We Already Know Who the Winner Will Be. What Else Does the Russian Election Tell Us?


Mar 15, 2024

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the Russia-Latin America international parliamentary conference in Moscow, Russia, September 29, 2023, photo by Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the Russia-Latin America international parliamentary conference in Moscow, Russia, September 29, 2023

Photo by Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on March 15, 2024.

It is hardly a spoiler alert to say that Vladimir Putin will win Russia's forthcoming presidential election. If it reveals nothing else, the 2024 election will again make clear that Putin runs the show.

In the 2000 presidential election, he received 53 percent of the vote. In 2004, he got 72 percent. The Russian constitution at the time prohibited him from serving more than two consecutive terms, but Putin continued to call the shots as prime minister between 2008 and 2012. In the 2012 presidential elections, Putin won 64 percent of the vote, which increased to 77 percent in 2018.

Russia's pollsters put Putin's current approval rating at around 80 percent—whether that reflects Kremlin instructions or citizen prudence when talking to pollsters. No serious opponent has been allowed to run against him.

The outcome is a foregone conclusion. So why bother?

An election in Putin's Russia is not a contest. It is an affirmation of Putin's authority—a display of power, a choreographed spectacle like changing the guard in London. Putin will be reelected not because he is necessarily the voters' preferred choice over other candidates, but because he has demonstrated his authority by eliminating any serious opposition to his leadership, demonstrating that he is in total command.

An election in Putin's Russia is not a contest. It is an affirmation of Putin's authority,

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The pageant and speeches tell the Russian people how to align themselves with what Putin believes, what he has decided and—the big difference with elections here—not what they can expect from him, but rather what he expects of them. The Soviet Union had a command economy. Putin's Russia has command thought.

With the war in Ukraine now having turned the corner into its third year, the election is a vehicle for several messages:

Putin remains in charge. Despite challenges to his leadership—like the bizarre march on Moscow by the late Yevgeny Prigozhin or any inspiration from the recently eliminated Alexei Navalny—Putin is very much in charge.

The war in Ukraine will continue. That became apparent in the staging of Putin's official announcement that he would run. It took place following a ceremony where he awarded the highest medal for heroism to Russia's soldiers who fought in Ukraine. After the awards, as Putin chatted with the recipients, the former commander of the pro-Russian Sparta Battalion in Russian-occupied Donetsk, in well-prepared remarks spontaneously asked Putin to run.

“It is thanks to your actions and your decision that we have obtained our freedom,” he said. “We want to take part in the election of [the] president of the Russian Federation, and you are our president. There is so much work ahead of us…We would like to do this under your leadership.”

Putin is confident that Russia will win. Putin's February 29 State of the Nation address carries a confident tone that things have turned the corner in Ukraine and that Russia now has the strategic advantage. Looking at recent reports of Russia's horrendous casualties, its losses of advanced aircraft, and the number of its warships sunk by the Ukrainians, that assessment might seem delusional, but Putin's path to victory has always relied on divisions and discouragement in the Western alliance. Putin is convinced Russia will win because the West will wobble.

Looking at countries where elections with real consequences are scheduled—the United States for one—Putin's assessment seems perhaps not so far-fetched. The allies are divided domestically and squabbling with each other. The outcome of the U.S. election could very much affect the defense of Ukraine and the future of NATO.

To allay any alarm that might renew Western resolve, Putin has said that Russia has no interest in invading “Poland, Latvia, or anywhere else.” Keep in mind he said in January 2022 that Russia was not about to invade Ukraine.

In response to French President Macron's idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, Putin warned that this could lead to nuclear war. As of Wednesday, Putin has warned of nuclear escalation 11 times since the invasion of Ukraine.

Of course, Russia's nuclear saber-rattling must be taken seriously, but it may also be a psychological campaign to remind everyone that Russia has the world's largest nuclear arsenal and, therefore, must be respected as a world superpower. It also reminds Europeans how much they depend on the American nuclear umbrella, without which they are very vulnerable.

But alarm that Putin would launch a nuclear attack—while terrifying to the West—could equally frighten Russian military officials and the oligarchs who surround Putin, imperiling his political survival.

Putin's vision is more grandiose—a global culture war. Putin's portrayal of a global war is not about Russian tanks rolling through Eastern Europe, let alone nukes. According to Putin's vision, Russia is defending not only itself but traditional conservative values against the imperialist pretensions of a satanic and decadent West—a contest in which Russia can count on allies in the Global South and many in the West itself.

Part of this is a reassertion of Cold War alliances. It also reflects the economic realignment that has occurred since Russia invaded Ukraine and the imposition of numerous economic sanctions. But most of it derives from Putin's interpretation of Russian history, which reaches back long before the 1917 Russian revolution. It appears throughout his public messages.

Without formally institutionalizing the role of religion, Putin has melded his mystical vision of Russia's past with the cultural views of Russia's Orthodox Christianity as the unifying ideology. Russia is defending not only Russian territory but Russia's critical cultural sovereignty.

A senior Russian military leader recently spoke about “consolidating the whole of Russian society around its defense needs.” The precise meaning of this phrase is not entirely clear, but it suggests that Russia's leadership wants to be prepared for an escalation of the war in Ukraine. It also understands that the war Putin describes will go on for a long time, so resources must be mobilized, more weapons produced, military technology advanced, and above all, the Russian people must devote themselves wholeheartedly to the effort.

In other words, Russian society must be organized for perpetual warfare.

As Putin said during his election announcement, “The selflessness and courage demonstrated by our fighters serve as examples to be emulated by workers and engineers at our defense enterprises, by the personnel of other economic sectors…as well as by all our citizens, who are contributing to the strengthening of Russia's economic, technological, and cultural sovereignty.”

Putin has accumulated more authority than any Soviet leader, save perhaps Stalin. There is no Politburo. No institutional checks. Putin possesses the personal power of Russia's strongest tsars.

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A global ideological war with no geographic limits or timetable is Putin's comfort zone. His life and future were shattered in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Putin's mind, it was the 20th century's “greatest geopolitical catastrophe.” It was, said Putin, the demise of “historic Russia.” Russians lost respect and territory. The country was impoverished. Putin, the KGB colonel, was forced to moonlight as a taxi driver.

Now 35 years later, President Putin has accumulated more authority than any Soviet leader, save perhaps Stalin. There is no Politburo. No institutional checks. Putin possesses the personal power of Russia's strongest tsars.

He can claim to have restored Russia's position in the world, its military strength, and its cultural superiority. His messianic mission to restore its land continues and will require continuing resolve and sacrifice. Above all, it will require a resolute and disciplined society in line with Putin's ambition.

Which brings us back to the point of the election: It confirms that Russia is Putin. Putin is Russia. A total Russian effort is required. Dissent will not be tolerated. Slacking off is sabotage. Disloyalty to Putin is treason. This is the roadmap for the future distilled in his fifth run for the presidency.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser to the president of RAND. An analyst of unconventional warfare, terrorism, and psychological operations, he has written about Russia's strategy of manipulating perceptions, and the consequences of the Ukraine War.

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