What to Make of Putin’s Shake-Up in Russia

World Politics Review, 17.01.2020
Candace Rondeaux, académica y profesora (Center on the Future of War-U. Estatal de Arizona)

If one nice thing can be said about Vladimir Putin, it is that he is a master of political jujitsu. This week, Putin’s skills were on full display after he called for far-reaching constitutional changes that would transfer more power from the presidency to parliament—a move many suspect is really designed to extend his 20-year hold on power. Following Putin’s announcement, Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and his entire Cabinet abruptly resigned, and hours later Putin named a new prime minister.

Putin is technically barred by constitutional term limits that prohibit more than two consecutive presidential terms. The dramatic reshuffling of Russia’s power structure—which if carried out could weaken the presidency while empowering the Duma, the Russian parliament, as well as an advisory body called the State Council—may pave the way for Putin to retain outsized political influence in Moscow even after his term ends in 2024.

It is too early for any declarations about what the proposed shake-up will ultimately mean for the Kremlin. But it may signal two things. It could be a subtle acknowledgment that Putin understands that his ability to maneuver is somewhat constrained by growing public discontent with corruption and his government’s hard-line tactics at home and abroad. And it could reflect how the political and economic fallout from Western sanctions, imposed over Russia’s ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, is beginning to weigh more heavily on Putin’s calculations.

For many Russian citizens and Russia watchers, the resignation of the entire government comes as no real surprise. Putin hinted at the possibility of changes to the constitution in remarks he made to the press in late December. At the time, he also seemed to indicate that there might be enough give in Russia’s political system to lift the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms or rework it to better suit him.

Whatever the outcome in the end, for now it’s more revealing to look at what preceded Putin’s announcement. There are definitely a few clues worth investigating, including the circumstances surrounding Medvedev’s sudden resignation.

Medvedev opted to step down a little more than a month after new reports surfaced alleging that his wife, Svetlana Medvedeva, used a $50 million business jet, subsidized by the government, to globetrot around the world. The Russian press picked up the Medvedev corruption thread after Alexey Navalny, the prominent anti-corruption activist and opposition politician, released a video in early December detailing Medvedeva’s alleged flight history on a luxury Bombardier 5000 jet. In another video, Navalny mapped out a purported scheme in which the head of Russia’s second-largest bank, the majority government-owned VTB, had also used Russian state funds to acquire a private jet and yacht for his girlfriend.

Medvedev has been under a cloud of corruption claims since at least 2016, when Navalny first aired a video of a sprawling, extravagant estate outside Moscow that Medvedev reportedly used as a vacation home. With the popularity of Medvedev and Putin’s political party, United Russia, suffering, is the Kremlin scared of the prospect of a repeat of the unrest that followed 2011’s national elections, widely seen as fraudulent, and backlash from last year’s harsh suppression of protests during Moscow’s municipal elections? Putin, Medvedev and their cronies seem to be shifting away from the high-profile arrests of journalists and activists to more strategic maneuvers aimed at insulating Russia’s brittle governance structure as a whole.

No matter how the Kremlin cuts it, the constitutional reorganization is sure to take up a lot of bandwidth for Putin and other ruling elites. In theory, that could make it hard for the Kremlin to move forward any time soon on a long-mooted plan to forge a union with Belarus, which to many Belarusians smacks of annexation. Putin has put more pressure on Belarus for closer economic integration recently, saying last month that a deal for discounted Russian gas depends on it. Russia and Belarus signed a “Union State” agreement back in 1999 laying out steps for closer political, economic and military ties, but it all remained vague.

There is speculation that Belarus is integral to Putin’s proposed constitutional scheme, if he could become president of a new union state combining Russia and Belarus. Belarus’ forever president, Alexander Lukashenko, has pushed back against the idea of a union, which has also sparked protests in Belarus over fears of being absorbed by Russia.

Those demonstrations are putting mounting pressure on Lukashenko, who has been something of an on-again, off-again friend of Putin. In addition to the proposed union with Moscow, Belarus is part of the semi-moribund and Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, which was formally set up by Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus in 2014. A tug of war within the Ukrainian government over whether to join Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union or the European Union helped trigger the widespread protests in Ukraine in 2013 that led to the fall of Putin’s man in Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych, and Russia’s later annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.

Since then, Lukashenko and the rest of the ruling elite in Belarus have taken a number of dramatic steps to improve ties with Europe and even the United States as a hedge against Russian influence, all designed to signal what has been called the “sovereignization” of Belarus’ foreign policy. Recent outreach to the United States resulted in a promise from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to visit Minsk, though the recent Iran crisis ultimately forced Pompeo to postpone his trip. As an additional backstop against Russian encroachment, Lukashenko has also courted China. On the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in June, he took great pains to show his enthusiasm for cooperation with Beijing on its grand global infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative. If there is one thing Putin fears most, it is that China will eat Russia’s lunch by forging trade and infrastructure deals in what was once a traditional Kremlin sphere of influence.

It remains to be seen whether Lukashenko’s feint will forestall Russian overreach in Belarus. But it seems likely that in addition to having to sort out his shake-up in Russia, Putin will be distracted by his push to bully Lukashenko on integration.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding Putin’s next moves, a little distraction could open a rare window of opportunity for Russia’s other neighbors on the Baltic Sea. It may provide Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—all NATO members—a little more breathing room to shore up their defenses against feared Russian meddling or intervention over irredentist claims.

Deterrence on NATO’s eastern front has been an obsession for all three Baltic states ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They harbor well-founded fears of Moscow mounting a Ukraine-style covert injection of armed and unarmed agent provocateurs in territories along Russia’s northwestern border—home to many ethnic Russians. Numerous assessments suggest that none of these Baltic states is adequately prepared to withstand that kind of hybrid warfare, let alone a full-on frontal assault.

Are NATO leaders in Brussels, along with the governments of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, prepared to move swiftly to take advantage of what could be a rare moment of Kremlin distraction? As 2024 nears, Putin may be forced to look the other way.

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