Even in 2018, when Vladimir Putin still had a full six years to serve as President of Russia, the political class around the Kremlin began to whisper about what comes next.
Some pundits referred to the problem as Operation 2024, the year when Putin would have to decide whether – or, more likely, how – he would remain in power after his final term runs out. That operation appeared to begin on Wednesday, Jan. 15, the day after Russians emerged from their long winter holiday.
In his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, Putin announced his wish to reform the Russian constitution. “I truly believe that it is time to introduce certain changes to our country’s main law,” Putin said. Shortly afterward the government resigned en masse, not in protest but seemingly to pave the way for these reforms.
The changes Putin proposed would not blow up the edifice of Russian democracy; the president’s best-considered moves tend to be more subtle and circumspect than that. What he suggested instead is a revision of the constitution that could, in effect, give him more flexibility, rewire the ticking clock of his last presidential term and provide him with a range of options for remaining the leader of Russia, regardless of what formal title he chooses to hold in the future.
The details of his plan were vague and in many ways confusing, though their significance was not lost on those close to the Kremlin. “You wanted a bloodless revolution?” tweeted one of Putin’s favored messengers, Margarita Simonyan, who leads the RT television network. “Here you go.”
It may be bloodless, but Wednesday’s revolution still had its victims. The clearest one appeared to be Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the President’s perennial sidekick and political stunt double, who has been carrying water for Putin since the two were both provincial officials in the 1990s in the mayoralty of St. Petersburg.
After Medvedev announced he and his government would stand down, Putin then graciously suggested that the outgoing Prime Minister take a newly created post: Deputy Chairman of the Kremlin Security Council overseeing national defense. Fancy as that may sound, it was an obvious demotion for Medvedev, who at least within the formal hierarchy of the state has been second only to Putin for the last eight years.
The sudden vacancies inside the government set off a frenetic debate in Russia about who would fill the next cabinet. But in a system where all the power has been gradually concentrated in the hands of one man over the last two decades, any speculation over government posts has barely any consequence. More than anything, it felt like a useful distraction as Putin begins to enact his plan for 2024.
The obscure institution that came into the foreground amid Putin’s announcement on Wednesday was the State Council, which the President created during his first year in power in 2000. Made up of regional governors and other officials selected by Putin, the Council formally serves as an advisory body to the Kremlin but, throughout its existence, has been known primarily as a state appendage whose function no one quite understood. Under the constitutional reforms Putin proposed in his annual address, however, the State Council could be granted new powers.
“It would make sense,” Putin said in his address on Wednesday, “to firm up the status and role of the State Council in the Constitution of Russia.”
He gave no details as to what that could mean. But the proposal led some observers to speculate that, after Putin’s term runs out in 2024, he could decide to take the helm of the State Council and effectively continue to govern Russia from there. “Putin looks like he is counting on becoming the head of the State Council, which will get increased powers and become a key decision-making platform with input from the Presidential Administration, the government and the governors,” Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, wrote in a Facebook post. In all but name, this newly empowered entity, with Putin at its helm, could then begin to function as a de facto Kremlin.
That, at least, was one of the possibilities that emerged from the political confusion that Putin created on Wednesday. And if his past behavior is any guide, the President himself may not yet have decided exactly which possibility he prefers. As Putin’s longserving adviser Gleb Pavlovsky once told me, Putin is a shrewd tactician and a lousy strategist. Rather than settling on a long-term course and sticking to it, he likes to keep a range of options open. Depending on the public mood and the risks that arise in the moment, he then places his bet on a short-term maneuver, making sure to leave just enough space to turn back or change course if necessary.
What he has long seemed unwilling to tolerate are strict limits on his power, especially those built in to Russia’s constitution. That much became clear in 2008, when constitutional term limits first made him leave the post of President. He then devised a way to stay in power with minimal tweaks to the law. Rather than rewriting the constitution outright – as he clearly had the power to do – Putin announced in 2008 that he would move over to the post of Prime Minister, while Medvedev, his protégé, would serve as President.
Once in office, President Medvedev enacted a constitutional reform that extended presidential terms from four to six years. As Medvedev’s four years in office were close to running out at the end of 2011, he faithfully moved aside, allowing Putin to return to the presidency for another two terms, this time lasting six years each.
The end of those two terms is still four years away. But that is clearly close enough for Putin to set Operation 2024 in motion. Its outcome will depend on factors that are still very hard to predict. How will the Russian public respond to the prospect of a leader for life? How strong are the loyalties of Russia’s elites heading into this new phase of Putinism?
But such questions come with familiar risks for Putin. He circumvented them in 2008 and at other crucial junctures in his tenure. Today he appears to believe, as the man who personifies power in Russia, that his reign can survive these risks again.