MOSCOW—During his annual state of the nation address to the Russian parliament on Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said repeatedly that the Russian people expect changes, and the one announced less than three hours later—described on Kommersant FM radio as “Operation Successor”—seemed to throw a lot of cards up in the air.
The Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvev, and the whole cabinet resigned, leaving more than 140 million people wondering what political course their country is about to take, whether more liberal at last, or even more conservative. “Not everything was done,” Putin said after that announcement, praising the cabinet faintly, “but ‘everything’ never works out.”
The political elite is being careful with its comments since few know who will benefit from this major change. Predictions by Russian pundits about the next PM bounced from the most liberal to the most conservative candidates.
So, what does all this resigning really mean?
Former member of parliament Gennady Gudkov had one of the darkest predictions. “Now, officially they are taking a course toward unchangeable power, that would not respect any international laws: tomorrow we are going to wake up in a dictatorship, like Turkmenistan with a national leader who will be never replaced,” Gudkov said. “Putin will be playing the role of the PM and the head of state, he will assign judges.” All aspects of national government will be in Putin’s hands without checks or balances, and the country will ignore outside judgments. Major decisions by international courts are expected, including about the downing of the Malaysian airliner MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, but, “Russia will not obey the decisions,” said Gudkov.
One of the leading observers on radio Echo of Moscow, Olga Bychkova, believes that not only Russia’s wars but also Russia’s political system will be hybrid now, too.. “Putin could not exchange places with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for the second time in 2024, so now he is inventing a new scheme with some weak PM for this transition period; one thing is clear, there will be no liberalization.”
Before these surprise announcements in the middle of the afternoon, Putin had been telling the parliament and people of Russia about the country’s growing power—especially military power— on the international scene. And amid all the talk of a government shake-up it is not clear at all when or if he would ever give up a role as Commander in Chief.
Putin spoke about the “unpredictable” situation in the Middle East, where Russia’s ambitions and its presence grow by the day. He insisted that Russia is not threatening anybody, that its goal is to call on the five major nuclear weapons states to keep the peace: “It is necessary to demonstrate the will, wisdom, and courage,” Putin said about the situation in the region.
More than a little triumphalism could be heard in Putin’s tone as he addressed dozens of officials, including silver-haired bureaucrats, women, and Orthodox and Muslim religious leaders: “For the first time in the history of nuclear missiles, including the Soviet period, we are not trying to catch up. On the contrary, the world’s leading states aim to create the weapons that Russia already owns.”
Putin added that Russia had produced enough weapons “for decades to come.”
In his speech, Putin said he intended to change the State Constitution, altering the balance of power between the President and the Parliament, and to hold a public referendum on the subject. The result: rampant speculation that when his current presidential term ends, he may seek to retain power as the country’s prime minister, which he did after his first two terms as president. After that hiatus, he is now in his fourth term.
“I was listening to the president’s address today wondering who is going to solve all these problems,” parliamentary deputy Sergei Mironov told Kommersant, speculating that Aleksei Kudrin, a former minister of finance, could be one of the candidates for the PM’s post.
In any case, the Kremlin is not going to weaken its grip on the political arena or cut down on its defense programs.
At the NATO summit last month, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke about military challenges in the relationships with Moscow: “We strongly believe in dialogue with Russia. We believe in arms control. We must avoid a new arms race—that’s dangerous, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons.”
In other words, the threat of such a race seems near at hand.
Russia is aware that after the collapse of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force treaty a year ago, when the Trump administration pulled out, the world has been paying close attention to Russia’s ballistic missile programs—and Moscow is only too happy to show off its ambitious weapons. Every day the channel of the Russian Defense Ministry, Zvezda, broadcasts military tests of the newest weapons as well as videos of military training.
This week, Zvezda says, the Russian military is providing air defense for Syria, while hundreds of civilians leave Idlib in Aleppo province. The Kremlin portrays Russia as a victorious peacemaker in the Middle East, a source of stability—a role that would be welcomed by millions of Russians, if only it were true.
Over the last six years, Russia has been accused of committing war crimes and carrying out assassinations in Ukraine, Syria, the European Union, and Africa, even as the Kremlin is trying to promote Russia as a predictable, reliable ally, in contrast to the United States of Donald Trump.
Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers serve, some officially, some not, in post-Soviet countries. These include Tajikistan, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and in the Middle East and Africa. But the Kremlin does not reveal a true picture of the price Russia pays with human lives for the Kremlin’s ambitions.
Independent military analyst Alexander Golts cites the outcome of a battle in eastern Ukraine in September 2014 that reportedly killed up to 200 Russian soldiers: “When hundreds of dead are counted in the aftermath,” says Golts, “Putin immediately backs up.”
Russia has not been admitting its military presence in Ukraine, Libya, Sudan, and Central African Republic but its mercenaries, soldiers’ widows, and friends tell reporters about Wagner and other mercenaries fighting and dying abroad. That said, compared to U.S. losses in military adventures since 2002—with more than 4,200 American soldiers killed in Iraq—the cost to Russia of its interventions in Syria or Ukraine still can be counted in the hundreds.
To recruit more soldiers for the Middle East, the Defense Ministry shows propaganda films and invite veterans to talk about their success and earnings. “The recruitment is like hypnosis, I don’t remember how I signed the contract for Syria, I was not thinking straight,” Oleg, a 23-year-old event manager in Moscow told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. He was serving in Rostov on Don in 2018. Officers promised he would make more than 500,000 rubles, about $8,140. in four months without risking much. “The money sounded appealing, I guess; but my grandfather, a retired officer, made me break the contract; I am happy I did not go to Syria,” Oleg said.
Families of mercenary soldiers killed in Russia’s secret operations complain about unpaid compensations, but who can they sue and in what court? According to the latest social polls by Levada Center of sociological studies, 39 percent of Russian citizens say that the court system does not really deserve trust and 23 percent believe that the courts are not to be trusted at all. As a result, Russia is the world’s leading country when it comes to the number of applications to the European Court of Human Rights. But Putin decided to close the window. “The demands of international legislation and treaties, and also the decisions of international bodies can only apply to Russia’s territory when they do not entail restricting human rights and freedoms, and do not contradict our constitution,” he said, leaving it to his own government to interpret what “human rights and freedom” means.
Many of Putin’s supporters welcomed that thumb in the eye of international courts. “It is important that we won’t obey international laws, finally, “ Oscar-winning film director Nikita Mikhalkov said after Putin’s address.
Clearly, many Russians embrace Putin’s model for ruling the country: respect for the right of the strongest.
“Nobody knows how to make an authoritarian country with a huge nuclear arsenal obey international law, except to recognize its power,” Golts told The Daily Beast. And nobody knows that better than Vladimir Putin.