Putin wants to give Russian law priority over international law without an entirely new constitution. Technically, that’s not legally possible.
In his January 15 state-of-the-nation address, Vladimir Putin proposed a number of changes to the Russian Constitution. He also stated that he is not interested in the creation of an entirely new Constitution. However, one of the changes Putin suggested cannot be implemented if the current Constitution remains in place.
Vladimir Putin proposed adding a measure to the Constitution that would prevent international law from being prioritized completely over Russian law.
The supremacy of international law is currently inscribed in Article 15, Clause 4 of the Russian Constitution.
One would think that to limit the supremacy of international law, the Russian government would only have to amend one clause of Article 15 or simply add a new clause (though there are already limits on prioritizing international law in Russian jurisprudence).
The problem is that Article 15 is part of the first chapter (“Foundations of the Constitutional Order”) in Russia’s foundational legal document. Article 135, meanwhile, explicitly forbids amending the first, second, and ninth chapters of the Constitution. In order to change those chapters, a new Constitution must be formed and accepted, and any amendments to the current Constitution are insufficient. In other words, Putin’s proposed limits on the supremacy of international law would require doing exactly what Putin said he would not like to do.
Another sign indicating that Putin’s proposals point to a new Constitution is the fact that Putin himself mentioned the nationwide referendum procedure in his address. Constitutional amendments are introduced through federal constitutional legislation; only accepting a new Constitution requires a nationwide referendum.
On the other hand, Putin’s statement that a “final decision” will be made only after the voting process can be interpreted to mean that the vote itself will not be binding. According to the Constitution, however, that is not the case: The results of a nationwide vote must be enforced as is.
This means that a referendum would be conducted as an extraconstitutional procedure (much like an online poll). In such a case, the constitutional amendments would likely be introduced through a federal constitutional bill, and some kind of “dirty hack” would be developed to get around the Constitution’s ban on amendments to Chapter One. For example, a clarifying measure limiting the supremacy of international law could be introduced into a different chapter, or a new chapter could simply be added to the Constitution altogether.