Though the official campaign for the 2018 Russian presidential election has not yet started, many experts say that current president Vladimir Putin has started his campaign. For example, last August Russia’s federal channels showed Putin shirtless on his vacation in Siberia spearfishing for nearly two hours.

This was probably intended to show voters and international audiences that the president is still in his best shape and any rumors about his health issues are untrue. Later, on September 1, 2017, Putin delivered a speech to students across the country with the slogan “The future of Russia.” And at the end of the month, the Kremlin stated that Putin will not attend the U.N. General Assembly due to his busy schedule. On the day of the General Assembly, Putin visited the Yandex Company (the Russian equivalent of Google), had a government meeting with the business class, and attended a music concert - nothing out of ordinary.

Putin is on a tight schedule, traveling across the country, but still has not officially announced if he is running in the next presidential election. But, one may ask: Does Putin really have any choice at this point?  Can he retire and leave the country to the next generation of leaders? Or he is the prisoner of his own system and must maintain leadership in order to protect that system and himself? While there is evidence to support either claim, the second option seems more convincing.

Domestic Challenges

The present domestic and international situation reveals why Putin will run in the 2018 presidential election.  Russia’s economy is not at its best and social unrest seems to be growing. The recent antigovernment/anti-corruption demonstrations in March and June proved that. As the one who created the situation, Putin cannot afford to lose control over it. The general dissatisfaction with the Kremlin is far more extensive than we saw with the recent protests. However, the Russian government is pressuring its citizens to avoid protesting. The Kremlin has launched a disinformation campaign on the federal channels to discourage protestors and hide demonstrations.

In Russia, any minor protest can quickly became a major one like Bolotnaya Square in 2012, where protesters clashed with police. The Kremlin is well aware of the danger. Now, more than ever, the Kremlin must keep a tight control over the antigovernment protesters. Tactics include strong disinformation campaigns to dissuade antigovernment protests; infiltration of messaging apps like Telegram; forcing phone operators to disclose personal communications and location data; and intimidation of opposition leaders, bloggers, and anyone else with the ability to organize against the government. In this circumstances Putin has to stay in power because he is the only one who has a majority of the population who still sees him as the only leader to run the country which is able to outshine the rest of the anti-government mood of country.

Friends and Oligarchs

 The U.S. sanctions have also affected Putin’s friends and members of his oligarchy. Many of them enjoy unlimited government contracts and freedom to travel and own property in the West. Sanctions would weaken the economy and tighten government spending, neither of which would be good for them. Clashes between the elites are becoming more intense. The trial of the former finance minister Uliucaev proves that. In these circumstances, any loosening of control from Putin can lead to a major disruption. While the scenario is unlikely, it is still widely discussed among experts in Russia.

Sanctions/Syria/Ukraine

In the international arena, Putin has three main areas where he needs to maintain at least the illusion of control: Ukraine, Syria, and US/EU Sanctions.

Officially, Putin decided to go to Syria in order to defeat ISIS, but his actions show the move was more an attempt to keep Bashar al Assad in power. At this point, Putin is Bashar’s main ally and Syria is Russia’s only military base outside the country. As the events in Syria develop quickly, Putin is the only one who can guarantee Bashar’s future. If Putin remains president for the next 6 years, he can ensure that the Bashar al Assad continues to rely on him. But back home as the Russian presence in Syria is using millions of dollars from education, medicine, and social services, not many possible future candidates would be willing to continue such a high spending to keep Bashar al Assad in power.

Putin’s presidency is also linked to issues with Ukraine. While most presidential candidates avoid discussing Crimea and the option of returning the area to Ukraine, the Donbass situation is a bit different.  A Kremlin without Putin can’t guarantee that Donbass will receive the same support from Russia. And with the United States’ recent approval of military aid to Ukraine, Putin is growing anxious. His re-election is the only way to keep the situation under his control.

A Missed Opportunity

But Putin is motivated by more than just high political stakes. Any analysis has to account for personal motivations, too.  Arguably, Putin’s greatest incentive to run again is his ambition to make himself the center of Russian history for years to come. From 1999 to 2009, Russia witnessed a great economic raise. From the poverty of the late 1990s, Russia’s economy improved dramatically in the first decade of 2000. Average income more than doubled. Russians started to travel more and could afford to vacation abroad, state companies like Gazprom became globalized, and Putin’s poll numbers reached new heights. Other politicians might see this as the ideal scenario in which to retire, cementing their image as the president that reformed the economy and improved people’s lives. But, after being prime-minister for 4 years, he decided to run again in the 2012 presidential election.

The 2014 winter Olympic Games in Sochi helped Putin and Russia to improve the nation’s image globally.  But immediately after the games, the Ukrainian crisis began and Putin started to act based on emotion rather than strategy. This led to a series of mistakes such as intervening in Ukraine, supporting the separatist movements in Donbass, and the annexation of Crimea. These actions ruined his image abroad again. Sanctions increased and gas prices lowered, shifting Russia’s economy back on to how it was in the early 2000s. This worsened his image domestically, too.

With such severe damage to his reputation, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Putin to regain his positive image as a reformer. And in such circumstances, it will be equally difficult to get Russia’s economy back to where it was in 2013. If Putin leaves office now, the blame for the country’s economic collapse, the failing war in Ukraine, and growing spending in Syria’s war will be placed squarely on his shoulders. He must stay to defend his creations, both the Russia’s political path and his own image.

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