All other analysis of where Russia is headed post-2012 must proceed from this basic assumption.
Putin may very well end up returning to the Kremlin, as much of the Moscow punditocracy seems to expect at this point, in which case Medvedev would become an interesting historical footnote.
Or, he could continue to rule as Russia’s informal national leader essentially extending the tandem's shelf life -- and Medvedev's presidency -- for another six years. In this case, the only question remaining would be which official post he occupies.
Regardless, at the end of the day, this is Putin’s show.
I recently spoke to Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center about the source of Putin's indispensability to the current system (sorry, no link since the interview is still unpublished):
Putin designed a system of managed conflict. There is no competition in public. But he created different clans and groups who are fighting against each other. This is the way Putin keeps control over the system. He is a judge and arbiter who is keeping the balance among them. It is impossible for him to leave. It is impossible to imagine this system without him because all of the agreements are guaranteed by him. Without him, all of these clans would fight each other, like after Stalin's death.
Kremlin-watchers say this system of interlocking and competing clans that is managed by Putin comprises the core of Russia's ruling elite. The key players, the people with decision making power, number about thirty. The inner circle, most agree, comprises about twelve people.
Petrov describes them as "shareholders" and "managers":
Some analysts, like Yevgeny Minchenko and Vladimir Pribylovsky, call the core ruling elite "Putin's Politburo." Others playfully refer to it as "the Collective Putin." In a recent report for Chatham House, Andrew Monaghan of the NATO Defense College called it "The Team."
I prefer to call it Russia's emerging "Deep State" (and am working on a longer feature-length piece on the subject, so if you're interested, stay tuned).
In addition to Putin and Medvedev, the core group, according to Minchenko and others, comprises Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Naryshkin, Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff (and informal ideologist) Vladislav Surkov, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and businessmen Yury Kovalchuk (widely seen as "Putin's personal banker"), Gennady Timchenko, Roman Abramovich, and Alisher Usmanov.
And since this Politburo, Collective Putin, or Deep State comprises "shareholders," they are above all concerned with preserving their status, power, and by extension, their wealth.
If they believe -- and ultimately decide -- that they can do that by loosening up the system by moving to a system of managed pluralism, that is what they will do. This is the option preferred by Kudrin and his allies in the technocratic wing of the elite.
If they conclude that the only way to maintain control is by maintaining, and perhaps even strengthening, the vertically integrated authoritarian state Putin established, then they will go down that road. This is the option favored by Sechin and many of his siloviki allies.
Both choices have implicit risks, as I have blogged in the past. As the late 1980s and early 1990s show, the managed pluralism route can easily spin out of control and lead to -- ghasp! - real pluralism (which many in the elite see as chaos). And as the Soviet 1970s show, failure to open up and modernize the system can result in ossification and stagnation.
Which negative set of lessons will prevail -- those of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika or those of Leonid Brezhnev and the period of "zastoi" -- is still up in the air.
And this is the main question to watch, rather than all the hand wringing and navel gazing over whether Putin or Medvedev will occupy the Kremlin post-2012.
-- Brian Whitmore