Vladimir Putin’s Wartime Presidency

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg, January 18, 2018. (Anatoly Maltsev/Pool/Reuters)
As he prepares for a fourth term in power, the Russian president has the world wondering how long he’ll hang on.

Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally published by the American Enterprise Institute. It is adapted here with permission.

Yes, we’ve seen it before: the meticulously scripted but utterly sterile twists and turns in Russia’s Potemkin “presidential” election campaign, Vladimir Putin’s fourth.

Once again we are being treated to the sight of the Russian president’s mighty torso as he steps into the icy water of Lake Seliger in the Russian Northwest to mark the Orthodox Epiphany, surrounded by black-cassocked priests with church banners aloft.

An old hat, indeed. Except for two things. First, by the end of his term Putin will have been in power as president or de-facto leader for 24 years — longer than any Russian ruler since Nicholas I (1825–1855) except for Stalin. And, second and more important, these six years are supposed by many to be his last.

Really, really last.

Putin, or so the reasoning in Moscow goes, will be 72 at the end of the term, and while he could still appoint a place-holder, like he did with Dmitry Medvedev in 2008–2012, returning to the Kremlin in 2030 at the age of 78 might be too much, even for seemingly docile Russian voters.

So Moscow is already aswirl with rumors of potential successors, allegedly jockeying for power. Some in the dispirited, severely pruned, and much-bruised democratic opposition are finally hopeful for the reemergence of true competitive politics in 2024. They optimistically expect a kind of “soft landing” for Putin, perhaps a measure of liberalization at home and the beginning of détente with the West.

So, is Vladimir Putin a khromaya utka (lame duck) on the way to retirement six years from now?

Not so fast.

Don’t waste your time on campaign speeches to discern Putin’s direction. Instead, look at Russia’s $324 billion State Armament Program for 2018–27, authorized in November 2017 by Putin after a non-stop, four-day session in Sochi with the heads of key defense-sector enterprises and with Russia’s top military brass. This program follows the 2012–2020 one, and, adjusted for inflation, costs about as much. The program’s goal, Putin said at the opening of the conference, was the “efficient neutralization” of external threats. He concluded the meeting by calling on all Russian large enterprises, whether state-owned or private, to be able to “rapidly increase defense-related production and services at a time of need.”

Such a call for wartime mobilization, unheard of since the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s, is especially jarring in a country which already spends a third of its budget on defense, and whose economy is barely emerging from recession, with stagnation (at best) as far as the eye can see. The Finance Ministry recently announced that the country’s rainy-day oil- and gas-tax-revenue reserve fund, which had been used to plug holes in the state budget — almost $143 billion at its peak in 2008 — had been exhausted and closed down. Personal incomes are down for a fourth year in a row. Last year there were over 1,100 mass protests — against layoffs, corruption, wage arrears, health-care and education cuts, and the rising costs of utilities (they increased 56 percent from 2016 to 2017). The growth of poverty, in the words of Mr. Putin’s former minister of finance, economic adviser, and reportedly close friend Alexei Kudrin, is the most serious and “shameful” challenge to Russia. Russia’s leading political sociologist, Evgeny Gontmakher, has estimated that the “minimal consumer budget” is outside the reach of “no less” than 25 percent of Russians.

A rather awkward time to spend almost a third of a trillion dollars on the State Armament Program, one would think.

But that may be precisely the point. For years now, Duma deputies, government officials, and top national-TV hosts have implied, with varying explicitness, that Russia is in a de facto war, with the “West” in general and the United States very much in particular. And during wartime, one has to sacrifice for the “defense of the motherland!”

Even though Western sanctions are beginning to bite, there has not even been a hint of accommodation on the key issues of the seizure of Crimea or the undeclared war on Ukraine. Instead, the election (and a de facto national holiday) is scheduled for March 18 — four years to the day of Putin’s stem-winding address to the joint session of the Federal Assembly “requesting” the admission of Crimea into the Russian Federation. To drive the point home deeper still, Putin reportedly has appointed Andrey Kondrashov as his campaign’s press secretary. The top presenter on a state-run television channel and the author of the documentary Crimea: Path to the Motherland, Kondrashov has broadcast an interview where Putin explains that the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine was “legal.”

All of which amounts to Putin’s positioning himself as a wartime president. Protecting Russia from relentlessly plotting enemies (and, in the process, restoring it to the lost glory of the Soviet Union) is by far the weightiest component of his popularity — and of his regime’s legitimacy.

The tiger of patriotic mobilization needs to be fed — and the larger and bloodier the meat, the better.

No alternative sources of legitimacy are anywhere on the horizon. Democratization is out of the question: perestroika and glasnost are Putin’s nightmares. As is “performance legitimacy,” based on rapid economic progress and the growth of personal incomes. Both were key to Putin’s popularity in his first two presidential terms from 2000–2008. Today, even if oil prices skyrocket again, the Russian economy — shackled by what economic adviser Kudrin calls “institutional deficiencies” — will not recover until, again in Kudrin’s words, “structural reforms” are implemented.

Such reforms would include a sharp reduction in the 70 percent state-ownership of the economy, a real war on corruption, and the enforcement of property rights by courts no longer subject to political pressure and bribery. All these measures have been bruited about by economists inside and outside the government since 2012, when GDP growth slowed to a crawl even with oil prices still around $100 a barrel.

Yet Putin has refused to go that route. The result, in the words of the leading Russian newspaper Vedomosti, is “stagnation instead of a growth strategy.” All of which means that Vladimir Putin’s wartime presidency is here to stay.

There are two obvious corollaries. First, wartime presidents are not replaced as long as the war continues. So the constitution could be amended to allow Putin to stay on after his term expires in 2024, either by removing the two-term limit on consecutive presidencies, or by making Russia a parliamentary republic with Putin as prime minister. A Communist Duma deputy has already suggested convening a constitutional convention.

Second, the “war” must always be kept immediate and fresh in people’s minds. The tiger of patriotic mobilization needs to be fed — and the larger and bloodier the meat, the better. As the head of Russia’s last remaining independent polling agency, the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov puts it, Putin’s Russia is a “toxic state, a dangerous state, which preserves its legitimacy by provoking conflicts, by the threat of war#…#[so as to] mobilize the population in support of the regime.#…#This is an extremely dangerous development.”

But the Syrian conflict is distant, and, after almost four years, the proxy war on Ukraine cannot be easily sold as a defense of Russia and ethnic Russians from NATO-supported “neo-Nazis.” Should Putin perceive the regime’s support eroding precipitously, poking at NATO’s Eastern flank — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — could do the trick.

To be sure, such an endeavor would be very risky — but so is embarking on a de facto nineteenth year in power, for another six years and beyond in a 21st century European country where economic and social realities are growing increasingly disjointed from people’s expectations.

The West had better get ready for Vladimir Putin’s wartime presidency: volatile, risk-prone, increasingly basing domestic legitimacy on brinksmanship with NATO, and lasting a very, very long time.

Leon Aron is the director of Russian policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.