The key election for Russia is in November

The outcome of the Russian presidential vote was expected and won’t change the Russian status quo; the US election could.

Leonid Ragozin

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Riga.

Published On 19 Mar 202419 Mar 2024President Vladimir Putin speaks at his election campaign headquarters, after polling stations closed on the final day of the presidential election in Moscow, Russia on March 17, 2024 [Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

The Russian presidential election was not expected to be a cliffhanger. The victory of incumbent President Vladimir Putin was very much ensured by the absence of registered candidates who could truly challenge his re-election. Yet it is an important milestone which marks another six years of Putin – the most militant and aggressive version of him – in charge of Russia.

The Kremlin framed what essentially is the incumbent’s self-reappointment as a plebiscite on the war in Ukraine – a carefully choreographed performance aimed at convincing both Russian and Western audiences that an overwhelming majority of Russians stand behind the regime’s effort to defeat Ukraine and undermine the West. In his post-election news conference late on Sunday, Putin said that people came to the polls in large numbers in order “to create conditions for internal political consolidation”.

On the eve of the election, Kremlin sources were telling various Russian independent media outlets that the need to demonstrate national unity prompted the presidential administration to set the unprecedented target of achieving 80 percent of votes in Putin’s favour. The end result was even higher – more than 87 percent.

Several factors contributed to achieving this surreal result: the intense brainwashing through Russian state media that channel the Kremlin’s toxic propaganda; vote-buying through the expansion of the welfare state and various social benefits on the eve of the election; and ballot stuffing and rigging through the opaque early voting and electronic voting systems.

The Kremlin has turned the electoral system into an impregnable fortress, this time barring even the most conformist opposition candidates from appearing on the ballot. The vast majority of real, nonconformist opposition politicians and activists have gone into exile since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The leader of the opposition, Alexey Navalny, died in a Russian prison under suspicious circumstances last month. Remarkably, Putin’s post-election speech was the first time when he referred to Navalny by his name – something he avoided doing during their decade-long bitter rivalry.

But this picture wouldn’t be complete without considering another important factor that drove Russians to vote for Putin: the historical fear and mistrust of the West. The United States and the European Union have done very little to convince the Russian population of their good intentions and instead strove to isolate Russia from its immediate neighbours by pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration that welcomed anyone, except Russia.

This exclusion, which derives from the mindless Western triumphalism in the decades that followed the collapse of the USSR, forms an organic component of Putin’s support. It also explains why so many Russians buy the Kremlin’s narratives about the war in Ukraine being both inevitable and existential for Russia.

No matter which side made a greater contribution to the conflict between Russia and the West, Putin emerges as its chief beneficiary. It prolonged his political life by decades. It even helped him maintain a strong grip on power when the invasion of Ukraine threatened to upend his “social contract” with the Russian people – ie, the informal agreement that his leadership would not be challenged in exchange for him providing stability and an improved standard of living.

While the scope of this sentiment is difficult to measure, it is safe to say that it would still play a role, even if the Russian political system were to open up to fair competition.

For now, the Kremlin has managed to cushion the majority from the effects of war, with only a small part of the population – the most voiceless and destitute – suffering the consequences of its devastating human losses.

Whether it will stay that way during Putin’s new term is an open question. It all depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine, which Putin has a good chance of ending on his terms, as things now stand on the front line.

Imaginary or real, the perceived national unity behind the war effort, provides Putin with a mandate to increase mobilisation in order to make decisive advances in Ukraine that could pressure the country into capitulation.

It’s far from clear whether Ukraine has an answer to that – its legislators are not rushing to adopt an unpopular mobilisation law, while the provision of crucial US assistance is being stalled in the Congress by Republicans allied with Donald Trump. Even if this money is eventually disbursed, the current troubles suggest that it will be even more difficult to fund the Ukrainian war effort beyond this year, no matter who wins the US presidential election in November.

Polls currently show President Joe Biden’s rival, Trump, as the likely winner of the US presidential race. If elected, he may or may not change the course of events in Ukraine. He has indeed promised to end the war “within 24 hours”, but his first term clearly showed that his stance on supporting Ukraine could also align to a certain extent with Biden’s. Trump authorised the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine – something which the Obama administration was reluctant to do – and launched a campaign against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which was supposed to supply Russian gas to Europe.

Trump’s election victory could be more consequential for Russia in a different way. His return to power would mean the American public has decided to take the path of sovereignism and nativism, of national and corporate interests explicitly trumping values at all times. This would signal a new era for the rest of the world, especially for Europe.

In this new world, Putin would be seen less as a rogue leader and more as an early pioneer of the new global political paradigm and definitely as someone the US could make a pragmatic deal with – and not only on Ukraine. It will vindicate his position after decades of isolation and ostracism and restore his membership in the club of world leaders.

In this sense, there is more at stake in the US election for Putin and Russia than in Russia’s own.

On the bright side, the belated realisation that Russia represents a grotesque manifestation of the Western crisis of values, rather than its own inherent evilness, may help those in the West who still cherish universal values to begin a critical reassessment of Western policies towards Russia in the last 30 years.

The Russian opposition has a lot to say about how the unholy alliance of irresponsible oligarchy and paranoid securitocrats can undo democratic institutions and other achievements of civilisation. Its experience will be of great value in the process of forming a global coalition to oppose creeping authoritarianism and to uphold universal values, rather than geopolitical interests.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.