Russian President Vladimir Putin has always embraced the idea that he rules Russia not with an iron fist but with a light touch and that he is the unchallenged leader of his country because the public puts its trust in him. Now, by declaring his intention to stay in power almost indefinitely, Putin has broken that unwritten pact with the Russian public. But it is hard to know exactly what is driving Putin. After all, it has been nearly six months since the launch of a constitutional reform process that even Kremlin loyalists had interpreted as the start of a search for a successor in 2024—and that turned out to be a giant facade.
Putin’s flamboyant change of heart created unexpected tensions with Russia’s political class. For the upper echelons of the Russian elite, the “2024 problem” was never about Putin. It was about holding on to power themselves. Before Putin’s hasty decision to amend the constitution, these elite groups were busily anticipating a world in which they could maintain their collective power without Putin occupying the post of president.
Of course, Putin’s perspective counted far more than theirs. As far as the president was concerned, Putin’s Russia was synonymous with Putin the individual: there is no one else who can drive the machine. So, he rejected the complicated constitutional maneuvers suggested by his advisers for 2024 and chose the simplest and crudest solution—to stay on as president.
Why did Putin reverse the decision he apparently made in January? To answer this, observers must examine the president’s views on Russia’s twentieth-century history and the legacy he inherited from his two predecessors, former presidents Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Putin is seeking to avoid the mistakes of perestroika, or the Soviet Union’s political, economic, and social restructuring of the late 1980s into the early 1990s. He is afraid of ushering in a perestroika 2.0.