We may have forgotten this since Donald Trump became President, but in the not-so-distant past, it was Vladimir Putin who was the most unpredictable world leader. Before 2016, when Trump eclipsed him in this regard, Putin was reliably surprising, doing the thing no one could expect because no one could imagine it, like, say, invading Crimea with little green men, and annexing it while people were still trying to definitively prove whether those little green men were Russian soldiers.
On Wednesday, Putin reminded his subjects and the world that he still hasn’t lost his touch for creating the kind of spectacle that allows him to fully control the situation while everyone else is busy reacting. While delivering his annual address that’s roughly analogous to the State of the Union, Putin announced that he would be changing the constitution again and moving the center of power away from the presidency and toward the Russian parliament, which, during Putin’s 20-year-tenure, has turned into a rubber stamp. He also stated that he’d like to get rid of the constitutional provision that limits a president to two consecutive terms, an idea he’s been toying with since he ran up against this provision at the end of his second term in 2008.
Immediately after Wednesday’s speech was over, his government, led by Prime Minister (and former president) Dmitry Medvedev, resigned. This in turn triggered a reshuffling that gave Putin a new prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, a gray-faced bureaucrat who had fulfilled the incredibly sexy task of digitizing the country’s tax service. This sent Russian social media into a tizzy, wondering what this all means and who this Mishustin guy is, because no one had really ever heard of him until Putin named him PM.
But these are all details. All you really need to know is this: even after Putin’s term runs out in 2024, he isn’t going anywhere. Whether he keeps the official title of president or prime minister or no title at all, he will be at Russia’s helm unless he is removed or incapacitated. Nor should this surprise anyone, including anyone in Russia. As one member of Putin’s ruling party told me back in 2013, “We don’t have this tradition of, OK, you served two terms and you leave. We have no other tradition but to hold out to the end and leave feet first”—that is, in a coffin. The real question has always been, if Putin intends to stay in power forever, what form will it take? For a man obsessed with legalistic fig leaves like court trials and empty political rituals like elections, what form will he invent in order to stay in power without seeming to violate the law?
Putin has always been good at finding work-arounds that allow him to stay in power. Putin was elected president in 2000 and reelected in 2004 in a country where the constitution, which was written with the help of American advisers back in the 1990s, prohibits more than two consecutive presidential terms. As 2008 approached, the chattering classes of Moscow wondered what Putin would do. Then, as now, they wrote articles and social media posts and spent hours in cafes and bars arguing and debating and betting and speculating. Would he rewrite the constitution or just blow through it and stay on as president? Would he respect it and step down? If he did that, would he name a successor? And if he did, who would it be? Would it be this guy or that guy? But Putin, who had completely captured their attention for the better part of a year, getting them to think in his terms (that the decision was his and his alone), surprised them all. He picked a quiet, loyal Gazprom lawyer named Dmitry Medvedev, a man whose name had never been in the chatteratti’s running, and said he would be his party’s candidate for president. And Putin would in turn step back and be prime minister.
And it worked. Even the most skeptical of Kremlin watchers believed that Medvedev was not merely a formal seat-warmer but was actually president and mostly in charge. They believed it so much so that, when his first presidential term was approaching its end in 2012, they began to speculate that Putin would let Medvedev serve a second presidential term while he would slowly fade into a luxurious retirement. (I’ll admit that even I was briefly seduced by this theory.) Politics in Russia ground to a halt while people wondered and waited for Putin to make up his mind.
Again, Putin stunned absolutely everyone, announcing in September 2011 that he and Medvedev would simply change places and that he would become president once again. And everyone immediately understood why the constitution had been amended to lengthen the presidential term to six years starting in 2012. People also immediately grasped that this would be for two more consecutive terms that would run out in 2024. This is why, even before Putin was up for reelection in 2018, people were already starting to speculate—again—about what Putin would do when these terms were up. By the time he was reelected in a landslide (surprise!), the succession debates broke into the open, this time with a tint of tired deja-vu: Would he finally retire? Would he change the constitution again? Would he name a successor? Would it be this guy or that guy?
And yet again, Putin surprised them all. It would be none of the guys you guys wondered about, and he would rewrite the constitution so that he could build himself a new role that wouldn’t change one very old fact: he was and will be Russia’s ultimate leader. And again, it was something people grasped immediately, as a picture of a very, very old Putin started making the rounds on social media with the caption “Putin forever.”
This was Putin at his best, ripping the tablecloth neatly from underneath an elaborately busy table when the guests least expected it. He showed everyone that he is still able to outmaneuver—and out-imagine—the people who read his tea leaves. To all who doubted him, he demonstrated that he is still in charge. He acts and everyone else reacts, which keeps them all firmly on his terms. He sets the rules and changes them at will, he moves people around like pawns, and all his subjects can do is guess and speculate and then react and interpret and complain and validate when he inevitably surprises them. Of course, it helps when you’re an authoritarian leader who has a full monopoly on force and a near monopoly on money, but it takes skill to consolidate and maintain this level of control for this long. If anyone thought that time had weathered Putin’s considerable political skill, on Wednesday, he proved them wrong. Again.
Originally Appeared on GQ