Vladimir Putin's Staged Power Play
Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a new phase in his campaign to retain power after 2024 when his current term expires. Putin offered Russians a revised social contract. Putin is reconfiguring the balance of power within the Russian government as he seeks to carve out an optimal spot for himself. Putin is in uncharted territory, trying to create a new transition model for Russia. He is running an information operation targeting the Russian population and the West as he seeks to mitigate the risks associated with his transition. His approach is working so far, with the Kremlin’s opposition disarmed and the public unclear on the net implications of the changes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun a new phase in his campaign to retain power when his current presidential term expires in 2024. Putin announced a major set of political changes inside Russia in January 2020. He reorganized Russia’s government, proposed major changes to the Russian constitution, and pledged significant social spending. Putin’s decision to put forward these changes was not a surprise. Putin and his associates have primed the information space with the idea of constitutional change, and set conditions for a 2024 transition more broadly, over the past several years.
The significance of the new announcements lies in the process, substance, and the context in which Putin made his power move.
Putin’s proposed changes offered Russia’s population a revised social contract. He promised increased social spending and announced measures that further strengthen the Kremlin’s centralized powers. This premise is not fundamentally new, but the adjustment is nevertheless key for Putin given that his popular support—bolstered by his illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and other interventions beyond Russia’s borders—has been waning over the past few years.
- The ‘Benefits’ – Putin pledged increased government support for programs to improve education and increased population growth. He focused most of his January 15 annual speech addressing the Russian population’s demands for improved quality of life. Putin also likely intended to shift the blame for failed economic reforms of recent years to former Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev by reshuffling the cabinet. Putin appointed Mikhail Mishustin, formerly head of Russia’s federal tax service, as Russia’s new prime minister in part to signal his commitment to putting fresh energy behind his agenda.
- The Cost – Putin combined these pledges with policies and constitutional amendments that will further limit civil liberties in Russia as well as isolate Russia from the international community. Putin intends to formalize the primacy of the Russian constitution over international law. Putin likely seeks to provide the Kremlin with the freedom to disregard decisions by international organizations, such the European Court of Human Rights. Putin is also likely trying to further limit the potential for credible political opposition to his rule, which is nearly nonexistent today. For example, the state will disqualify individuals who have lived outside Russia in the past 25 years or have obtained foreign residency from running for president. Further, one of Mishustin’s first moves as prime minister was to introduce bonuses for members of the security services, such as the Russian National Guard, who work to “keep order” at protests and other public events. This measure indicates that the security services will remain a core pillar of Putin’s regime. Putin’s changes also extend the federal government’s power further down into the regional level. Regional legislatures will now largely lose their authority to influence appointments of regional prosecutors.
Most of Putin’s constitutional amendments are aimed at changing the relative power of the branches of Russia’s government as Putin carves out a place for himself post-2024. Putin’s proposed amendments will nominally increase the Russian parliament’s powers, though the actual realignment depends on the final amendments and other supplemental federal laws. The presidency remains strong, though Putin limited future presidents to two terms total, ensuring there will not be another Putin (who is serving his fourth term). One of the most significant changes is Putin’s proposal to give the State Council—currently an advisory body of regional leaders—the constitutional authority to govern. This change introduces a new variable into Russia’s political equation.
Putin may be creating a specific role for himself, such as the head of an empowered State Council, or seeking a combination of roles. The key issue, however, will be the overall new political configuration, not the technical nature of Putin’s specific role. This configuration will greatly depend on the final content of Putin’s changes which are currently unknown – likely by design.
Putin is in uncharted territory with a set of conflicting objectives. Putin chose not to remove term limits on the presidency, which would have been a damaging but not impossible political move allowing him to remain as president beyond 2024. Putin is thus faced with the task of inventing a new succession model.
Putin seeks to balance a set of objectives. He likely seeks to preserve power post-2024, as it is essential to his security and his legacy. Putin is also trying to preserve, at least notionally, a strong Russian head of state. Putin’s view that Russia can only survive with a centralized government has remained consistent for the last two decades. Putin wrote in 2000 that “strong government is not an anomaly for Russians, but a guarantor of order.”  Putin stated in January 2020 that Russia requires a strong presidential republic and that creating any institute above the head of the state would mean “dual power” and will be “absolutely harmful for a country like Russia.”
Putin’s campaign thus has a number of vulnerabilities. Putin will be testing the limits of informal power structures in Russia if he tries to preserve power outside of the presidency. The key question will be whether Putin can over the long run, maintain a positive public perception of his legitimacy and power. Another core question is whether Putin can find a way to control indirectly Russia’s security services – currently a key pillar of his regime – when Putin is no longer president.
Putin is using a carefully crafted approach, which is effectively an information operation, to roll out his plan. Putin is revealing the substance of the government changes in a controlled manner. He shared the contours of his changes, but the final details will be determined gradually through further refinements and additional laws. The exact powers of the State Council are still undetermined, for example. The exact process by which the Russian people will express their degree of support for these changes is also unclear.
Putin is moving rapidly to implement the changes. Putin announced and received approval from the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) for his changes within two weeks, providing little room for a genuine discussion of the changes.
Putin is thus showing the public at home and abroad what he wants at the pace he wants. Putin is both trying to disarm any potential opposition to this process while protecting himself against the vulnerabilities inherent in a power play. He also seeks to keep his options open and preserve the ability to shift course as he gauges the initial reaction to his move.
Putin has also launched this phase four years before his current term expires. He is likely choosing to push through the changes while his ratings are relatively high so that he can secure public approval for his plan. He also chose a moment just months after he brutally, and effectively, suppressed an emerging wave of protests against the Kremlin’s efforts to prevent anti-Kremlin candidates from running in Russia’s local elections. He also likely expects to boost his public approval by increased social spending.
Putin’s tactics are working so far. His power structures are rapidly advancing Putin’s changes. He is also successfully disarming the opposition. Putin made some of his proposed changes seem democratic on the surface – which is not a given because of the simple fact that the final content and configuration is not yet public. The protests against Putin’s changes were weak. Finally, Putin’s pledge to increase social spending paired with a cabinet reshuffle taps into widespread calls for change and increased quality of living – helping both obfuscate Putin’s intentions of staying in power and disincentivizing protests.
KEY QUESTIONS AHEAD
The Duma approved Putin’s proposed amendments on January 23 – just a week after Putin’s announcement. A governmental commission is currently considering proposals for additional amendments to the constitution. Russia’s parliament will likely vote on the revised draft on February 11. Putin is also framing these changes as a societal choice, pledging that the constitutional changes will be subject to a popular referendum. The Kremlin has not yet revealed a process for such a referendum.
- Immediate: What will the final changes entail? What do these changes do to the absolute and relative power of each government body? How will the changes be passed? What will the new status and role of the State Council be?
- Long Term: What will be the design of the overall power structures? What are the sources of power that Putin needs to maintain as the situation evolves? What is the most optimal position(s) for him to land? How will Putin’s base – his voters and his power structures – react as he further unfolds his plan? How will Putin address the inherent vulnerabilities of his transition, such as the risk of a growing perception that he is losing power or control over security?
 [“Message from the President to the Federal Assembly,”] Kremlin, January 15, 2020, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/62582; [“Decrees on the Appointment of Ministers of the Government of the Russian Federation were Signed,”] Kremlin, January 21, 2020, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/62625; [“Decrees on the First Deputy and Deputy Prime Ministers were Signed,”] Kremlin, January 21, 2020, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/62623.
 Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma, advocated expanding the Duma’s authority through a constitutional change in July 2019 [“ Volodin Proposed to Change the Constitution Again to Include the Duma in the Formation of the Government,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 17, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/news/2019/07/17/153399-volodin-predlozhil-zafiksirovat-v-konstitutsii-uchastie-gosdumy-v-formirovanii-pravitelstva; Putin called the Russian constitution a “living organism” in 2018. [“Putin: The Constitution of the Russian Federation is a living, developing organism that is the Foundation of the Legal System,”] TASS, December 12, 2018, https(:)//tass.ru/politika/5905516.
 “Trust in Russia’s Putin falls to 13-year low: state pollster,” Reuters, January 21, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-poll/trust-in-russias-putin-falls-to-13-year-low-state-pollster-idUSKCN1PF1TL.
 Leonid Bershidsky, “Why Russia Is Struggling to Build Putin’s Grand Dream,” Bloomberg, November 15, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-11-15/russia-is-struggling-to-build-putin-s-grand-dream; Putin transferred Medvedev into a newly created role of a deputy head of Russia’s National Security Council. Medvedev’s dismissal likely serves a dual purpose: shifting blame from Putin with regard to the failed economic reforms, while also indicating Putin’s potential intent to strengthen Russia’s National Security Council. Putin also made Mishustin a permanent member of Russia’s National Security Council.
 [“Mishustin Presented His Prime Minister Agenda to the State Duma. The Main Thing,”] RBK, January 16, 2020, https://www(.)rbc.ru/politics/16/01/2020/5e2046379a794749e1cceb81 ; [“Mishustin Outlined the Main Tasks and Priorities in the Work of the New Cabinet,”] Sputnik, January 21, 2020, https:\sputnik(.)by\politics\20200121\1043748961\Mishustin-oboznachil-osnovnye-zadachi-i-prioritety-raboty-novogo-kabmina.html.
 [“Monthly Salary Increases were Established for the Complexity of the Tasks Performed by Employees of Internal Affairs Organs, Military personnel and Employees of the Russian Guard,”] Russian Cabinet of Ministers, January 24, 2020, http://government(.)ru/docs/38839/; “[Mishustin Introduced Bonuses for Employees of the Russian National Guard working at Protests],” Vedomosti, January 24, 2020, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/politics/news/2020/01/24/821435-mishustin-vvel-nadbavku; “Russian Prime Minister Orders Special Category of Security Officers to be Eligible for up to Double Pay for ‘Complex’ Work,” Meduza, January 24, 2020, https://meduza(.)io/en/news/2020/01/24/russian-prime-minister-orders-special-category-of-security-officers-to-be-eligible-for-up-to-double-pay-for-complex-work.
 The Duma (lower house) will have authority to approve the prime minister. Currently the president appoints the prime minster while the parliament can advise. The president will have no authority to refuse parliament's nomination of the prime minister. The president would also have to consult with the Federation Council (upper house of parliament) to appoint the heads of Russia's security services and regional prosecutors.
 Putin said that it is essential that Russia remains a strong presidential state. The president might have less
authority over the cabinet of ministers, though the final text of the amendment is to be determined. At the same time,
the president gets additional powers, including the ability to request the Constitutional Court to review the constitutionality of the bill before resident’s signs the bill.
 [“The President Met with Students and Faculty of Leading Universities at the Sirius Center,”] Pervy Kanal, January 22, 2020, https://www.1tv(.)ru/news/2020-01-22/379270-prezident_v_tsentre_sirius_vstretilsya_so_studentami_veduschih_vuzov_i_prepodavatelyami.
 Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock, “Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy,” Institute for the Study of War, August 6, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/08/russia-in-review-domestic-dissent-and.html.
 Matthew Luxmore, “WHY SO FEW PROTESTS AGAINST Putin’s Constitutional Shake up,” RFERL, January 28, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/why-so-few-protests-against-putin-s-constitutional-shake-up-/30402490.html
 Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Russian Parliament Gives Early Approval to Putin’s Constitutional Amendments Ahead of Referendum,” The Telegraph, January 23, 2020, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/01/23/russian-parliament-gives-early-approval-putins-constitutional/; [“The Law of the Russian Federation on the Amendment to the Constitution of the Russian Federation ‘On Improving the Regulation of Certain Issues of Public Authority Organization,’”] Russian Duma’s Legislative Support System, Accessed on January 30, 2020, https://sozd.duma.gov(.)ru/bill/885214-7.
 Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn, “”Supreme Ruler Putin? Kremlin Non-Committal on Proposed New Job Description,” Reuters, January 29, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin/supreme-ruler-putin-kremlin-non-committal-on-proposed-new-job-description-idUSKBN1ZS1Z7.
 “Russia's Duma Unanimously Approves Putin's Constitution Shake-Up,” Al Jazeera, January 23, 2020, https://www.aljazeera(.)com/news/2020/01/russia-duma-unanimously-approves-putin-constitution-shake-200123120220504.html.