Putin’s Ever-Morphing Sphere of Influence.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced sweeping constitutional changes in what is being seen as the biggest shakeup in Russian politics in 30 years.
During a speech to both chambers of parliament, he made the shock announcement that he would be seeking reforms that would ultimately shift power away from the presidency.
Under the new regime, future presidents would only be able to serve two terms in office and would have to satisfy tougher criteria to be eligible for the role.
Parliament is to be the main beneficiary, with greater power over cabinet, judges and the security services.
The prime minister would also benefit from beefed-up powers and would no longer be appointed directly by the president but by the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
Many observers were caught off guard by the wide-ranging reforms, not to speak of the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his entire cabinet, which further added to the dramatics.
Putin’s choice of replacement, in the form of the relatively unknown technocrat Mikhail Mishustin, has been equally surprising.
Mishustin, who was recently lauded for modernising Russia’s tax system, has already passed the scrutiny of parliament and will now get to work on delivering a wholesale cabinet reshuffle over the coming weeks.
So what exactly is behind Putin’s decision to diminish the powers of the presidency? In short, he is simply laying the ground to secure a future for himself when he steps down as president, as demanded by the constitution, in 2024.
While it now appears that Putin’s fourth term as president will indeed be his last, it certainly won’t be the end of his reign over Russia.
Putin certainly has form with this sort of play. When his first two terms as president came to an end in 2008, he shifted over to the role of prime minister, leaving Medvedev to serve as a puppet president. Four years later he was right back in the newly re-empowered hot seat, ready to rule another eight years.
And now, once again, he has set the wheels in motion for another long-term power grab, either in the enhanced role of prime minister or, more likely, as the newly empowered head of the State Council, a body that wielded little power prior to his announcement. Either way, there’s little doubt that Putin is plotting to cling on to power in some capacity.
This is a classic move from the Russian ruler with a panache for political self-preservation.
Putin has always been a master at not only preserving power internally, but also projecting Russian power abroad.
In fact, Russia’s foreign policy under Putin has been similarly characterized by a constant redefining of the rules of the game.
Abroad, it’s his loyal henchmen, in the form of powerful oligarchs, who carry out the influence-peddling and election meddling that furthers Russia’s objective of destabilization.
Over the years, Putin has turned the country’s most powerful men into a loyal group of operatives.
With established contacts at the highest levels of Western businesses and government, Putin’s circle of trusted oligarchs influence policy and covertly do the bidding of the Russian state.
Perhaps the most candid example of such subterfuge on the international stage is the work of aluminum magnate, Oleg Deripaska.
The billionaire Russian tycoon has a long history of entanglement in Russia’s dirty work abroad.
Amongst other things, Deripaska’s complicity with the Kremlin has allegedly included interference in the U.S. presidential elections, via Trump’s disgraced campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Manafort reportedly negotiated a contract with Deripaska to promote Russian interests in politics and business in Europe and the United States.
Perceptions of the oligarch’s proximity with the Trump campaign were then seemingly reinforced when he was targeted in an operation intended to flip influential figures who had secretly lent assistance to Trump.
It appears that the attempts, led by U.S. officials and the much-maligned former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, were unsuccessful. However, this whole story suggests a high likelihood that Deripaska was one pair of hands in Russia’s concerted push to get Trump elected.
Now, after two decades of building up his power base, both at home and abroad, Putin has no intention of letting go.
With his asymmetric tactics continuing to deliver results, this latest power grab simply marks another steppingstone in the tyrant’s lengthy tenure.