President for Life? Behind the Facade, Putin's Power Is Weaker Than You Might Think | Opinion

Recent coverage of Russian President Vladimir Putin portrays an almost omnipotent figure. With his recent constitutional reform package, he appears to have paved the way to stay in the presidency until 2036—and with increased formal powers. If Russia's current political system can be described as "super-presidential," it will soon become "mega-presidential" or even monarchical, with Putin as tsar.

And this transformation appears to have happened with remarkably little resistance. No parliamentarians in the Russian legislature's lower chamber—the State Duma—voted against Putin's reform bill in its final reading on 11 March. Senior officials have made dramatic u-turns in their commentary on the legality of allowing Putin to run again for the presidency. And the political opposition's response has been muted, including because of moves to neuter their initiatives to mobilise against the reforms.

But this image of complete control is misleading.

Alongside the question of how he might stay in power beyond 2024, Putin's broader reform project involves restructuring and re-staffing governance organizations in Russia. This shakeup is already evident regarding the Government, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the State Duma, the State Council, the Security Council, and the party system, including the "party of power," United Russia.

This project of organizational reform and personnel reshuffling also involves the Prosecutor General's Office. In Russia, this body has a powerful position, including as a link between officials in different law enforcement bodies, like the FSB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

From 2006 to 20 January 2020, the organization was headed by Yuri Chaika, the Prosecutor General who turned the organization into his own fiefdom. Personnel appointments under his leadership appear to have been based more on patronage networks and family ties than on anything else.

However, shortly after Putin's 15 January Address to the Federal Assembly—which kicked off the constitutional reform process—Chaika was unceremoniously forced out of office. The Kremlin clearly wanted him gone.

In his place was appointed Ivan Krasnov, a young and ambitious former deputy head of the Investigative Committee—a body widely seen as the main competitor to the Procuracy. The Committee's head, Aleksandr Bastrykin, has been in constant professional and personal conflict with Chaika ever since the body's formation in 2011. By appointing a figure from outside of the existing leadership of the General Prosecutor's Office, the Kremlin is attempting to balance power between law enforcement agencies.

But this is where the trouble starts.

Although Chaika has gone, the power structure he created beneath him remains, including fourteen deputy Prosecutors General. In spite of feverish rumors that Krasnov and the Kremlin have tried to purge Chaika's personnel pyramid, there have, so far, been no senior-level resignations—nearly two months since Chaika's departure.

One possibility is that Krasnov, who made his career as a good detective rather than an administrator, simply does not have his own team to bring over from the Investigative Committee. Another possibility is that there is active resistance from Chaika's team to leave. Yet another possibility is that, given the formal centralisation of power on Putin himself, the Kremlin simply does not have the capacity to deal with multiple issues at once. There are, in other words, distinct limits to manual control. All three possibilities demonstrate the difficulties faced by Putin in implementing change.

Even if these senior level officials soon move on, the fact that they remained for so long after Chaika's removal as Prosecutor General tells us about the limits to Putin's power.

In spite of the idea that Putin sits atop a "power vertical," with his every whim put into effect at lightning speed, there is much more inefficiency and resistance than at first meets the eye. Putin might promulgate decree after decree, but many instructions remain unfulfilled.

Headlines like "perpetual Putin" and "Putin forever" hide, therefore, much more than they reveal. Putin could remain president until 2036, and he might have even more formal powers than before. But there are significant barriers to improving the efficiency of governance structures such that Putin could, in fact, realise these powers. What is more, reforms ostensibly aimed at increasing efficiency involve further centralisation—including dismantling the remnants of federalism and local self-government—which will only exacerbate the problems of central control.

This is all not to say that the constitutional changes allowing Putin to remain president from 2024 are not worrying. They are.

But by fixating on what Putin might do in 2024, we run the risk of playing straight into the Kremlin's hands, unpacking, rationalizing, and prognosticating on every new drip of contradictory information. As our—and the Russian elite's—confusion increases, the Kremlin continues to set the agenda, thereby maintaining its advantage. By being aware of the very real limits to Putin's power, we can help push back against the sometimes sensationalist claims of Putin's complete control—an image that the Kremlin clearly has an interest in sustaining.

Ben Noble is Lecturer in Russian Politics in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, and Senior Research Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Nikolai Petrov is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, London.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.