Lawmakers in parliament's lower house voted to pass a constitutional amendment that would reset the count on Putin's current two presidential terms to zero. Once approved, that would mean Putin, who is currently on his final presidential term, would be able to run once again, effectively resolving the problem of how he might stay in power beyond the current limit.
Putin told lawmakers he would not oppose the change, provided Russia's constitutional court accepted it and it was backed by a majority of voters. In Russia, where the court system is dominated by the Kremlin and elections are highly controlled, that is all but certain.
The move was the latest in a series of elaborate steps taken since January by Putin as he seeks to navigate the thorny question of his post-2024 future. Putin is on his fourth presidential term, having already skirted the two-term limit in Russia’s constitution once by passing the presidency temporarily to his protégé Dmitry Medvedev between 2008 and 2012.
How to square the problem this time has become the central issue in Russian politics and in January, Putin abruptly announced a series of sweeping constitutional changes and launched a major political shake-up of his government, including replacing his prime minister. These have been widely seen as a path for Putin to retain power, but it has remained mysterious so far how they precisely they would do so.
Events on Tuesday seemed to answer that question, presented in a piece of highly choreographed political theater.
A lawmaker from Putin’s ruling party, Valentina Tereshkova, who is famous for being the first woman to fly into space, made the term limits proposal. She suggested the constitution be amended to either remove the two-term limit or at least reset Putin's current term count to zero.
Putin’s party, United Russia, quickly said it supported the proposal and the parliament’s speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin, said he would call Putin to consult.
Shortly after, Putin himself appeared in the parliament, delivering a long and carefully scripted speech, despite the supposed suddenness of the proposal.
He told lawmakers that he could not support the suggestion to remove term limits from Russia’s constitution, noting the importance that society has a "guarantee" that power can be changed.
But he then said he could support the idea that would allow him to run again for office.
He added that the step would also need to be supported by Russians in the vote on constitutional amendments in April.
Lawmakers applauded Putin's speech and immediately voted to overwhelmingly approve the amendment to reset term counts and to send the amendment to the Supreme Court.
The changes will now be put to Russians along with the other constitutional amendments in a referendum on April 22.
Putin in recent weeks suggested he was opposed to leaders staying in office for life and has repeatedly said he is against removing the term-limits from the constitution. Experts had been scrutinizing the other constitutional amendments for weeks for signs of how they might be used to create an alternative position for Putin to retain power.
Tereshkova, who made the amendment, was unambiguous that it was intended to resolve the problem of Putin's approaching term-limit.
"We must insure against these risks," she told lawmakers. "Do you think Putin doesn’t seem them? Of course he sees them."
But she added, "He is not the type of person to put such a question himself. So we must put it."
The speaker of Russia’s senate, Valentina Matvienko, said the proposal would “calm everyone” and put a stop to discussions around "who would be successor, what will become of the security of the country, etc."
She insisted that it was still too early to say if Putin would run again in 2024, saying she was sure the elections would be "competitive."
Putin, 67, has ruled Russia for 20 years and has already become the longest-serving Russian ruler since Josef Stalin. In parliament on Tuesday he told lawmakers the possibility for a changeover in power was essential for a country's development and criticized again the idea of removing term limits entirely, saying lawmakers must "think of future generations."
Few observers though believed the highly-scripted moves had come from anywhere other than the Kremlin and many interpreted a new run by Putin in 2024 as all but certain.
Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, tweeted that the move made it clear “there will be a lifetime Putin presidency.” Other activists called for a picket to be held outside the Kremlin on Tuesday evening to protest the changes.
Mikhail Krasnov, a constitutional law expert at the Higher School of Economics, noted that Russia’s constitutional court had already once ruled against an attempt to reset presidential term counts in 1998 by then-president Boris Yeltsin.
"Obviously the court will now change its decision," Krasnov said in a commentary published on the Russian site, The Insider.