So Putin has just entered his fourth and almost certainly last term.
Where to now?
Putin has a vast, legitimate mandate to leave his final imprint on Russia, but what precisely that involves is still just a black box – as I repeatedly noted during my Russia elections coverage, Putin did not even bother with a campaign as such, (correctly) betting that riding on the Crimean tailwinds would be more than sufficient to ensure him a dominating victory.
For now, the main indication is that there will be less military spending – even if the real size of the decline is exaggerated by a pure accounting issue – with the money saved from that, as well as proceeds from a new sales tax, financing considerably increasing spending on infrastructure, healthcare, and education. Russia certainly could do with the former two, even if the benefits of more education spending (as opposed to elite science research) are dubious. However, we can hardly expect him to challenge the prevailing global orthodoxy.
Personnel is key, so we will need to wait for the Ministerial appointments before we can seriously speculate about foreign policy course in an period during which Russia’s options are increasingly narrowing down to capitulation vs. increased autarky.
It is pretty clear that Medvedev will stay on as PM. There have been rumors spread by someone in The Financial Times that Kudrin is being considered for a high position – maybe even a newly created Vice Presidential one, according to John Helmer. As the latter argues, this would in effect translate to the capitulation option, i.e. “a policy of withdrawal from the Ukraine and Syrian fronts on the terms demanded by Washington.” I don’t buy this. While I have certainly made it clear that I don’t consider the kremlins to be geniuses, I don’t think they’re that stupid either. Moreover, the personal relationship between Medvedev and Kudrin is toxic, so it’s hard to see both of them on the same team let alone coordinating such a scheme.
It is also near certain that longtime warhorse Sergey Lavrov is leaving his post as Foreign Minister. He is not in Putin’s “inner circle” and this should be viewed as a conventional retirement of a bureaucrat. There are rumors in the Russian press that he is slated to be replaced by Anton Vaino, the little-known Chief of State of the Presidential Administration. Since Vaino is even less qualified to lead the Foreign Ministry than he is for his current position, hopefully this will not be the case.
The main challenge, apart from foreign policy and mounting Western sanctions, is the political transition after Putin. In particular, it’s worth seeing if Dyumin – the eternal “dark horse” successor candidate to Putin – gets promoted from his Tula governorship, because the window for building him up as the successor will otherwise start closing. Putin might be greatly popular now, but Crimea is going to start wearing off sooner rather later – I have observed it has already been doing so amongst the cognitive elites (e.g. the forums of MIPT alumni), and it’s only a matter of time before it spreads to the rest of society. So quietly sitting on his laurels, as Putin has been doing for most of the past year and counting, is not a viable option.