Hardly anyone notices these days, but Vladimir’s Putin’s Russia is heading towards another presidential election, or more correctly re-election, on March 18. The vote will mark a new era for Russia, not because there is any doubt that current president Putin will comfortably win a fourth term, but because he has already started to shape a post-Putin Russia.
Although his re-election is almost a foregone conclusion, the ever-cautious Putin has barred his main rival, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, from running in the election. If the 65-year-old Putin is re-elected for another six-year term, he will become the longest-serving leader of his country since Joseph Stalin, who ruled the then Soviet Union between 1924 and 1953.
The main contours of Putin’s political career are well known. He entered politics in St. Petersburg in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, after a long career as foreign intelligence officer at KGB. His move to Moscow in 1996 to join then President Boris Yeltsin opened the way for his meteoric rise. Before long, he became acting president on the last day of 1999, and was elected as the president in June 2000 for his first term. From August 1999 and his election as president a year later, he ran the brutal Second Chechen War. The rest is history.
Under Putin’s rule since then, Russia has been seeking ways to regain its former glory and status in international politics, as well as economic recovery at home. For the former, he has employed every tactic in the book - from using international events like Olympic Games to boost Russia’s prestige to strong-arm maneuvers - to get his own way, as seen in his assertive policies against Georgia and Ukraine. He jas also tried to re-establish Russia’s connections with its near abroad through the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Community in 2000 and the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2002.
Finally, Russian involvement in the ongoing Syrian Civil War since October 2015 has given Putin the role he has been long seeking in international politics. Through its activities in Syria, Russia has not only carved out an important position for the future of the Middle East, it has also successfully sidelined the pariah status it had been relegated to in international politics after its occupation and annexation of Crimea. While Russia’s new air base in Hmeimim and upgraded naval base in Tartus, both in Syria, allows Moscow a long-term positioning both in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, its sober and calculating policies and pragmatic partnerships have enhanced Russia’s global posture.
Putin’s successful moves in the international arena brought him greater public support in domestic politics, despite all the country’s social, economic and political problems. A recent Carnegie Moscow Center Survey revealed that “almost no one questions his legitimacy as president,” even though people know that “Putin can’t fix these problems.” In turn, Putin has increased his nationalist rhetoric, frequently criticizing the U.S. and claiming the development of all-powerful weapons systems such as the new “invisible” intercontinental missile, capable of evading existing missile-defense systems, as he touted in last week’s state of the nation speech.
But while Russia has somewhat regained its international prestige in recent years under Putin’s direction, it is unlikely to recover its economic balance or military might. This only feeds into Russia’s more challenging stance in international politics and alignment with anti-Western state and non-state actors. In that sense, the forthcoming presidential election is not likely to change much at all.