MOSCOW — 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 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.
The top 40 to 50 people in the Kremlin and their oligarch allies will spend the coming presidential term brawling over that future.
When Putin confirmed last week that he would run again, he might as well have been the start of 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 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.’’
While no one can be certain what 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 from a change in leadership.
This jockeying for power is expected to offer all the drama that the March 2018 presidential race sorely lacks. The intrigues are expected to burst into public view with increasing frequency as the end of Putin’s next term approaches.
Several internal battles have already erupted publicly, including one exposed in court testimony last week in the corruption trial of a former economy minister.
“You cannot hide the enormous tension, the enormous degree of uncertainty within the Russian elite,” said Konstantin Gaaze, who contributes analysis to the website of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a policy research organization. “They will do stupid things; they will blackmail each other; they will write reports about each other and bring them to Putin.”
Some analysts say the president, who turns 72 in 2024, believes trying to keep the job for life would be a mistake.