Putin's Power Puzzle: Russia's President Loses a Cabinet and Gains an Exit Strategy

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Russian president Vladimir Putin dropped a bombshell on Wednesday during his 2020 state of the union address to legislators. He announced a raft of constitutional amendments that, if enacted, would transform the Russian political system. In response, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev offered the resignation of the country’s entire Cabinet so that Putin could form a new government to oversee the changes. Putin did not invite the outgoing premier to head the new government. Instead, he nominated the head of Russia’s tax service, Mikhail Mishustin, to be the next prime minister.

Putin had apparently given no warning to Russia’s political elite that he would make these proposals, and the aftershocks of his announcements—and Medvedev’s resignation—are only beginning to be felt. One thing is clear: after months of speculation about who would drive the succession question—when Putin is constitutionally mandated to step down from the presidency in 2024—Putin has regained the initiative. Moreover, given that these reforms are expected to be put to a popular vote, he now has a Napoleonic-style referendum with which to mobilize the population and seek the public imprimatur of a new mandate for reshaping Russian politics for the 2020s.

Medvedev is not being cast aside. Instead, he will assume a new position as the deputy head of the Security Council, a position that is being described in some circles as a de facto vice president. How other ministers will fare is unclear at this point. Putin has the opportunity to accelerate his project of generational change within Russia’s political establishment by bringing in new faces and testing new cadres. Medvedev and his team can also serve as political scapegoats for the lackluster recovery of the Russian economy in the past few years (a reason for Putin’s parting comment to Medvedev that “not everything works out” with the economic recovery). Finally, with signs that major European powers, starting with Germany, are poised for a reset with Russia, a new and “fresh” government—with a new prime minister—helps to create the impression that the unpleasantness of the 2010s can be put behind both sides.

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