On the evening of 11 November 2011, Vladimir Putin arrived at Le Cheval Blanc restaurant at the Novyi Vek ("New Age") equestrian centre in the smart Rublyovka district of Moscow. The occasion was a meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club and, for three hours, Putin engaged in a question-and-answer session with a small group of international experts.
The equestrian centre is a former collective farm (kolkhoz) fallen on hard times. It has been transformed into a symbol – if not of the new Russia, then of the opulent lifestyle of the "New Russians".
President Dmitry Medvedev keeps six of his pedigree horses at the centre. Inside, the atmosphere is of an English country house, with a log fire and oak beams. Putin arrived late, tanned and relaxed and not wearing a tie. He was in good spirits and confident, asserting Russia's positions on a variety of issues, from its energy supply to missile defence.
Putin expressed exasperation with the west and repeated the slights, hurts and pains of the past decade. He noted that “it is no secret" (although it came as news to most of us in the room) that not only are Russia's eastern and western oil pipeline networks being joined up but that the gas networks would also soon be connected for the first time.
He conceded that it was tough to bargain with the Chinese but, once a deal was done, they proved reliable partners, with the implication that the same did not apply to those in the west. Rehearsing Dostoevsky's cri de coeur about Russia walking as a slave in the west but as master in the east, Putin said: "We are being squeezed out of the European market, so we are turning to Asia."
On the idea of the Eurasian Union – the proposed political and economic grouping of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and other states – Putin asked why integration was encouraged elsewhere in the world but, when it was taking place in the post-Soviet space, it was denounced as Russian neo-imperialism.
It is unlikely that the Eurasian Union will be a game-changer and it may be little more than an election gimmick but it does signal a new phase in the development of relations in the region. Russia is advancing a more active integrationist agenda, distinct from the old desire to build relations with the European Union and the US. A new power, Putin implied, is rising in the east, not opposed to the west but no longer oriented to it. Russia would emerge as a European power in Asia, not a Eurasian power in Europe.
On the political front, Putin reassured us that "the screws will not be tightened" but that there would be little to stop the regime if it wished to tighten them. A system has been created in which the institutions of the state are trumped by the informal networks of power, concentrated on Putin personally.
Asked what new ideas he would bring to the presidency, he said: "Putin is one person and he will not divide. There are certain basic things that cannot change."
At the same time, he said that while a genuine multiparty system needed to be built in Russia, the party fragmentation of the past could not be repeated. Referring to his experience in "Leningrad" (as he called the city now known as St Petersburg) in the early democratic years after the end of the Soviet Union, he said that "even the simplest decisions could not be taken".
He insisted that he and Medvedev had not lied when, for four years, they had insisted that "we would see" about the succession. "We are not concerned . . . to preserve our personal power but to create an efficient and sustainable system," he said. Whether this system can be democratic is uncertain.
Putin's planned return to the presidency for a third term is the defining event of the era. If he wins on 4 March, as seems inevitable, his views will shape the country for at least a decade.
In truth, his "return" is a misnomer, because he never went away. This has thrown a harsh light on the political system that has developed over the past decade. Rather than elections shaping the composition of parliament and the presidency, the administrative system decides everything on behalf of the people.
Elections have become plebiscitary, ratifying decisions already made outside the electoral process. Rather than a set of independent institutions carrying political weight, the power of one man dominates. It is this infantilisation of the people that has been challenged in the protest marches provoked by the flawed parliamentary elections of 4 December 2011.
The main challenge now facing Putin is to recognise and take account of the civic spirit that has been awakened in Russia, while ensuring that the institutions of the constitutional state apply to all equally – including him.
Richard Sakwa is professor of Russian and European politics at the University of Kent