Putin and Xi … two presidents for life?
Russia’s far east has started early voting in a July 1 referendum that could extend Vladimir Putin’s term in the Kremlin. While the ballot is being seen primarily through the lens of Russian domestic politics, it could have profound implications for foreign policy too.
Putin is widely criticized in the West but he is popular in much of Russia. Next month’s vote could therefore clear the way for him to stay in power until 2036 — much longer than other major world leaders, with the possible exception of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is becoming Putin’s closest international ally.
This presumes, of course, that Putin wins the referendum, remains healthy enough to stay in office into his 80s, and that his popularity endures; the last is far from a foregone conclusion, especially if his political luck finally goes south fueled by foreign policy misadventures or domestic economic travails.
The Russian constitution prohibits anyone being elected more than twice consecutively, so Putin is currently required to step down in 2024. Already his period in office has been extraordinary; prime minister or president since 1999, longer than all the Soviet leaders except Stalin.
That Putin could remain in power well into the 2030s underlines his remarkable grip on power over 20 years after succeeding Boris Yeltsin. He has proved skilled in tapping into the post-Cold War national mood by forging a new sense of patriotism fueled, during much of the period, by a growing economy.
This theme of national unity, and seeking global respect, is central to Putin’s continued appeal and it is no coincidence that he has engineered the referendum soon after the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Much of his mission since assuming power has been trying to restore Russia’s geopolitical prominence and prestige through gambits such as the annexation of Crimea and the Syria intervention.
With Moscow’s ties with Washington and the wider West so frosty, if Putin’s presidency extends beyond 2024 he may well opt for an even closer relationship with Beijing, especially given his rapport with Xi.
While this has generally played well domestically, it has resulted in frostier relations with the West, and a key question remains how the relationship, specifically with the United States, will fare in coming years. Much may depend on the outcome of November’s US presidential election.
Putin and Trump had hoped for a warming in relations, but events during the first three years of Trump’s presidency diminished the window of opportunity for this to happen. It is not only that the Trump team had been under pressure over the congressional and FBI investigations into alleged collusion with Moscow during the 2016 US presidential campaign, but also new US sanctions made relations trickier. Moreover, there have been significant US-Russia foreign policy tensions, including the Middle East.
There was a spike in tensions after US missile strikes on Syria in 2017 after a poison gas attack by the Assadregime. US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were forceful in their criticism of Moscow at the time, with the latter saying Russia had been either complicit in the gas attack, or simply incompetent; Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the two countries were “one step away from war.”
With Moscow’s relationship with the West so chilly, Putin has increasingly asserted Russian power in areas from Asia-Pacific to Africa and the Americas. He has met frequently with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to foster joint economic activities in the disputed islands off Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido.
However, it is Xi with whom the Russian president has formed his strongest international relationship; it is not just growing warmth driving relations, but also the frigidness of both their ties with the US.
This underlines why the implications of the referendum go well beyond the Russian domestic political landscape. With Moscow’s ties with Washington and the wider West so frosty, if Putin’s presidency extends beyond 2024 he may well opt for an even closer relationship with Beijing, especially given his rapport with Xi.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics