After a year in which the news cycle brought a constant series of shocks and outrages, perhaps the least surprising development of 2017 was the announcement, on December 14, that Vladimir Putin would be running for the Russian presidency once again in March 2018. Since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012, there has been little doubt that Putin would seek another six-year term in office. There can be little doubt, too, that he will win. So far, the other contenders include some of the usual suspects—the social-liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky, the nationalist provocateur Vladimir Zhirinovsky—as well as a few novelties: TV personality Ksenia Sobchak is standing for the liberal Civic Initiative party; Boris Titov, the Putin government’s commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights, is running for the neoliberal Party of Growth; and the Communist Party has this time decided to put up Pavel Grudinin, an agronomist and manager of a successful produce farm near Moscow, instead of its perennial losing candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.
All lag far behind Putin in terms of popular support, while the anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny—the Putin opponent who has received the most media exposure outside Russia—was officially excluded from the race on December 25 by the country’s electoral commission. Navalny has called for a boycott of the March vote, and for street protests in the meantime—perhaps hoping for a rerun of the demonstrations that accompanied Putin’s return to power in 2012. But even if they materialize on the same scale as before, they are unlikely to have much impact on the course of the election itself.
Barring an outlandish turn of events, then, Putin will stroll to victory, extending his hold on the Kremlin to 2024. What does this prolongation of his power mean, both for Russia itself and for its relations with the West, which have reached new lows amid accusations of election hacking in the United States and collusion with the Trump presidential campaign? Putin has already been at the helm for 18 years, matching Brezhnev’s tenure as Soviet leader. If he makes it to the end of a fourth term, Putin will have ruled his country for almost a quarter-century. This lengthy dominance in itself partly explains the overwhelming tendency to identify Putin with post-Soviet Russia as a whole: The fortunes of the country have become fused, especially in Western media coverage, with his character and personality.
But what is the nature of the political system over which Putin has presided for so long, and how much does it actually owe to his personal whims and preferences? Much Western commentary on Russia is wedded to the idea that there is a fundamental difference between the way the country was run in the 1990s and how it was run in the 2000s—the idea being that a period of chaotic freedoms was followed by a closing of horizons, the dynamism of free markets stifled by the return of the state’s heavy hand. According to this line of thinking, Putin has overseen a strange combination of regressions, sliding back into the authoritarian habits of the Soviet era while at the same time reviving the autocratic practices of czarist times. (Hence, for example, Putin is either The New Tsar, the title of Steven Lee Myers’s 2015 book, or a sinister KGB agent, as he is characterized in Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, the 2013 study by National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill and her co-author, Clifford Gaddy.) But what is today referred to in Russia as the “Putin system” is neither neo-Soviet nor retro-imperial; rather, it is something more distinctively post-Soviet that took shape in the early 1990s, and was then consolidated and continued by Putin himself after 2000.