Putin's alleged 'loss of touch' with the population, and the emergence of an opposition led by 'new' figures such as the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, highlighted by the recent mass demonstrations calling for Putin to go, are themes woven together to assert that Putin's leadership has run its course – even that Putin himself doubts the legitimacy of his leadership.

The narrative

Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev is seen to be haemorrhaging popularity and power – and many see his dismissal by Putin to be imminent.

Commentators sense political crisis, and use dramatic terminology to speculate on the impending departure of both Russia's president and prime minister.

Yet there is a strong sense of what Russian novelist Viktor Pelevin might call 'discourse-mongering' in this narrative.

Putin/Medvedev

Tensions between Putin and Medvedev are already well mongered – it’s been said for years that they would run against each other or that Putin would fire Medvedev.

Many doubted that Putin would appoint Medvedev prime minister, despite Putin's publicly stated intention to so do.

Medvedev's appointment did nothing to stem predictions of his imminent departure.

A recent meeting when Medvedev presented Putin with government priorities up to 2018, has pushed back that departure date yet again…

Approval ratings

Some commentators refer to Putin's falling approval rating to assert his inexorable decline, and posit the 'inevitability' of his departure, perhaps even before the next presidential election in 2018.

Yet commentators also - often simultaneously - suggest that he could remain president 'until 2024', and, of course, Putin himself has not ruled out seeking another six-year term in 2018.

It’s not that simple

Opinion polls taken by the Levada Centre suggest a more nuanced scenario.

Polls indicate that Putin's core support is currently around 35%.

Compared to the early years of Putin's first presidential term, he is seen as less energetic, less able to lead, and less able to guarantee stability in Russia.

In December 2012, only 23% of those polled wished to see him as president for another term after the current one, and 45% would prefer to see someone else as president after 2018.

A limited opposition

Yet polls also suggest that direct and immediate popular opposition to Putin remains limited, and there’s apparently little public appetite for change before 2018.

At the height of the demonstrations in 2011 and early 2012, Levada polls suggested that only 21% fully or partially supported the slogan 'Putin must go', while 61% fully or partially opposed it.

Polls in January 2013 even suggest a slight upturn in support for Putin on the three measures noted above - his energy, leadership and as a guarantor of stability.

And some 65% still support the actions of Putin and 56% those of Medvedev.

What are the alternatives?

A large percentage of those polled currently see no alternative to Putin.

The preferred alternative politician to Putin is Medvedev, with just 14% support.

A slightly different question about who would be the best alternative actually to lead Russia in place of Putin – i.e. most able to run the country – returned most support for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov with 12%, followed by Medvedev.

But while he leads the formal opposition in parliament, Zyuganov is unlikely to be elected president.

There is continuing low support for opposition politicians such as Navalny (less than 1%), and a general conviction that the next president is more likely to be appointed by Putin, or with the sanction of the public (56%), rather than be an independent or anti-Putin figure (23%).

Premature write-off

So although Putin has lost some support compared to the halcyon pre-crisis days, it’s premature to write him off: Putin is still seen as an authoritative figure, and the best person to lead Russia.

He remains in power rather than in crisis, and for now, in the view of the Russian public at least, alternatives to him will emerge from within his team for a potential stable handover in the 2018 elections – not, as many commentators might wish, a more 'liberal' or Western-leaning figure with whom it is easier 'to do business'.

(This comment re-published here courtesy of Chatham House)