When Vladimir Putin was last campaigning for president back in 2012, he notably said that Russia's fate should not depend on one man.
Less than two years later, Vyacheslav Volodin, the current State Duma speaker who was then deputy Kremlin chief of staff, contradicted his boss when he famously quipped that "there is no Russia today if there is no Putin."
These two diametrically opposing statements from the very highest echelons of the Russian power elite illustrate the fundamental paradox of late Putinism.
Putin, of course, has systematically -- and often ruthlessly -- centralized power in his own hands.
This year he became Russia's longest ruling leader since Josef Stalin -- and not since Stalin's time has Russia's fate been so dependent on one man.
Russia, no doubt, will endure long after Putin passes from the scene. But the future of the political system he created, and the patron-client relationships that have made his closest cronies rich and powerful, is less certain.
And as Putin prepares for what many in Moscow say will be his final presidential campaign, many in the Kremlin leader's inner circle are getting nervous about their indispensable man becoming a lame duck.
In a recent leader, The Economist noted that "both liberal reformers and conservative traditionalists" are referring to Putin "as a 21st-century Tsar." And the stronger he becomes, "the harder he will find it to manage his succession."
Few doubt that Putin will seek and win a fourth term in March. But even fewer know what happens next.
"And the fear will grow," The Economist opined, "that as with other Russian rulers, Tsar Vladimir will leave turbulence and upheaval in his wake."
Leader For Life?
So it is not surprising that the perennial Moscow parlor game of rumors, speculation,and leaks about an impending overhaul of Russia's political system -- one that would keep Putin in power indefinitely -- has begun in earnest.
Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies, wrote recently in Snob.ru that there is a high probability some form of constitutional reform, such as turning Russia into a "parliamentary republic" in which Putin could "rule to the end of his days" as prime minister will be attempted.
"I would estimate the likelihood of such changes by 2024 as certainly exceeding 50 percent - and they may well be realized after the Duma elections in 2021," Inozemtsev wrote.
Likewise, the well-connected political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko made a similar prediction, with similar timing, which differed only in the details of how Putin will be kept in power.
In the latest edition of his widely read Politburo 2.0 report on the state of the Russian elite, Minchenko wrote that negotiations about a successor should begin in earnest after the 2021 Duma elections and that a post-presidential post will likely be created for Putin, something akin to a "Russian Ayatollah."
Moreover, a recent report in Russky Monitor claims -- based on what are purported to be unattributed leaks on the messaging and social media platform Telegram -- that Volodin has been pushing a plan to create a new Russian State Council "according to the Chinese model" that would become the country's primary executive body.
Putin would then be named the head of the council, effectively turning him into Russia's supreme ruler for life.
Putin "would become not simply the President of the State Council but also the spiritual and national leader of Russia," according to the report.
As former U.S. State Department official and veteran Kremlin-watcher Paul Goble notes on his blog, "without clear sourcing, it is difficult to know how much credence" to give such claims.
But their proliferation is very revealing.
Flashback To 2007
We have, of course, been in this place before. When Putin's second term was winding down a decade ago, speculation was rampant that the Kremlin was cooking up a scheme to keep him in power indefinitely.
In November 2007, delegates from across Russia turned out for a well-orchestrated pep rally in Tver to pledge allegiance to Putin and implore him to remain in power.
In the end, of course, to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on three consecutive terms, Putin opted to temporarily hand the presidency over to Dmitry Medvedev, become prime minister for four years, and return to the Kremlin in 2012.
But as opposition journalist and political commentator Oleg Kashin notes, the Putin-Medvedev hand-off in 2008 and the Medvedev-Putin castling in 2011-12, have effectively destroyed the idea of a credible succession and turned it into "a farce and a parody."
If Putin were to leave office and name a successor, Kashin wrote, "nobody would believe him" because everybody would remember how this turned out in 2008-11.
"Perhaps, only putting Putin on trial and imprisoning him would convince the nomenklatura and society that everything is serious," he added.
The Succession Curse
Succession has long been the achilles heel of Russia's highly centralized and deeply personalized political system.
The dynastic successions of Tsarist Russia were not always seamless.
And while the last three Soviet successions following Leonid Brezhnev's death in 1982 were fairly smooth, these were the exceptions.
The Soviets went through two protracted, messy, and violent transitions -- from Vladimir Lenin to Josef Stalin and Stalin to Nikita Khrushchev -- and one effective palace coup when Khrushchev was deposed and replaced by Brezhnev, before the Politburo and the Central Committee were able to de facto institutionalize the process.
And Boris Yeltsin's anointment of Putin as his heir in 1999, and Putin's coronation in a tightly choreographed election the following year, effectively undermined any notion of succession via the democratic process.
Moreover Russia under Putin's rule has effectively been deinstitutionalized, which means any post-Putin transition will probably be turbulent.
"Putin has driven himself into a dead end. He has tied the fate of the system too closely to his personal destiny and therefore the regime is doomed," Kashin wrote
And any of these "solutions" being floated to keep him beyond 2024 only put off the inevitable -- as Putin, who just turned 65, is, of course, mortal.
"Would Putin’s passing prompt a power struggle -- perhaps even violence? Who would the parties to that struggle even be?" University of California-Berkeley political scientist M. Steven Fish asked in a recent article in Journal of Democracy.
"For all Putin's painstaking preoccupation with stability and continuity, Russians have no idea who will rule them tomorrow if their leader dies tonight. Putin himself might not know, either."