Vladimir Putin is now a pensioner. He has badly mishandled the Skripal poisoning affair with the whole world laughing at the idea of a senior GRU officer armed with a made-in-Russia killer poisong turning up in Salisbury pretending to be a tourist interested in medieval English cathedrals.
Putin is 66 next month. His hair is not quite as shiny and ungrey as once it was. While he looks far fitter than Donald Trump he can at times look his age, stooping just a little when he meets and greets. Putin is now in his fourth term of office and when his term runs out in 2024 he will have been running Russia for a quarter of a century.
That is if he gets to the end of his term. More and more are asking if the time is coming when Putin needs to be replaced by his younger protegé, Dimitri Medvedev. This would allow Russia to make a fresh start across a range of policies where Putin is no longer of much use to either wider Russian interests and may even be a menace to the ruling clique of ex-security Siloviki that controls Russia.
Putin has lost the status he once enjoyed when Tony Blair rushed to embrace him and George W. Bush saw him as an effective partner. Instead, Putin has isolated Russia, provoked sanctions which have lowered Russian living standards, and left European leaders suspicious and wary.
Medvedev, 53, has been loyal to his superior since first they linked up as a team in St Petersburg more than twenty years ago. But he has also been prepared to keep some distance.
When Putin criticized the UN resolution authorising intervention in Libya to stop Colonel Gaddafi from slaughtering his people in 2011 Medvedev openly rebuked him.
Putin said the resolution resembled “medieval calls for crusades” but Medvedev told Russian news agencies: “Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use expressions which essentially lead to a clash of civilisations, such as ‘crusade’ and so on.”
Medvedev criticised Putin’s public remarks about the trial of oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, telling officials not to discuss the case in public. Medvedev also warned that Russia risked slipping into a period of political “stagnation” by being dominated by Putin’s United Russia party.
When he became president in 1999 Putin promised Russians that in fifteen years their standard of income would be as high as Portugal’s. Today despite the ostentatious displays of wealth by Russian oligarchs in the West and the nouveau riche style of many who have used Kremlin contacts to make fortunes, the average income of a Russian is less than half that of a Portuguese citizen.
Putin has strutted around the world with his military interventions in Georgia, Syria, Crimea, Ukraine, or organised giant military parades and exercises. He has hosted the Winter Olympics and World Cup like a Roman emperor. He has orchestrated social media interference and financial support for anti-EU campaigns run by assorted European rightists, including in the UK, or Serbian politicians determined to stop the Western Balkans getting closer to Europe. Assassins have been sent to kill those who betray Russian security agencies.
But he has not improved the life of the average Russian.
Medvedev by contrast has been much closer to the real priorities of ordinary Russians. When Putin moved to raise the pension age for men from 60 to 65 – in a country where the average age of death for males is 66 – Medvedev tried to distance himself and made no public statement on the issue for two weeks. Raising the pension has provoked widespread protests and demonstrations with over 1,000 people arrested.
Putin apologists insist the pension age rise is necessary to help balance the budget. Through all this Medvedev all but disappeared from public view like a smart western politician. Medvedev also has shown no support for Putin’s decision to increase VAT, an unpopular move with poorer Russians who will pay more for essential goods.
Putin has never shown much interest in domestic politics. He enjoys grandstanding and creating foreign policy problems for America and the West. He craves publicity like turning up at the wedding of the Austrian foreign minister, who was nominated by the extreme right Freedom Party, and waltzing with her to the cringing embarrassment of the Austrian Chancellor.
After two decades of Putin’s love of the global stage and being in the world limelight Russians want a domestic policy president who will look after their economic and social priorities. In recent regional elections, the ruling United Russia suffered unprecedented setbacks, securing less than 30% of the votes in formerly safe areas like Vladimir and Khakassia.
At the moment Putin is slated to stay in the Kremlin until 2024 when he will be 70 years old. But if the Siloviki and the ruling circles in Moscow decide Putin is now provoking more opposition than is healthy for their own interests then they have a perfect replacement to hand in the shape of Dimitri Medvedev who has demonstrated that he has political ambitions, distancing himself from unpopular reforms.
This would allow a major reset for Russia’s damaged international relations and allow Russia to edge closer to the rest of Europe.
Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe