international analysis and commentary

Putin’s certain reelection, the new Russia and the silent opposition

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In March, Russians will go to the polls to cast their votes in the first presidential election since February 2022, when Vladimir Putin made his most consequential decision thus far as the Russian leader: to order a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With all other candidates being broadly loyal to the Kremlin and enjoying only single-digit support, the vote will likely turn into a plebiscite instead of a proper race. Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov called the upcoming election “a costly bureaucracy” and predicted that Putin would win with “more than 90% of the vote.”

Russia’s Vladimir Putin

 

Russians will vote to re-elect Putin, but this will be a new Putin and a new Russia, different from the one in 2018, the last time the country re-elected its president.

Internally, Putin no longer faces any form of public opposition. The sudden death of Aleksei Navalny just a month before the elections, in a remote Russian penal colony above the Arctic Circle, left it decapitated. Navalny, the most formidable political rival to the Kremlin, led relatively successful electoral campaigns and created a robust political infrastructure with offices across the country.

 

Read also: Man against the machine: Aleksei Navalny, Russian society and the Kremlin

 

Navalny was also associated with the West and Russia’s potential pro-Western course, which turned him into a foreign agent in the eyes of the Kremlin. The war in Ukraine made the risks only higher for Navalny and he ended up being one of its many victims. While his wife Yulia might emerge as a potent leader of the Russian opposition in exile, it is unlikely that she could translate that into any form of substantial political influence inside Russia.

Historically, all political change in Russia has originated from within, not from the outside. Mikhail Gorbachev was a staunch communist, patronized by Yuri Andropov, the former head of the KGB. Boris Yeltsin too was a high-ranking member of the communist nomenklatura, first in Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk at the time), and then in Moscow.

The current confrontation with the West has been further sealing Russia’s pivot to a more authoritarian political system. While thus far Western sanctions had only very limited effects on everyday life, they provided convenient proof to the Kremlin that Russia is a besieged fortress and that the West is determined to defeat and subjugate Moscow.

The upcoming presidential election is likely to solidify these perceptions. It will formalize broad public support for the Kremlin’s interpretation of the invasion of Ukraine as a tragic but inevitable step taken to counter what is viewed as Western expansionism toward a brotherly nation, hidden under the guise of democracy promotion.

It could also formalize the drastic change the country has experienced over the past two years. It will almost certainly give the new Russia and the new Putin on top of it a veneer of legitimacy that the Kremlin can then trade as a bargaining chip inside and outside the country.

In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has decided to postpone the presidential election until after the war is over. With Putin’s re-election, the Kremlin can exploit the argument that he represents Russian society as a whole at a particular stage of history, while Zelensky has lost his legitimacy.

Before the invasion, Russia had already been gradually drifting to a more confrontational relationship with the West. It was also becoming less tolerant to internal dissent. However, the full-scale war forced the situation to nosedive. Inside the country, pro-Western opposition activists and politicians were either jailed or practically forced to flee. Outside, Russia engaged in the most intense confrontation with the Western world since the darkest times of the Cold War.

 

Read also: Russian disinformation in Europe: justifying violence and spreading propaganda

 

The regime and its one and only leader have emerged as a formidable colossus with little tolerance for any deviation from the party line. While many Russians rallied around the flag, many retreated into their internal shells. The cost of speaking out has risen dramatically, and this is why hundreds of thousands, many of them highly skilled middle-class representatives, have emigrated to other countries.

Russia has changed, and Putin has changed too. Instead of being a measured and calculating strongman whose main goal was to be firmly integrated into the Western-led global order as an equal stakeholder, he has become the aggrieved leader of a movement to disrupt the Western-led global order. He has become more belligerent and more willing to express his emotions, primarily resentment toward what he believes has been a hypocritical and deceitful Western elite that has betrayed his good intentions.

In March, Russians will vote in favor of this new reality. However, the election will not represent the full spectrum of Russian society. Despite oppressive laws that have stifled dissent, there is still a significant amount of subdued opposition to the current situation. These are not people who oppose the war in Ukraine by supporting the Western narrative; rather, they simply want the war to end along the current lines.

Even with the media and political system firmly under the Kremlin’s control, many Russians do not identify with Putin’s radical anti-Westernism. According to the most recent polls, many Russians are increasingly wary of the war and want it to stop. Their position will not be represented in the election, posing a growing challenge to the system.

 

Read also: Moscow’s vulnerability

 

The number of Russians who oppose the current status quo was evident in November when hundreds of people lined up to formally endorse Boris Nadezhdin, a veteran liberal politician and lawmaker in a suburban town near Moscow, who made stopping the war and launching negotiations central to his presidential campaign – before being barred from competing. Similarly, in February, thousands of Russians mourned Navalny’s death, bringing flowers to makeshift memorials that sprung up across the country. They did that under the risk of getting arrested.

These people will not be represented in the upcoming vote. Russia may seem quiet now, but there is an underlying tension that is only being contained by the heavy hand of its security apparatus. This pressure cannot be sustained indefinitely.