'Putin will leave the Kremlin horizontally': What could put an end to the Russian president's rule?

Credit: AP

Words by ITV News Multimedia Producer Alicia Curry

While Vladimir Putin's victory in the upcoming election appears cemented, the question persists over what could disrupt his long-standing rule.

Constitutionally, a Russian president was previously limited to a two-term limit. Under reforms orchestrated in 2020, new amendments were ratified that both reset Putin's time in office and allow him to serve two full terms anew.

It means he could remain in power until 2036. Having taken office in 1999, his premiership could exceed Joseph Stalin - who was head of the Soviet Union for 29 years.

But as Putin ages, dissident voices continue to shout and the West monitors the war on Ukraine - is there any risk to his premiership?

Will Russian citizen's turn against Putin?

Russian society is atomised, which has worked advantageously to Putin's campaign for decades. It stops citizens knowing whether the consensus is in support or opposes him.

But the regime is facing pressure to mobilise society, particularly in an effort to bolster war resources, which could pose a risk to the level of control held over everyday conversation.

Coupled with increased communication, it would take a trigger to lead to any significant revolt, Dr Stephen Hall, an expert in Russian and Post-Soviet politics, told ITV News.

He believes it would be an economic crisis to turn the tide. "Selfish pockets could lead to mass protests in Russia, it's likely much else would have that much influence."

Although, even if a "free and fair election" were to be held, the incumbent would likely still win this term, Dr Hall added.

"Fear of challenging Putin, safety in the known choice and the economic backdrop would probably drive voters to keep him in power."

Voting has begun for the 2024 presidential election in Russia, which is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin's rule. Credit: AP

Could Putin trigger his own downfall?

While the impetus of Putin's position at this point does not appear to be wavering, even he faces the realities of aging.

At 71 years old he has surpassed the life expectancy of an average Russian man, which in 2021 was 64.

If he were to run both of the six years he is eligible for, he would be 83 years old at retirement, without considering the potential for him to extend the term limit.

"He will need to appoint a successor" Professor Luke March, an expert in Post-Soviet politics told ITV News, "but there's not obvious selection lined up."

"For his legacy to continue it will have to be someone who suits him and his array of elite interests."

But the question lies more in who he trusts to be "subordinate enough that they don't challenge him."

Over recent years Putin has slim lined his inner circle.

In 2008, when he capped his presidential term limit, Putin had attempted a power-switching operation with then First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Medvedev served as president for four years, while Putin ruled as prime minister.

But Putin was unable to "relinquish the reins," and the trust between his younger peer disintegrated, and so too the obvious choice for a successor.

While age and potential illness could muffle his political ambitions, Dr Hall believes the only possibility of "Putin leaving the Kremlin is horizontally."

Alexei Navalny died on February 16 in an Arctic penal colony. Credit: AP

Who are the Russian dissidents that could challenge Putin?

As the Russian elections loom, the president’s dominance over the electoral system has already been reinforced.

While several other candidates - Nikolai Kharitonov, Leonid Slutsky and Vladislav Davankov - will give the semblance of opposition, their political views mirror that of the incumbent president.

Boris Nadezhdin, who was the dissident voice in the campaign, was barred from running after Moscow-run authorities claimed more than 15% of the signatures he submitted with his candidate application were flawed.

Weeks later, Alexey Navalny, the poisoned and jailed former opposition leader who was the most prominent anti-Putin voice in Russia, died in a Russian prison.

"He's disposed of his main critic, he's sent this message of 'this is what will happen to you if you challenge me', it strikes a fear and hopelessness in people that makes defiance even less viable," Prof March said.

In the wake of Navalny's death there have been talks of his team and wife becoming the voice of his campaign, but as they remain in exile their access to Russian people is limited.

The majority of Putin's other critics have also been forced out of the country or are in prison.

Prof March added: "In the short run, Putin has no obvious opposition, he doesn't think he's got anything to fear at the moment. It's possible in the long run we could see Navalny turn into a martyr that sparks people to turn against him."

During his four years in office, Trump repeatedly praised his good relations with Putin Credit: Susan Walsh/AP

Could Western leaders stop Putin?

"Putin's paranoid and there's a certain element of his own insecurity about his position, but in terms of where he stands politically within Russia, he's now stronger than he has been for a while," Prof March said.

As the war on Ukraine rumbles on, Putin's strength - particularly in the view of the West - hinges on the gains he makes in the conflict.

Prof March explained: "He views it as a war on the West, as opposed to solely on Ukraine, and him being defeated would damage his credibility to lead.

"His own sense of power and legacy is tied to his ability to maintain Russia's global influence.

"The effectiveness of sanctions is still to be seen and I hope this in itself is enough to spur the West into more direct action," he added.

At present, the US, UK and EU have all targeted Russia's war machine through economic sanctions on individuals and organisations.

But Putin has managed to continue oil trading abroad and the economy grew by 2.2% in 2023 according to the International Monetary Fund.

And with the prospect of allies taking power, particularly if Donald Trump was to regain presidency in the US, Putin could have a more formidable backing by the end of the year.

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