In my opinion, almost certainly yes (quantified: 90%. In line with PredictIt). Just to get that clear off the bat.
But neither is it an absolutely foregone conclusion.
For instance, see this recent “scoop” from The Independent’s Oliver Carroll:
Vladimir Putin is, sources say, tired. And he is reluctant to engage in a major national election – again. The campaign will be reduced to a bare minimum; there will be no repeat of the exhausting test of the 2011-2012 elections, when Mr Putin declared his candidacy six months early.
The reason “scoop” is in apostrophes is that Putin’s tiredness is hardly new to the Moscow rumor mill.
For instance, here is my Twitter conversation with RT’s Bryan MacDonald (posted with his permission) on this back in December 2016:
And there’s still hints that Putin hasn’t yet fully made his mind up. For instance, MacDonald also noted that RBC recently reported that Putin is shifting his annual State of the Union address from December to early next year. While cautioning against reading too deeply into Kremlinological tea leaves, this does conceivably open the possibility of a sudden resignation and endorsement of a successor along the lines of what Yeltsin did with respect to Putin himself on December 31, 1999.
When I asked Bryan MacDonald to quantify his predictions a week ago, he replied: “5/1 he doesn’t run. 4/6 he’s not President in 2023.”
I should stress that MacDonald and Carroll are hardly the only people with such ideas. Another name I can cite is Artem Zagorodnov, who used to work for RBTH. Back in December 2016, he gave a speech on Russian politics for the Juneau World Affairs Council in Alaska, during the course of which he was asked a question about whether Putin would run in 2018. At the time, Zagorodnov gave this a 80% chance. More recently, I asked him again, and he has now upped it to 90%, but he thinks that there is only a 50% chance of Putin finishing his second term.
I should also note that MacDonald and Zagorodnov are (were) not familiar with each other and came to these very similar estimates independently.
Apart from his rumored fatigue, why might Putin not want to run in 2018?
1. By not running in 2018, Putin retains the option of running one more time at some later time in the future.
Originally, the Russian Constitution disallowed more than two Presidential terms, but only so long as they were consecutive; otherwise, you could serve as many terms as you wished, so long as they were broken up at least once every two terms/eight years. This enabled Putin’s controversial “castling” maneuver with Medvedev in 2011-12, which was within the letter if not the spirit of the law. But a Constitutional amendment in 2012, which also lengthened Presidential terms to six years, set an explicit maximum of two terms, consecutive or otherwise. Any further castlings have been ruled out.
Therefore, if Putin runs now, he will never be able to run for President again – even should he resign midway through his fourth term. Not unless he pushes through a Constitutional amendment. But that would mean reneging on a public commitment not to do that, which would be politically far riskier than even his old castling, which ended up in 100,o00 strong protests in Moscow during 2011-12.
2. Putin is currently at the peak of his approval.
At least so long as Putin’s personal ratings are concerned, the “Crimean Consensus” shows no signs of wearing out.
But discontent is once again beginning to simmer in the margins. Overall satisfaction with domestic, social, economic, and even foreign policy has reached lows last seen in 2011, when mass protests over electoral fraud in the 2011 Duma elections flared up.
And it is probably only a matter of time before this begins to overspill into Putin’s approval rates.
Putin assured his place in the history textbooks in 2014.
Now might be as good and stable a time to leave as any while his reserves of political capital are still maxed out.
In so doing, he also escapes the Brezhnevite “President for Life” trap, leaves on his own terms, and enjoys the rest of his life in luxury (the friends he enriched during his Presidency owe him at least that much).
3. The next six years are going to be… boring.
The next Presidential term is looking up to be one of technocratic optimization and further reforms, of privatizing an overly state-dominated economy, of trying to restore relations with the West.
Very boring. Bad for approval ratings. Not the ideal job for a “tired” populist.
Besides, any real rapprochement with the “Western partners” is inconceivable with Putin, who has become thoroughly unhandshakeworthy, still at the helm – at least formally.
Now unless a new round of military confrontations are being planned – a rather unlikely prospect, given sharply negative trends in projected military expenditure – there is a good chance that that Russia will have to confront the near total nature of its geopolitical defeat in the Ukraine, as that country economically recuperates, accelerates Ukrainization, and Russophile dreams of a “second Maidan” and Ukraine’s imminent breakup veer further and further into the realm of fantasy.
Also probably best to keep a low profile during that period.
4. It is still not too late to nominate a successor.
As it stands today, Putin will win approximately 80% of the vote (70% + 10% customary fraud), while the rest will be split about equally between Zyaganov, Zhirinovsky, and [liberal candidate].
In an experiment conducted by Levada this September, every fifth Russian said they were willing to vote for Andrey Semenov, a Presidential candidate endorsed by Putin – even though both Semenov and Putin’s endorsement were complete fictions.
This suggests that building up a successor from nothing will be a trivial task for the Kremlin. That worked with for Yeltsin’s “Family” and Putin himself in 1999-2000, and it will be even easier now, since the Kremlin now has uncontested dominance of all the major TV stations.
Finally, the specific steps that the Kremlin has been taking – for instance, changing the date of the Presidential elections to coincide with the anniversary of Crimea joining Russia, and getting Ksenia Sobchak, an airhead celebrity with a massive anti-rating, to play the role of the liberal candidate, instead of its natural leader Navalny – indicate that they were not totally sure that Putin would be running, and as such, wanted to make absolute sure that any anointed successor would get a convincing victory almost as easily as Putin.
This convincing victory is referred to as a 70/70 in Kremlin parlanace (70% turnout, 70% share of the vote).
Putin going for a walk with potential successor Alexey Dyumin.
Final question: Who would be the successor?
By far the most commonly named “dark horse” candidate is Alexey Dyumin, the current governor of Tula and Putin’s former bodyguard. He personally participated in the events of 2014, and can thus be credibly portrayed as a hero of the “Crimean Spring” (its original name, the “Russian Spring,” has been airbrushed out of history, due to its nationalist connotations). As a loyal military man, basically competent but without being excessively intelligent – he graduated from a third-rate military academy – Dyumin would make a solid replacement for Putin, who would continue to wield extensive influence as some sort of “elder statesman” or “father of the nation” figure.
Meanwhile, in this scenario, Putin’s people would continue to occupy key power positions: Vyacheslav Volodin would continue looking after the Duma, Sergey Shoigu will stay on as Defense Minister, and another of Putin’s former bodyguards, Viktor Zolotov, will remain head of the 340,000 strong National Guard. This would be an additional guarantee against the successor getting too many ideas of his own.
As it happens, I suspect this basic scenario – the rudiments of which have been sketched out by politologists such as the liberal Valery Solovej and the Communist Nafik Famiev during the summer of 2017 – is ultimately likely to play out.
Probably not now, but quite possibly around 2021, or after the end of Putin’s fourth and last term.