About three hours after President Vladimir Putin proposed several eyebrow-raising changes to the Russian Constitution — changes that could open the door for his staying in power beyond the end of his current term in 2024 — there was even more substantive change to the Russian political world.
The government resigned.
Russian experts and Kremlinologists were already scrambling to interpret Putin’s earlier remarks, which came during his annual state-of-the-nation address presented to the Russian parliament and most of the country’s political elite.
And then Medvedev, and Putin, rewrote the headlines for the day, as they jointly announced that the government headed by Medvedev was resigning, effectively immediately.
“Not everything worked out, but nothing ever works out,” Putin said in a televised broadcast, seated alongside his longtime protege whose working relationship with Putin dates back decades.
Like with most things related to Kremlin politics, it’s complicated. And as usual, it’s also not entirely clear what’s really going on.
With apologies to Donald Rumsfeld (the former U.S. defense secretary who was not a Kremlinologist), here are the known knowns, and known unknowns, about today’s bombshell announcement.
For months, there’s been growing scrutiny of comments by Kremlin allies for clues about Putin’s intentions after 2024. That’s when his current, six-year term expires, and under the constitution, he must step down.
But several top Russian officials who have been seen as proxies for Kremlin thinking have been discussing possible changes to the constitution in the past year. That includes the chief judge of the Constitutional Court, the head of the lower house of parliament, and a close Putin confidant of many years.
And Putin himself made a semicryptic statement during last month’s annual news conference, in which he suggested that the constitution should be tweaked.
So the fact that, during a nationally televised speech, Putin offered up a more concrete outline of how the document might be changed — and how he might end up staying in power beyond 2024 — was not wholly surprising.
But that it would involve the resignation of Medvedev and his government did catch people off guard.
Initial reactions from experts in and out of Russia linked the resignation of the government directly to Putin’s speech. And the speed with which it was announced — three hours after the speech concluded — suggests that the Kremlin has an expedited plan in mind for reorganizing the government.
Where amending the constitution is concerned, there’s growing urgency because currently there’s no one in Russia who has the clout and stature to step into Putin’s shoes. And that uncertainty is making Russia’s political elite nervous.
And then there’s next year’s elections for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which is currently controlled by the deeply unpopular United Russia party. If the opposition gains seats in the September 2021 elections, or United Russia performs poorly, that will reflect badly on Putin, and make changing the constitution more difficult.
The uncertainty is also, for now, making some financial markets nervous. The ruble fell sharply against the dollar after the announcement of the government’s resignation.
So Where Is Medvedev Going?
A lawyer by training, Medvedev has been one of Putin’s closest allies since they worked together in the St. Petersburg city government in the 1990s. He had served as chairman of the natural gas giant Gazprom in the early 2000s, then presidential chief of staff, then first deputy prime minister until 2007, when Putin announced that he saw Medvedev as his preferred candidate to succeed him as president.
Elected to one four-year term as president, Medvedev appointed Putin prime minister. And then the two switched in 2012, as Putin returned to the presidency and Medvedev became Putin’s prime minister.
In announcing the government resignation, Putin said that Medvedev would move over to the National Security Council, to become deputy chairman.
It’s unclear whether this constitutes a promotion or demotion. For starters, it’s a brand-new position that didn’t exist before.
The council itself is a powerful consultative body, whose membership includes the chief of the country’s most powerful security agencies: the Federal Security Service; the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Foreign, Defense, and Internal Affairs ministries; and the head of the National Guard.
The nominal head of the council is Nikolai Patrushev, a former director of the Federal Security Service, like Putin.
But as head of state, Putin is effectively the council’s chairman, and Medvedev’s title — deputy chairman — suggests he will nominally report to Putin, not Patrushev. Or at the very least, Medvedev will have a powerful protector on the council: Putin.
Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy radio and a veteran watcher of Kremlin politics, said it might be a promotion since it means Medvedev would be freed from the nitty-gritty minutiae of running a government. It also frees him from the fallout of unpopular, or unsuccessful, policy decisions — for example, if the Russian economy sputters.
And Medvedev is far from being a popular leader. Putin remains by far the most popular leader.
Has Anything Like This Happened Before?
The political whipsaw that hit Moscow was unusual given the relative stability that Putin has overseen in his tenure, both as president and prime minister. Medvedev’s own eight straight years as prime minister marked a record for post-Soviet Russia.
But the bombshell wasn’t entirely unheard of.
In the 1990s, Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, changed prime ministers frequently to the point that it became a joke.
Putin sought to move away from that, to promote stability in the country after a decade of political and economic upheaval.
He himself rose to prominence unexpectedly: He was first tapped by Yeltsin to be prime minister in August 1999, and then catapulted to the presidency on New Year’s Eve 1999 when Yeltsin made a surprise announcement that he was stepping down.
After winning the presidency outright in March 2000, Putin then went on to have three prime ministers during the next eight years.
His first was Mikhail Kasyanov, who ran the Finance Ministry under Yeltsin.
Kasyanov’s government was sacked by Putin during a TV address in February 2004, just two weeks before Putin’s reelection bid.
He was replaced by the then-head of the Federal Tax Police, Mikhail Fradkov.
A relatively unknown figure, Fradkov stepped down in September 2007 after more than three years, citing “approaching significant political events.” That appeared to be a reference to the upcoming Duma and presidential elections that were held in December 2007 and March 2008, respectively.
Viktor Zubkov — then the relatively unknown head of the Financial Monitoring Service — replaced Fradkov as prime minister. He served as a caretaker until Medvedev, who won the presidential election, formed a new government with Putin as prime minister in May 2008.
With his announcement of Medvedev’s replacement, Putin’s penchant for tapping relatively unknown figures to hold prominent government posts continued.
He tapped another head of the Federal Tax Service — Mikhail Mishustin — to be the next prime minister.
Effectively a career bureaucrat, Mishustin has largely remained out of the spotlight until today. But he has drawn plaudits for carrying out significant technology upgrades and improving management of the tax service since taking its helm in 2010.
How Exactly Does This All Tie Into Putin’s Future?
A growing number of analysts said Putin’s remarks in the speech appeared to hint strongly at a post-Putin presidency — along with a successor president who may end up with substantively weaker political powers.
“The powers that Putin has amassed will not be passed on intact, either. Instead, they will be shared out,” Aleksandr Baunov, a former journalist and policy expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a post to Twitter.
“The president will be weaker and it is beyond doubt now (despite earlier speculation that he would somehow stay on) that the president will no longer be Putin,” he said.
Tatyana Stanovaya, a longtime analyst of Kremlin politics and founder of the political consulting firm R.Politik, said the transition period — to a post-Putin government — was happening ahead of schedule.
“It looks very much like Putin is preparing to leave the presidency (whether that will take place in 2024 or even earlier), and is currently trying to create a safety mechanism for his successor in case of conflict,” she wrote in a post to Facebook. “At the same time, he is getting rid of Medvedev, who has become toxic for the elite and the population at large — this should make the transition period smoother.”
She said it appeared Putin might be angling to move into the position of head of the State Council after he leaves the presidency. Largely obscure and considered to have little real political clout, the council could get enhanced powers under the tentative constitutional changes that would make it become an influential forum for decision-making.
If Putin were to become head of the council, with enhanced political powers, that would effectively mean he would retain his own political power — without running afoul of existing legal and constitutional limitations.
We’ve seen this before in the former Soviet Union — in Kazakhstan, with longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbaev.
“There is no doubt that…Putin will use these additional advantages for the next prime minister,” Dmitry Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political expert, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, “so that the next president, no matter what his last name is — Medvedev, Volkov, Zaitsev, Lisitsyn, or simply Zverev — all the same this next president will be soft, plush, and tightly swaddled in Putin’s hands.”