Vladimir Putin becomes Russia’s president for life?

Thanks to an overwhelming vote of confidence from about three-fourths of the Russian electorate, Vladimir Putin now can remain president of Russia until 2036.

He will be 84 years old when he completes the second of the two additional six-year terms that Russian voters awarded him in a referendum that ended on June 30. The referendum’s final results are not yet all in, but its outcome is not in doubt.

The referendum that guaranteed Putin’s tenure — assuming he remains the picture of health that he constantly demonstrates before those who are adoring supporters — actually addressed 205 amendments to the Russian constitution apart from the question of his extended tenure. Among these were popular ones such marriage as a heterosexual union, indexation guarantees for pensions and a variety of other social benefits. The tenure proposal was buried among the plethora of amendments, rendering it almost impossible for Putin’s extension to be rejected.

By 2036, Putin will have outlasted at least three American presidents, and a minimum of four if Donald Trump is not re-elected this year. His time in office — if one includes his four years as prime minister, when he was the real power behind then-president Dmitry Medvedev — will total nearly 37 years. That extended tenure would render him the longest-serving Russian (or Soviet) leader since Peter the Great, whose portrait graces Putin’s Kremlin office.

Putin’s publicly stated goal is to restore Russian greatness to at least that of the Soviet era. While he does not have the ideological impulses that spurred Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, Putin shares the same geopolitical concerns that motivated all of his Communist and Czarist predecessors. He also has lifted the tactics that were central to the Soviet playbook. As American diplomat George Kennan observed in his “Long Telegram from Moscow” on Feb. 22, 1946, at the outset of what became the Cold War:

“At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. … Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form. … Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies. … For this reason [Russia’s rulers] have always feared foreign penetration. … Russians will participate officially in international organizations where they see opportunity of extending … power, or of inhibiting or diluting power of others. … Efforts will be made … to disrupt [Western] national self confidence, to hamstring measures of national defense, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity. … Poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents.”

It all seems sickeningly familiar.

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Putin benefits from a distinct advantage over his Czarist and Communist predecessors, however. None of them was able to enjoy the support that he has received from Trump from the day the American president assumed office, and even before then. None of Russia’s other leaders ever had any serious impact on America’s elections. None had the president of the United States take their word over that of his own intelligence experts, even when it appeared that Russian irregulars possibly had killed American troops. Even back in 2014, Putin was able to annex Crimea and send his “Little Green Men” into Ukraine — without a peep from the White House since Trump took office.

Putin may only benefit from the White House’s sycophancy for a few more months. Perhaps, as Trump’s poll numbers continue to sink, Putin will decide that he must exploit the window of opportunity that he now has to move his forces into Belarus, thereby placing Poland in a Russian vise. Even if he does not, Putin’s extended tenure means that Russia no longer can be seen solely as a near-term threat to American interests. On the contrary, the next several presidents will have to contend with a man whose life’s mission is, as Kennan so elegantly put it in his Long Telegram, “to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power.”

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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