Auburn political science lecturer comments on recent political shake-up in Russia

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In light of the recent political shake-up in Russia, Auburn University’s Matt Clary, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, College of Liberal Arts, comments below about what this all means for the future of that country and ongoing relations between the U.S. and Russia. Clary teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in international relations and comparative politics, specializing in courses on national and international security and foreign policy.

What are the implications of the political shake-up that’s occurring in Russia?

The main implication of the recent mass resignation of the Russian government, including the sitting Prime Minister and cabinet officials, will be the further consolidation of President Putin’s power and influence within the Russian government. At the current moment, President Putin’s presidential term in office ends in 2024 and per the Russian Constitution, cannot be extended. This, however, does not mean that Putin cannot maintain his position of power and authority through other positions. In the 2000s, when then President Putin approached his term limit, he switched positions with Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and became the Prime Minister himself, a completely legal means of remaining in power. From this position, Putin was able to still control the Russian government and after a four-year term, Putin was legally able to run for the office of president once again. This scenario is likely similar in that Putin wants to find a way to remain in a position of authority without violating Russian law and without drawing the ire of the Russian people that are still influential in terms of Russian electoral politics. 

Many point to this move as a power play by Vladimir Putin. What motives do you see behind this dramatic step?
The primary motive for Putin is that he wants to make sure that his legacy of rebuilding Russia’s power and prestige from the early Post-Soviet era is solidified. He seems to believe that he is the only person capable of getting Russia back to a position of global power and prestige and that anyone else would likely damage this legacy and fail in the ways that Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor as president, had in the 1990s when Russia was undergoing significant political and economic reforms that produced a great deal of instability and chaos internally. Thus, Putin is likely arranging things through legal, but very strategic channels, to place himself in a long-term position of authority, such as switching positions again with the recently appointed and confirmed Prime Minster, Mikhail Mishustin, who took over for the unpopular Medvedev after his abrupt resignation and is seen as no more than a placeholder by most analysts. Alternatively, Putin could move to other positions of power such as being made the head of the powerful State Council or of the State Duma, the Russian equivalent of the House of Representatives. Regardless of the exact path that Putin takes, it is clear that he plans to remain in control of Russian politics, particularly Russian foreign policy and military relations, and that he will do so from whichever formal or informal leadership role he ends up taking in 2024. 

How might this move by Putin affect relations between the U.S. and Russia?
For the most part, relations between the U.S. and Russia will remain tense. With Putin remaining in a position of authority in power as President until 2024 and in some other capacity afterwards, Russian foreign policy is unlikely to significantly shift from the more aggressive and nationalistic approach under Putin. This means that we should not expect to see Russian policy regarding its occupation and control of Crimea change anytime soon, nor Russian intervention into Middle Eastern politics in places such as Syria or Iran to cease. In reality, we should expect to see Russian actions to continue on the same course they have been the past two decades, with tensions continuing to mount over existing issues (i.e. nuclear weapons, cyberwarfare, Ukraine, the Caucuses, Turkey, Syria) and likely increasing in others such as over access and control of the Arctic and the resources believed to exist there, in outer-space as the U.S. and other nations begin to increase their activities there in the next decade, among others. If Putin has his way, which he likely will, do not expect much to change in U.S.-Russian relations anytime soon.

What is next in the process?
Following the mass resignation of government officials, we should expect to see, and in some cases are already seeing new appointments to these positions. For Putin, this overhaul of the Russian executive branch is a way for him to clean house and remove unpopular figures such as Medvedev and to begin the process of reorganizing things for his eventual switch from president to whichever long-term position of influence he ultimately undertakes. Additionally, as we begin to approach 2024, we should expect to see Putin begin to weaken the role of the Russian president, which he has already begun to do. The logic of doing so is to make it impossible for whomever succeeds him as president to use the office to immediately undo his legacy and/or to challenge his control over the system post-2024. Many of these changes will be done via legislation from legislators friendly to Putin, but one interesting possibility that Putin has hinted at is the possibility for some or all of these changes to be put to a vote of the Russian people via national referendum. To do so would help lend some legitimacy to these significant changes, but it could risk the plan failing if the voters ultimately do not back Putin’s preferred path, which is likely why whatever option is put forth to the people to vote on will be limited in scope and done in a way that should it fail, it wouldn’t scuttle Putin’s long-term plans.

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