Dmitri Medvedev announced today his support for Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. According to the NYT story, Medvedev made the announcement in a voice cracking with emotion. His statement touched off uproarious applause: this seems like something out of a Communist Party Congress of Soviet days.
Forcing Medvedev to make the announcement, standing alone before the United Russia party members, was the ultimate humiliation to this rather pathetic figure. It completes his slow-motion emasculation, and although the process has gone so far it would seem to require microsurgery to finish the job, Putin did it with a figurative chainsaw–just so no one could miss the point.
I admit that I was surprised–wrong–that Putin did not attempt some constitutional judo to remain in the presidency in 2008. So why the change in 2011? The answer to the question is overdetermined. Numerous factors all push in the same direction.
First is Putin’s narcissism and love for power. I don’t put too much weight on this factor as even as mere Prime Minister he has remained the dominant force in Russian politics, and has been able to work non-stop at building an ego building cult of personality.
Second, there is no constitutional obstacle this time around. Legitimacy is important, and although the issue could have been finessed in 2008, doing so would have compromised his legitimacy and left him open to challenge on constitutional grounds. He squared the circle by appointing a cipher to succeed him, all the while retaining an iron grip on the true sources of power in Russia (even though these are formally in the remit of the president).
Third, Russia felt itself to be flying high in 2007-2008. Oil prices were soaring. Growth was robust. The US was reeling from its engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were no readily apparent threats to stability. A relaxation of the system of unitary control seemed safe.
But everything changed almost exactly 3 years ago, mere months after Medvedev’s election, with the financial crisis in the West. Although Putin at first boldly stated that Russia would weather the storm with no difficulty, that turned out to be a wildly inaccurate prediction. The crisis hit Russia harder than any major country, and shook the country’s economic and political system to the core. The seemingly inexorable rise of the country proved chimerical: collapse and chaos were serious possibilities.
Although Russia and Putinism survived the crisis, the country–and Putin–were shaken by the experience. Listen to Putin’s rants against the West generally, and America in particular. They reveal a control freak who rages against the fact that there are existential things outside of his control.
The country emerged from the crisis–the first crisis–shaken and weakened. The crisis undermined the flow of rents that keep the natural state together. Although growth has returned, it is not nearly as strong as in 2006-2007, and is unlikely to reach those levels any time soon.
Thus, whereas Putin probably calculated that circumstances were so favorable in 2007 that the country’s political and economic system could withstand a division of the power vertical, his calculations are doubtless far different now. A near death experience has a way of concentrating the mind. The heady visions of 2007 have proved illusory.
And importantly, another crisis looms, a crisis could actually be more shattering than the last.
In brief, it is likely that Putin believes that his system can no longer operate safely with the ambiguities and slippages and potential for conflict and division inherent in a duumvirate. Hence Medvedev’s public humiliation and Putin’s triumphant return.
A final note on the implications of this for the US. It is clear that this development puts paid to Obama’s sucker bet–the “Reset.” The administration foolishly thought it could play divide and conquer, and quite transparently courted Medvedev and treated Putin with disdain. Indeed, it is hard to express just how self-evidently foolish this was, and harder still to explain how the administration could have possibly thought this would work.
The administration will soon find out that payback is truly a bitch, and that Putin is all about payback. It is in his DNA. Expect Russia to become even more truculent, obstructionist, and revanchist in the months to come. Putin and Obama–and whoever succeeds Obama, either in 2013 or 2017, for Putin will be around that long, health permitting–will not be burger buddies. But I hear Dmitri has time on his schedule. (Would that they share their burger in retirement, reminiscing about the old days when they were somebody. In 2013.)
What happens in the coming months is highly contingent on what happens in Europe. The EU is teetering on an economic precipice, and I cannot conceive of a plausible scenario which does not involve it plunging over the edge. In that (likely, IMO) event, the consequences will be shattering worldwide, but especially so in Russia. The last crisis showed its vulnerability, and a bigger crisis closer to home will subject the system to a daunting test.
The real possibility of such a crisis is exactly why I believe Putin is returning. Putnism is under threat, and Putin has concluded that it can survive only in its pure, unadulterated form.