There was an election in Russia in 2018, and the big question was if President Vladimir Putin would rule for a fourth consecutive term. It is a serious question with geopolitical and economic implications. Putin, of course, did win, which means he will have had control of one of the world's most influential countries for 25 years. This is one more year longer than Joseph Stalin's rule over the USSR; 24 years spans six presidential terms in the United States.

It is difficult to imagine a Russia without Vladimir Putin at the helm, especially given his track record of concentrating and assuming power. Even if Putin officially loses the title of president of Russia, the political infrastructure appears to be solidly within his control.

Key Takeaways

  • Vladimir Putin has been Russia's state head for more than two-and-a-half decades, making him the longest term since Stalin.
  • Putin, a former KGB officer, rose to power through a series of strategic power grabs and alliances.
  • Despite winning back-to-back elections, outsiders have critiqued the validity of the elections as being theater where Putin's power was never in doubt.

Putin's Power Grabs

Putin's reign has been one of economic progress, and then recession, social unrest, military action and, perhaps more than anything else, calculated political power grabs. Russia, a once-proud nation, was in tatters by the time ex-KGB premier Vladimir Putin assumed office in 2000. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, Putin was elected to four-year terms despite widespread allegations of vote rigging.

The Russian constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, barred Putin from running for a third term. During his last days as president, Putin and his coterie realigned the regional powers to make Russian governors more beholden to the prime minister than the president. On May 8, 2008, Putin was appointed prime minister of Russia, which was the preeminent position of power in Russia as of November 2015.

While the two presidential terms for Putin were characterized by robust economic growth and rising standards of living, the Great Recession hit Russia very hard. The second premiership of Putin, from 2008 to 2012, was notably more volatile, with rising unemployment and high inflation. In 2008, Russia invaded neighboring Georgia.

In September 2011, then-standing President Dmitry Medvedev proposed making Putin the president again. Putin accepted the offer and was elected for a now-legal third presidential term in 2012, despite heavy protests. Moreover, laws were amended to extend the presidential term from four to six years. Putin has publicly stated he will not remain president for life, claiming he will step down as required by the Russian constitution, a pledge he has broken before.

Putin's Political Dominance: Do the Elections Matter?

The political composition of Russia is more European than American, meaning there are many parties and a more fractured electorate. This ideological diversity has not led to diversity in political office; Putin's United Russia party won all 21 Russian gubernatorial races and 11 regional legislative elections in September 2015.

Earlier in the year, one of Putin's chief political opponents, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated near the Kremlin. Nemtsov was a popular figure among anti-Putin Russians, with aspirations for higher office, and was instrumental in bringing capitalistic elements to the Russian economy. It brings up an important question: do the elections in Russia even matter? Putin's domination over the political scene, wrought from a decade and a half of control, is difficult for Americans to understand.

A Post-Putin Russia

Putin appears to be a popular figure in Russia. Opinion polls in 2015 placed his approval above 80%, although the polls were taken over the phone and many Russian analysts acknowledge that Russian citizens are very reluctant to express anti-Putin sentiment openly. When Putin ran in 2018, there was little reason to imagine he would not win, and now he is set to end his fourth presidential term at the age of 72. Eventually, another politician not named "Putin" will be in charge of the Russian government.

Some speculators suggest only a radically anti-Putin and pro-Western politician would win a national election, so it is possible there are more amendments coming to the Russian constitution to allow for a Putin lieutenant to assume control.