This week, Russians went to the polls for a week-long vote, marred by reported irregularities, on constitutional changes that will allow him to serve two more six-year presidential terms after his current one expires in 2024.
If Putin remains in the Kremlin through 2036, he will far surpass Joseph Stalin’s tenure as leader of the Soviet Union, to become the longest-serving Russian leader since Peter the Great, the czar who led what would become the Russian Empire for 43 years until his death in 1725.
When he first entered high office, as Russia’s prime minister in 1999, Putin was just 46. In 2036, he will be 83. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Putin ally, said the quiet part loud in a video recorded Tuesday, suggesting that the president should remain at the helm for life.
“Who is there to replace him today?” Kadyrov said. “There’s no political leader like that on a global scale. ”
A significant share of Russians may agree. As The Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan writes, there was little need for Putin to hold a nationwide vote on his term extension — Russia’s parliament already approved the move in March. But the Kremlin’s push for a high turnout in the plebiscite was an attempt to build a veneer of legitimacy.
The vote came with little regard for the worsening pandemic. The government lifted almost all of its novel coronavirus restrictions on June 24, although confirmed cases now top 650,000, making Russia the third hardest-hit country in the world, after the United States and Brazil. When Putin cast his vote in Moscow on Wednesday, he chose not to wear a face mask, unlike staff members at the polling station.
Hubris has helped bring down previous Russian leaders. Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Moscow Center argues that Putin held this week’s vote to “cement the state of affairs that followed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which sent his approval ratings soaring.”
“In reality, that world has long been eroded,” Stanovaya writes. His popularity has fallen to a historic low.
Many foreign leaders will see any extension of Putin’s time in office as cause for concern. Just this week, news reports revealed U.S. intelligence officials had concluded that a Russian military spy unit offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan, including U.S. and British troops.
Moscow has denied the accusation, suggesting that it “illustrates the low intellectual abilities of propagandists from American intelligence,” who “miserably failed the twenty-year war in Afghanistan.”
Such tactics and denials are typical of Russian foreign policy under Putin. Numerous Kremlin foes have met their demise around the world in recent years. One failed plot in England, involving the Russian nerve agent Novichok, was so brazen it suggested lazy incompetence.
Russian forces have found their way into foreign conflicts, not just in neighboring Ukraine and Georgia but also more distant battlefields such as Syria and Libya. Russian involvement has been costly for all and resulted in the deaths of civilians, such as those targeted deliberately by Russian airstrikes in Syria.
It’s not hard to link this belligerence to the Russian president. As journalist Catherine Belton writes in her new book “Putin’s People,” he has been at this game for decades. As a KGB officer in Dresden in the 1980s, a young Putin likely assisted with funding and guidance for terrorist groups that sought to “sow chaos in the West” with deadly attacks.
But Putin’s Russia has been most successful at combating the West by peacefully undermining it rather than through violent confrontation. Efforts to influence the U.S. political system ahead of the 2016 presidential election are a prime example.
It remains unclear whether President Trump was unaware of the alleged Russian bounties in Afghanistan, or whether he knew about but ignored them. Neither possibility looks good. “This is something you ought to know if you’re inviting Russia back into the G-8,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told the New York Times.
Putin cannot survive indefinitely on chaos alone. Though his long run in office has allowed him to outmaneuver global rivals, including those in Washington, his long rule may prove a burden at home.
Much of his early support came from his willingness to tackle powerful and often corrupt oligarchs, along with rising standards of living after the upheaval of the 1990. While he won the past week’s vote with a comfortable margin, there are signs of cracks in the solid backing he once enjoyed.
Independent polling ahead of the vote has shown that approval for Putin dropped this spring from its once stratospheric highs to around 60 percent, its lowest since 2013. And as with many Russian elections, the plebiscite was tarnished by a wave of fraud allegations.
Experts have marked growing discontent in opposite spheres within Russia’s political world. “One comes from forward-thinking and liberal residents of large cities, the other from depressive and impoverished provinces,” political analyst Kirill Rogov wrote on Facebook.
Such rumblings have a firm basis in material reality. Amid sanctions and an oil price squeeze, Russia’s economy looks set for another shaky year — the IMF expects gross domestic product to drop by 6.6 percent in 2020. The pandemic has exposed some of Putin’s weaknesses, and widespread speculation holds that the true number of deaths has been concealed.
Russia also faces challenges on the world stage. Moscow looks like a bit player next to the geopolitical battle between Washington and Beijing, in which Putin may struggle to avoid embroilment. And few world leaders risked attending his high-profile military parade last month to mark the 74th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The greatest question Putin faces is the one Kadyrov articulated: Who is there to replace him? If the answer is no one, that is no sign of strength. It’s a sign of a country falling into political stagnation.