There may not have been an element of “breaking news” as the words flitted across the television screens to announce that Vladimir Putin had cruised to victory in Sunday’s election.
The Russian President’s re-election was a settled fact long before the first vote was cast. Nonetheless, the critical point of interest both for the country and the world must be that he is poised to begin his fourth six-year term as President, with an interregnum as Prime Minister.
This is the cardinal message that has almost immediately fetched him the appellation of “Putin 4.0”. The decimal has seldom been more relevant in a country’s political history.
The triumph coincides with a particularly critical phase in Russian history over the past few years ~ Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the expansionist designs in Ukraine, the aerial bombardment of Syria, the tit-for-tat expulsions of Russian and British diplomats over an attempted murder with a nerve gas agent, and most recently the US sanctions against the Kremlin’s meddling in Donald Trump’s election.
There is a certain frost in what had appeared to be a thaw in Cold War animosity. In a word, the past six years have brought Russia into deepening conflict with the West.
Despite the fact that his foreign policy was mired in controversies and adventurism, the West will have to accept the irony that Putin has emerged from his third term far stronger than he was in 2012.
He has without question been able to burnish his image within his country, albeit sullied from the perspective of the comity of nations.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014 served to establish his legacy and ignited a clash with the West that ironically once more has helped bolster his standing. It is a platform from which he seems unlikely to step down.
Clearly, more than domestic governance it has been foreign policy ~ mortally reckless by any reckoning ~ that is presently playing a pivotal role in Putin’s Russia.
The riveting point of interest in the Kremlin at this juncture is whether Putin is assured of a fifth term… in 2024. It is as yet uncertain whether he will work towards a transfer of power that will ensure his security as well as of a fairly large number of people who form his coterie.
Given current trends in China, a “President-for-life” in Russia cannot readily be ruled out. Nor for that matter is a succession battle wholly improbable.
Unlike the 2014-18 phase, when foreign intervention and the satellite states dominated Putin’s minimum programme, the next four years could witness a political joust for the presidential dacha.
At the moment, there is no one being geared up to replace him. The striking feature of electoral politics in Russia is that it is largely uncompetitive. No less remarkably, the actual politics has been opaque.