Vladimir Putin Is Not Reforming the State. He's Taking Power for Himself.

Putin has every intention of staying in charge.


Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his entire cabinet resigned last week in the wake of what The New York Times' Andrew Higgins calls "sweeping constitutional changes." This is the first major alteration of Russia's constitution since the 1990s, and it would effectively secure President Vladimir Putin's control of the state.

At a glance, it's clear that Putin's intention is to stay in power after 2024, the year he's constitutionally required to step down after two consecutive terms. But his changes also indicate a methodical plan to conserve power in the executive branch, which sets a dangerous international precedent.

In his address to the Federal Assembly, Russia's national legislature, Putin proposed to move some key powers from the executive branch to the Duma, Russia's parliament, and the State Council, an advisory body that handles issues deemed of the highest importance to the state. The most significant constitutional changes would allow the Duma to appoint members to the prime minister's cabinet and allow the State Council to oversee the appointment of the heads of Russia's security agencies.

In addition to giving the State Council constitutional status, Putin also intends to limit the supremacy of international law.  The amendments would ban foreign citizenship and foreign residency permits for judicial and legislative officials and require presidential candidates to have had permanent residence in Russia for at least 25 years.

"Is this a coup? Absolutely," says Elena Lukyanova, law professor at Russia's Higher School of Economics. She adds that the amendments would allow the Russian government to refuse to fulfill its obligations under international treaties.

But why has Putin taken a more subtle approach to maintaining his autocracy as opposed to simply removing term limits from Russia's constitution? Maria Snegovaya, post-doctoral fellow at John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, compares Putin's transfer of power to that of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan's president, in 2019. Nazarbayev had distributed some elements of presidential authority to the Kazakh Senate and Security Council. Nazarbayev then put his daughter in charge of one body and himself in charge of the other.

"Putin's goal is to avoid concentrating too much power under a singular institution outside of his control, lest it diminish his authority or even threaten his rule," Snegovaya writes.

Peter Dickinson, editor of Atlantic Council's Ukraine Alert, notes that Putin's constitutional proposals clearly indicate his intentions to retain control while also creating an illusion of change:

Putin's last constitutional conjuring trick, which saw him return to the presidency in 2012 after a farcical four-year handover to Dmitry Medvedev, sparked mass protests in Moscow that left the regime rattled. With his approval rating currently in the doldrums, Putin knows he must tread carefully as he seeks to extend his reign beyond 2024. Much will now depend on the public reaction to Putin's plans. Large-scale protests are unlikely but cannot be ruled out as Russians face up to the reality of a stagnating economy and the prospect of Putin in power for another generation.

Putin's actions should alarm the international community. They pose a grave threat to the rule of law.

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  1. That’s why we need a Democratic President who will stand up to Putin.


    1. Putin would piss on any Democrat candidate

      1. So would I; what’s the point?

    2. Well, so far not one of them has stood up to Putin and the current crop of contenders are even less likely to stand up to him. We saw how Obama treated Putin when Russia took Crimea and supported the Ukrainian rebels in the eastern Ukraine and even when Russian army shot that airliner over Ukraine. Not a word against what Putin was doing! Obama even sent word to Putin that after his reelection he would be in a better positions to help him then.

  2. Something’s not clear here. He wants to distribute power away from the Presidency to the Duma and to a newish council; that sounds like a mild decentralization to me.

    He wants to ban dual citizenship for legislators, and keep foreigners out of the Duma and council. What is so unusual about that?

    Well, it’s early for me, maybe it will sound different in a while. I don’t doubt that Putin likes power, as do all executives: Trump, Obama, Bush, Clinton, …..

    1. As I understand he’s moving power from the position of the presidency (that he currently holds) to the Duma, where he expects to take a new position in following his term, similar to what happened the last time he term limited out. Only now his new position will have many of the powers previously held by the presidency

    2. “Something’s not clear here. He wants to distribute power away from the Presidency to the Duma and to a newish council; that sounds like a mild decentralization to me.”

      Not even close, Putin announced that he will be the new prime minster which will give him complete power in the Duma.

    3. By having the Duma name the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Putin, as the head of the majority party in the Duma, would be named Prime Minister. He would then pack the Cabinet and State Council with his own people. These actions alone would diminish the President’s office, doubly so when Putin “reforms” that office as well before he leaves.

      1. Thank you for explaining the problem.

        Proving once again that all journalism at Reason occurs in the Comments Section. Reason is too busy with the pants shitting hysteria to actually make a point in the articles.

    4. Thanks all; I hadn’t noticed the job change. Should have expected a repeat performance. Still, in the long run, it might be a positive change, since it does reduce the solitary executive’s power, even if it increases a different executive’s power.

      I wonder who will replace Putin. Just as with Bismarck and Trump, what makes the current executive so remarkable makes it more likely that his replacement will be a mere incompetent shadow.

  3. So what? Let Russians worry about it….

    1. Putin wants to bring back the glory of the USSR, which involves expansion. So it’s more than just Russians who have to worry; it’s their neighbors.

      1. But libertarians don’t care what other countries do so let them take over everything outside the U.S.

      2. albo
        January.21.2020 at 11:55 am
        Putin wants to bring back the glory of the USSR, which involves expansion. So it’s more than just Russians who have to worry; it’s their neighbors.

        Ok, McCain.

  4. Is there anyone who is even mildly surprised at this news?

    Putin sees himself as the modern incarnation of Peter the Great. Of course he’s going to behave like an emperor.

    1. Why do you even care?

      1. You seem to be confusing me with the Reason editorial staff who greenlit this article.

        Putin gonna Putin. I suspect the real reason he gives Reason the vapors is because it makes Trump look more sinister for supposedly supporting him (which he does not, btw).

      2. Why do you even care?

        Shouldn’t the free world care about a historically aggressive country yielding power to a dictator-for-life?

  5. Putin will stay in power as long as the oliogarchs who are making bank thanks to him are satisfied.

    And the average Russian won’t care, because they love the idea of a big boss being in charge. They have been cattle of stronger men for so long, they don’t know what freedom is like, and fear to leave their pen.

    1. “They have been cattle of stronger men for so long, they don’t know what freedom is like, and fear to leave their pen.”

      Kinda like someone spouting neocon dogma…

    2. I studied Russian language years ago, and as an observer of Russian culture, I have always recognized that the people there have a natural proclivity to align behind a strong man.
      Unfortunately in recent years it looks like a large part of the US population also wants to line up behind a dictatorial strong man.

      1. It’s a human tendency that goes back to our primate ancestors. The enlightened desire not to be ruled by an authoritarian strongman is pretty rare in the world today, even among large parts of the U.S.

  6. Is anyone, anywhere suggesting that Putin is reforming the state? Or that he doesn’t already have all the power there is to have in Russia?

  7. Putin, like most dictators, has squirreled away money in foreign accounts. Some think Putin has $5 billion abroad. What do dictators do with their money, other than buy more power? Is Vlad going to retire at 65 to Gstaad and Barbadoes and run with the Eurotrash or what? It seems to me the best way to become “Peter the Great” would be to use his power and money to better the lives of the masses.

  8. I’m confused by some of the rhetoric in this article.

    1. Even assuming that this is an attempted coup, how does it set an international precedent?

    2. Proposing to move powers from the Executive branch to the Legislative would seem to directly contradict the claim that this is an attempt to consolidate power in the Executive.

    3. I’m not sure whether Russia’s State Council counts as an Executive or Legislative agency but moving more powers there would also seem to contradict the claim that it empowers the Executive.

    4. Limiting the supremacy of international law doesn’t appear to affect the balance of power either way. Given the topic of the article, why is that even mentioned?

    Alleging that this is all some kind of complex plot seems … contrived. I can’t say it’s wrong but it reads more like a conspiracy theory than a coherent objection to the reforms.

    1. As was explained to me (see above), this is a Parliament with a Prime Minister, not a Congress like ours, independent of the executive; and Putin plans to switch jobs again once he is termed out. He is switching power from his current job to his new job.

      1. That would seem to be an important detail to have included in the article.

        Even so, I question whether this is a credible argument. Putin is vastly more powerful than the Prime Minister today. Even with these changes, I don’t see the Prime Minister becoming the more powerful job.

        1. Its not about the job, its about the man in the job. Putin, who is more powerful than the Prime Minister, is “reforming” the position so that when he becomes Prime Minister the current power he has as President will transfer over to that position.

          Putin will be in position to pack the Cabinet and State Council with his own people, cementing his hold on power and maintaining what he currently has as President.

          The bonus is the Prime Minister position has no term limits and would functionally make Putin Prime Minister for Life.

  9. How does this “pose a threat to the rule of law”? They aren’t proposing to ignore laws, they are proposing to change them and follow the new laws, right? Seems to me that changing a law says nothing about whether or not you follow the “rule of law”.

  10. As long as he leaves Pompeo and Barr where they are

  11. Putin already had taken all the power in Russia, now he is just codifying his power into Russian law.

  12. Interesting article from 1/18 in lewrockwell from Thomas Luongo “Putin’s Now Purged the West from the Kremlin”. A 360 degree opposite analysis of the situation, from a solid writer.

    Apparently Reason is now sponsoring content from the neo-con faction that controls the Democrat and Republican parties. What gives?

    1. Globalists gonna Globalist.

      #InvasionUSA means Reason is in bed with the #NeoClowns.

  13. I have had a bad feeling about Putin when he invaded Georgia and that feeling got worse after what he did in Crimea. When Putin arranged to become the president of Russia I knew that Russia would be bad and dangerous.

  14. When it comes to violating international law, I think the USA needs to pay attention to its own glass house. Sure Russia is corrupt. But no more or less than this cesspool of a bogus democratic republic..

  15. “…it’s clear that Putin’s intention is to stay in power after 2024, the year he’s constitutionally required to step down after two consecutive terms.”

    False. Putin intends to leave in 2024 when he will be 72. The steps he is taking are to ensure that the West does not do another color revolution and install a puppet/idiot (e.g. Yeltsin) in his stead.

    Supporters of US foreign policy do not have the moral rectitude to judge Putin, Kim, Assad, Saddam, MbS, Charles Manson, nor anyone else. You cannot kill or cause the deaths of millions across the MENA and then be a judge. The most criminal people on the planet can be found on Capitol Hill.

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