What will Vladimir Putin do next? Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, discussions about Russia in the west have been preoccupied by two questions: which other countries does Russia have territorial ambitions in? And what is Putin’s plan for when his presidential term expires in 2024? The answer to both of these questions could lie in an often overlooked country: Belarus
When Putin’s presidency officially ends, the Russian constitution prevents him from seeking another term in office. Putin could, of course, change the rulebook. He did this before by switching roles with prime minister Dmitry Medvedev in 2011. But a repeat of this looks unlikely: the head of Russia’s Constitutional Court has strongly suggested that the constitution cannot be amended. What’s more, his ‘castling’ move was met with a widespread public backlash and sustained protests across the country; instability that the Russian authorities are anxious not to repeat.
So if Putin does step down, he will want to make sure of two things: that he retains significant influence over the political environment in Russia; and that his successor is loyal, but powerful enough to guarantee his and his family’s safety. To achieve this, Putin could become head of the security council or a senior presidential aide. But there has been growing speculation that he is looking to Russia’s neighbour, Belarus, for his political future.
In December, Putin met with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko three times, officially to engage in crisis talks about an ongoing oil tax dispute (Belarus receives Russian oil which it refines and exports). But while the discussions over oil duties did not yield results, Putin did reveal that he has been considering deeper political integration with Belarus.
Since 1999, Belarus and Russia have technically been part of the Union State, a largely symbolic alliance that allows them to share military and intelligence ties, but not a single currency, government or flag.