Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House
Vladimir Putin speaks at an event on 27 February marking Russian Special Operations Forces Day. Photo: Getty Images.

The unknown of what happens when Vladimir Putin’s second term as president ends by 2024 weighs on the public mind. That alone attracts attention to domestic questions rather than international issues. The succession to Putin, whenever it is to happen, is not just about who it might be but also what that person or persons might or ought to do to direct Russia’s future.

There are no signs that Russia’s present and narrowing circle of decision-makers are ready to revisit the questions of structural economic, and therefore political, reform that are needed for the country to flourish. The repression that underpins Putin’s rule continues to grow.

Polls apart

Real incomes per head have fallen by between 11% and 14% over the four years since the seizure of Crimea and the injection of pride in Russia as a great power it then gave to the public. Polls now show that confidence in the government, and Russian institutions in general, has reached a low last seen in 2002. Levada reported 53% of Russians urging the Medvedev cabinet’s dismissal in December 2018.

As much to the point is the erosion of the previously convenient popular supposition that Russia’s government is one thing, and Putin another: trust in him personally fell over the year from around 60% to 39%. Levada polls also showed that over 2018, the number of those who considered Putin personally accountable for dealing with the whole range of Russia’s problems rose from somewhere around 40% in 2015-17 to 61% now.

The implications are clear: Putin and his government should be concerned with the interests of the Russian people, but are not.

Putin’s decision to go ahead last June with raising the ages at which Russian men and women should be paid their pensions crystallized discontent with the state of the economy, and the social problems which have accompanied it. While protests were not so widespread as the Kremlin had feared, the blow to living standards has not been forgotten, nor what seemed to many to be a betrayal of their duly earned rights forgiven.

Putin’s annual message to the Federal Assembly, delivered on 20 February, covered familiar territory, from improving the birthrate to ameliorating poverty, raising productivity and so on. Defence spending remained a priority. But the president had no substantive structural changes to suggest for reinvigorating and diversifying the economy. He appears still to assume that GDP growth will return in due course, to 4–5%.

Few if any expect that to happen. A scheduled increase in VAT this year to help among other things in the financing of a number of ‘national projects’ will instead cut into the living standards of ordinary Russians who already feel themselves unable to afford to live lives they consider to be normal.

Present pessimism

The overall effect has been to create a widespread feeling of irritated disappointment, and loss of confidence in the economic and political future, rather than to suggest an early return to the street protests of 2011/12.

Those protests were, however, demonstrations prompted by electoral fraud largely undertaken by the ‘creative classes’. Discontent is now higher in the provinces and among workers, who were once more passive, and now readier to protest in organized fashion against particular injuries, such as the dumping of untreated big city waste in the areas where they live. Election returns in September last year indicated distaste for United Russia, the presidential administration’s parliamentary party.

Russia’s great power ambitions

What appears to many in the West to be a successful Putin policy, earning Russia an impressive international position, now carries lessening weight with the Russian public at large. The powers that be continue to beat the drums of patriotism, confrontation, Russia’s special path, traditions and values, but to less effect.

Levada polls now record 79% not just hoping that tensions with the West will somehow begin to diminish, but that Russia will make an effort to bring that about. That wish is particularly prevalent among younger citizens. It is also fuelled, it seems, by official militarist Kremlin-induced propaganda, which has generated real fear of a major war with the West, seriously felt by some 57% of the population.

The proposition that confrontation with the West post-Maidan would continue to inspire Russians to rally round the Putin flag is for question now.

A slow burn?

It would be rash for now to draw any overly firm conclusions from the shifts in perception within Russia over the last year as noted above, apart from the fact that they have taken place. Knowledgeable and responsible Russians at the mid-January Gaidar Forum this year for instance agreed with some trepidation that some change would happen, and had to happen, but what when and how they did not know.

There is however no autonomous institutional mechanism within Russia beyond the presidential administration that could channel a fresh approach, or elements of a fresh approach, which might address public concerns as to where Russia may now be headed. Putin and his circle are sensitive to changes in their poll ratings, but also fettered by their past policies. They have managed financial crises, but a sustained effort to revive Russia’s economic, social or political fortunes looks to remain beyond them – as well as risky. It is not obvious, either, how Putin can bring about a stable outcome to either his Ukraine or his Syria adventures.

The resulting impasse will prove enervating for Russia and discouraging for the West the longer it lasts. Putin himself is unlikely to change his policies whether he stays in office up to or beyond 2024. There are no obvious successors that might emerge from within the group around him who might prove to be different. But without Russia’s rulers at some time being seen to revisit their agenda, the deeper the divide between them and the people they aspire to rule risks becoming.