Presidential elections in Russia are coming up this March and Vladimir Putin confirmed that he will be running for a 2nd consecutive term (4th overall). Based on Putin’s 80% approval ratings, Russian analysts told the New York Times that his victory is certain, making him the longest-serving leader of Russia since Joseph Stalin was dictator of the Soviet Union. This approaching election is not one many people are concerned about, but brings a more pressing question to attention: What comes next in Russian domestic politics?
Throughout Putin’s next term, his inner circle will be jockeying for power to prepare for a Russian system after Putin, which may result in erosion to the governmental systems and institutions. This may take a toll on the next power transition, whether it be someone hand-picked by Putin, a member of his circle who maintained their power and influence throughout Putin’s next term, or someone outside of his circle.
Previously, Russia has shown surprising resilience and stability when faced with major problems, including the 2014 recession, and in 2008 when term limits prevented Putin from running for another consecutive presidential term. It seems extremely likely that the system Putin strengthened will survive, even if he chooses to step down as Russia’s leader after his upcoming term. If President Trump is re-elected in 2020 and serves the full 8 years, both the U.S. and Russia will be dealing with leader transitions in the 2024/2025 period which could threaten the stability of the already difficult relationship.
The U.S. should be prepared for another Putin presidency that will consist of few, if any policy changes according to experts. This will likely also be true with the United States’ policies towards Russia.
Given the current questions surrounding the U.S.-Russia relationship, it is not yet clear what President Trump will change compared to previous administrations’ policies toward Russia. The United States’ current relationship with Russia is tense and has improved very little, if at all, throughout past administrations. Russian arms buildup is putting military pressure on the U.S., differing interests in Syria have made success in the region difficult, sanctions enacted against Russian aggression have decreased trade and economic cooperation, and cyber-attacks have caused the U.S. to be less willing to cooperate in other areas.
In the National Security Strategy, released in December 2017, the administration lays out similar policies to those of prior presidents, diverging mostly in the language used. The U.S. will continue to strengthen its relationship with Europe, both militarily and economically. It will serve as another source of energy to decrease European reliance on Russian oil and reduce Russian influence in the region, as well as continuing to participate in and support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The most significant policy change that can affect the United States’ relationship with Russia is the administration’s announcement to work towards strengthening the U.S. military to “overmatch” the threats posed to the United States. Overall, the Trump administration’s declaratory policy, more outspoken and aggressive than previous administrations’, is to increase American strength (diplomatic, economic, military, and political) to better defend ourselves, our allies, free society, and maintain our geopolitical power. Russia sees this as threatening its global influence. To maintain its place in the world order (and protest NATO operations), Russia will continue to show off newer conventional military power by pushing the boundaries of international law. Despite these tensions and aggressive behaviors, the U.S. will still attempt to cooperate and work with Russia on areas of mutual interest which should include nuclear non-proliferation, military incident de-escalation, space exploration, and counter-terrorism.
The most familiar constant for the majority of the next decade will be Putin’s influence on Russia. He is not expected to make drastic changes to Russian foreign or domestic policy, but if he decides to step down as Russia’s leader, there may be a constitutional amendment creating a position in the Kremlin for him when his term ends. Russia will be entering a time of uncertainty as 2024 approaches and the U.S.’s grand strategy should be reworked to reflect this and prepare the United States for that transition in whatever form it takes.