergey Shoigu – Russia’s extremely popular and very capable Defence Minister – and Valentina Matviyenko, the ambitious chair of Russia’s Federation Council (the upper house of Russia’s parliament) who has been performing important diplomatic tasks recently.
However again I see little evidence that any of these people are being brought forward in a way that might suggest that they are being prepared to stand for President next year.
In my opinion the delay in announcing that Putin will run is probably explained by a wish to avoid the confusion that arose on the last occasion when that happened in 2011.
It is generally accepted that on that occasion the announcement was botched, giving a further spark to the street protests that took place that year.
My guess is that the Kremlin this time wants to keep the election period as short as possible so as to avoid anything like that happening again, which is why the announcement that Putin is standing again is being delayed to the last possible moment.
However in saying all this a word of caution is in order.
On the last two occasions when Russia held Presidential elections – in 2008 and in 2012 – I got the Presidential nominee in both cases wrong.
In 2008 I expected Putin to nominate his longstanding ally Sergey Ivanov, but he chose Dmitry Medvedev instead. In 2012 I expected Medvedev to stand again, but he and Putin decided that it should be Putin who would run instead.
Obviously those mistakes make me less confident about my predictions for next year.
Of two things however I am sure.
The first is that an article which recently appeared in the Independent saying that Putin is “tired” is certainly wrong. Bryan MacDonald has provided a detailed response, but to see why the article is wrong it is only necessary to look at what Putin has been doing over the last few days.
Over the last week Putin has (1) chaired a key meeting of his military and defence industry chiefs; (2) met with Presidents Assad of Syria and Zeman of the Czech Republic; (3) is about to meet with Presidents Erdogan of Turkey, Rouhani of Iran, and Al-Bashir of Sudan; (4) has had a series of telephone conversations with President Trump of the United States, President Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel, and the Emir of Qatar; (5) has travelled to Crimea to unveil a monument to Tsar Alexander III; and has had well publicised meetings with (6) Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin (to discuss production of Russia’s supersonic TU-160 bomber); (7) the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia; and (8) the head of Russia’s taxation service.
This pace of activity does not suggest someone who is “tired”.
Irrespective of what Putin’s plans are, my clear view is that this would be completely the wrong moment for him to leave the Presidency.
Relations with the West remain extremely tense. Vacating the Presidency to someone else will be seen as a sign of weakness in the West, and may lead to exorbitant and dangerous expectations of a change of course. After all that is what happened when Putin left the Presidency in 2008.
Far from this reducing tensions it is easy to see how after a brief thaw this could heighten tensions further.
That too after all is what happened after Putin left the Presidency in 2008, with the so-called ‘reset’ quickly followed by the so-called ‘second Cold War’.
Far better that the Western powers should be made to understand that no change in direction or policy in Russia is going to happen, so that they eventually accommodate themselves to this fact. Knowledge that Putin will continue to be around for a further six years is the only obvious way to do it.
The situation in the Middle East remains extremely unsettled, with all eyes on Russia to achieve a fair and equitable settlement of the Syrian war.
That requires someone with great experience and authority and supreme diplomatic skills to see the process through. No potential successor to Putin has these qualities – all of which require long experience to acquire – to anything like the degree that Putin does.
Closer to home, the situation in Ukraine remains extremely dangerous.
The peace process in the conflict in the Donbass is at an impasse, with low level fighting on the contact line going on all the time. Despite occasional claims of stabilisation, the pressure on living standards in the rest of Ukraine continues, with the underlying economic dynamics continuing to spiral down.
Political pressures appear to be increasing, with Poroshenko’s popularity having collapsed, and with a protest tent city once more on Maidan Square, but with no one having the authority or the popularity to take over.
In such a situation the danger of a further escalation in the conflict and of a further outbreak of violence is very real, with the Maidan government already embroiled in bitter quarrels with its former ‘friends’: Poland, Belarus and Hungary, and fully capable of restarting the war at any time.
It is probably not an exaggeration to say that it is fear of Putin that is at least in part responsible for keeping the situation in Ukraine in check, and if he goes there has to be a very real danger that a simultaneously pressured and emboldened Kiev might see this as a sign of weakness and go for broke by restarting the war.
Were such a thing to happen would an inexperienced and untried successor to Putin know how to handle it, especially given that Ukraine would probably once more have Western support?
Putin has also developed an exceptional rapport with any number of world leaders eg. Xi Jinping of China, Modi of India, Erdogan of Turkey, Salman of Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu of Israel, Sisi of Egypt, and Abe of Japan.
Such a rapport is not automatically transferable to a successor, and at a time when the international situation is so tense it looks reckless to throw this asset away.
Turning to Russia’s domestic situation, the country has now exited recession but the very tight (in my opinion over-tight) monetary policy followed by the Central Bank – which is now being criticised by no less an institution than the IMF – has slowed growth and depressed living standards even as inflation has fallen faster than expected.
Putin’s immense popularity has limited the political damage, but there can be no assurance that this will continue under a less popular successor.
More than anything else what Russia needs now is political stability so that the hard work of stabilising the economy and of reducing inflation following the oil price fall and the 2015 inflation spike is given time to bear fruit.
There are good reasons to think that sometime after 2018 things will start to improve both internationally and domestically, with the Syrian war ended, relations with China continuing to deepen, a new more amenable post-Merkel government in Germany, possibly a more civil relationship with the US, and the economy putting on growth.
That will be the time for Putin to think about going and to prepare a successor, who might be Dyumin or someone else.