Vladimir Putin’s January 15th State of the Nation address signaled a bevy of impending changes for the Russian government, with the President proposing a variety of consequential reforms. Putin’s suggested reforms centered on increasing the power of the Russian Parliament, or Duma, at the expense of the executive— primarily, Putin proposed granting the Duma the power to select candidates for the cabinet, including the prime minister. Additionally, Putin proposed limiting future presidents to two total terms (currently, the only limit is two consecutive terms; Putin has served two consecutive terms twice, with a brief intermediary period as prime minister). Putin proposed enacting his changes through a national public referendum, with Russian officials saying they were ready to begin preparing for the vote as soon as Putin officially submitted his proposals.
In tandem with his speech, Putin accepted the resignation of his entire cabinet, including longtime ally and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. This mass resignation allows Putin to pick an entirely new set of ministers, including, crucially, a new prime minister. Medvedev had served as prime minister since 2012, and before that served as president from 2008 to 2012, while Putin was prime minister (a role which he was appointed to by Medvedev).
Hamstrung by a term limit which forces him to step down as president in 2024, Putin is likely aiming to restructure and reshuffle the government in a way which can maximize his power from an auxiliary position going forward. While it is generally assumed that Putin will maintain a powerful position in Russian political affairs after he steps down, it is unclear what exact title he will hold (potential inspirations for Putin include Deng Xiaoping, who served as head of China’s State Council, or Nursultan Nazarbayev, who served as the leader of Kazakstan’s security council after resigning from office). Crucially, by limiting the power of the executive branch, Putin can decentralize authority and limit the importance of Russia’s next head of government, preventing anybody in the Russian political world from usurping him. Additionally, Putin’s selection of a new prime minister will likely serve as an implicit endorsement of his preferred candidate for presidency in 2024.
Going forward, Putin may actually benefit from being forced out of office. While he will naturally retain a great deal of power, no longer serving as president will shield him from public accountability over some of the domestic struggles Russia has faced under his leadership. Although Putin projects a strong image abroad, he has struggled with many internal issues. The Russian economy has stagnated over the past decade, with real incomes falling for the past five years. That, coupled with pension reforms and frustration with high-level corruption, has hurt Putin’s party, United Russia, with their approval rating dropping as low as 35% last year. By stepping down in 2024, Putin can position another Russian politician as a figurehead whom the people can air their grievances towards, while simultaneously maintaining a great deal of control over Russian affairs.
Ultimately, Russia’s political future remains murky, with no public understanding of how things will shake out going forward. However, Putin’s latest announcements indicate his focus on the long-term, and it is almost certain that he possesses a vision for both Russia’s future and his role within that.