Russia Takes a Step Toward the Post-Putin Era

Mirror, mirror, who’s next?

Photographer: Yekaterina Shtukina/AFP/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that he would run for a fourth term as president was long predicted, though it seemed to some Russian observers (incorrectly) that he waited unusually long to make it. Less predictable is how the system Putin built will plan its perpetuation after his term ends in 2024, when he's constitutionally barred from running again.

Putin's third term has been his most important one, more momentous even than his first, in 2000-2004, which was marked by U.S. Republican-style economic reforms, a flat income tax, the harsh taming of the 1990s oligarchs and the recentralization of power. In 2012-2018, Putin abandoned any pretense of playing along with the U.S. and its European allies and sought to make it clear to the rest of the world that Pax Americana was ending. In that, he has been largely successful. He has, however, neglected the base on which his geopolitical achievements rest — his own Russia, the vast, still poor, increasingly cynical and potentially very angry nation that Putin may not quite represent, or even run, anymore.

Putin claims his biggest successes outside of Russia. He has held on to illegally annexed Crimea, and the Kremlin retained operational control over the mob-run, separatist "people's republics" in eastern Ukraine, most recently through what looked like an engineered coup in one of them. Putin was held back from further territorial gains by cost considerations — it appears important to him to keep regular military casualties low while making proxies shoulder most of the burden — but his minimum goals, including instability in Ukraine, have been achieved. It's obvious even to the most biased observers that, despite massive Western support, modern Ukraine is a corrupt mess that is hardly more European than when its people decided to break away from the Russian orbit at the beginning of Putin's third term.