Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Putin’s next six years in power spell more repression for Russia

Vladimir Putin at his inauguration (Credit: Getty images)

Amidst the golden splendour of the Kremlin’s Hall of the Order of St Andrew, Vladimir Putin was once again inaugurated as president of Russia this morning. But while today’s event was in many ways a carbon copy of the ceremony that has taken place five times now since 2000, it marks a significant watershed in the history of Putin’s rule: for the first time since assuming power 24 years ago, his leadership can no longer be considered constitutionally legal.

Technicalities such as this, though, matter little to Putin. Taking to the podium in the hall that once served as the throne room to the Tsars of Russia, Putin placed his hand on a specially-bound copy of the Russian constitution. Giving the oath, he swore ‘to respect and protect the rights and freedoms of man and citizen, to respect and defend the constitution of the Russian Federation, to protect the sovereignty and independence, security and integrity of the state, to faithfully serve the people’. After nearly three decades in which Putin has steadily eroded the rights, freedoms and security of the Russian people, and rewritten the constitution to suit his own needs, these pledges rang particularly hollow.

It is no secret that Putin wants to cling on to power for as long as possible

Following the swearing-in, Putin gave a short speech. He thanked the Russian people for the ‘trust and support’ they have shown and pledged that ‘in the future, the interests and safety of the people of Russia will remain above all else for me’. ‘I understand that this is a huge honour, responsibility and sacred duty.’

Putin’s speech followed the same pattern that all his addresses have taken since the invasion of Ukraine over two years ago. ‘We are answerable to our thousand-year history,’ he said. ‘We, and we alone, will determine Russia’s fate.’ He thanked the troops in Ukraine and once again claimed to be open to talks with the West, but ‘only on equal terms, respecting each other’s interests’. This claim cannot be taken seriously, but is a tool the president has repeatedly used to manipulate the domestic narrative of the war in Ukraine: his war is not so much with Ukraine, but an existential one with the West.

The hall was packed with 5,000 guests invited to witness the ceremony, including family members of soldiers fighting in Ukraine. Russia’s prime minister Mikhail Mishustin, defence minister Sergei Shoigu and the mayor of Moscow Sergei Sobyanin were in attendance. The television cameras also pointedly singled out the pink, sweating face of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – rumoured to be terminally ill with pancreatic necrosis – looking distinctly unwell as he weakly applauded. 

Notably absent among the guests were the representatives of foreign nations invited by the Kremlin to the ceremony. Delegations from the US, UK, EU, Germany, Poland and Lithuania were among those who pointedly boycotted today’s inauguration out of protest at the rigged vote that has facilitated Putin’s fifth term in power, and out of a refusal to recognise his rule as legitimate. Only seven EU member states sent representatives, among them, controversially, France, whose ambassador to Russia was present in the Kremlin.

Putin’s fifth term as president was ushered in off the back of elections held in March in which he ‘won’ 87 per cent of the vote. His participation in the vote should not have been possible due to the Russian constitution which stated that presidents could only serve two consecutive terms in power. But unlike between 2008 and 2012 when Putin was able to install Dmitry Medvedev as an interim president, this time he couldn’t risk temporarily relinquishing the reins of power to work around this legislation. Instead, in 2020, he rammed through changes to the Russian constitution in a referendum that reset the count on the number of terms he personally could serve.

While the outcome of March’s election was never in doubt – both those within and outside Russia knew from the outset that the victor would only ever be Putin – the vote was still needed for Putin to be able to point to a facade of democratic process with which to shore up his rule. He reinforced this in his speech today. ‘You, citizens of Russia, have confirmed the correctness of the country’s course,’ he said. 

‘Together, we will win!’ He finished his speech – notably shorter than usual. The whole inauguration ceremony took less than twenty minutes from start to finish. With Putin taking centre stage at Thursday’s Victory Day parade in Red Square, he kept today’s address shorter. 

As tradition dictates following the inauguration of the Russian president, his government will resign and be reappointed in the coming days and weeks. There is speculation that Putin could replace Mishustin as prime minister, as well as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who reportedly has sought retirement for some time. While it would be a risk replacing the loyal Shoigu as defence minister while the war in Ukraine is ongoing, the possibility cannot be ruled out. 

Who would be promoted to serve in their places remains to be seen. As second in command, the position of prime minister is particularly loaded: should anything happen to Putin, they would step in to assume the presidency. Dmitry Patrushev and Boris Kovalchuk, the sons of Putin’s close friends security chief Nikolai Patrushev and media oligarch Yuri Kovalchuck respectively, have both reportedly been singled out. Nevertheless, naming either as prime minister at this stage (both men are in their 40s) would amount to crowning them as Putin’s ‘successor’. The president will be aware that to do so could inadvertently end up placing an unwanted target on his own back, as the factions around him in the Kremlin tussle for power.

It is no secret that Putin wants to cling on to power for as long as possible. In the short church service performed in the Kremlin’s Annunciation Cathedral following the inauguration ceremony, the Patriarch Kirill prayed that he would stay in power ‘until the end of the century’ – a biological impossibility given Putin’s age at 71, but a sentiment that demonstrates that he intends to remain president for life.

Could this be the last time we see Putin go through the motions of simulating democratic processes such as holding elections or an inauguration ceremony? His fifth term will run until 2030 – in theory, he now has six years to figure out how to do away with this until-now required show of legitimacy. For the short-term future of Russia, this would spell more repression and curtailing of freedom – quite the opposite of the duties Putin today pledged to perform.