Ask Russian analysts to describe the coming presidential election campaign, and their answers contain a uniform theme: a circus, a carnival, a sideshow. What they do not call it is a real election. With the victory of President Vladimir V. Putin assured, the real contest, analysts said, is the bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred fight to determine who or what comes after him by the end of his next six years in office, in 2024. What might be called the Court of Putin — the top 40 to 50 people in the Kremlin and their oligarch allies — will spend the coming presidential term brawling over that future. When Mr. Putin confirmed last week that he would run again, he might as well have been firing the starting gun for the race toward his succession. He is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third-consecutive term, his fifth total, in 2024.
“The election itself does not matter at all,” said Gleb O. Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin consultant. The people around the president, he added, “are deciding the question of who they themselves will be after Putin. That is the main motive behind this fight: It is a struggle for a place in the system after Putin is gone.”
While no one can be certain what Mr. Putin, 65, will do when his next term ends, those in his inner circle are already preparing for the day he leaves the presidency, eager to preserve their power and to avoid any fallout that could follow a change in leadership. With an expiration date on the horizon, his court is beginning to focus more on self-preservation than on serving Mr. Putin.