Putin Didn’t Think He Would Fool Anyone

The sham referendum in Ukraine was for domestic consumption.

Illustration showing ballot box, with a ballot that is white on one side but the shows the Russian flag on the other side.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

The Kremlin announced the results of several election-style events in Ukraine this week, claiming that four occupied regions had voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia. Now President Vladimir Putin will move to annex them.

There’s something mysterious about the results. Not whether they were a sham; they clearly were. (The words referendum and election should never be used to describe a process in which men with guns knock on your door and then force you to fill out a ballot while they watch.) What’s mysterious is the scale of the sham victory. According to the official figures released by the Kremlin, the percentages of the four regions voting to join Russia were as follows: 99, 98, 93, and 87.

Absolutely nobody believes those figures are legitimate, which Putin should have anticipated. Why would a seemingly savvy regime choose to release such obviously farcical tallies?

I’ve studied election rigging for the past decade. What usually separates the amateurs from the professionals is the margin of victory. The amateurs take a “go big” attitude to stroke their ego and assert unquestioned dominance. Saddam Hussein is the poster dictator for this ineffective strategy: His 2002 presidential referendum produced a result in which not a single counted ballot was cast against him. The technique is not new, however. In the 1927 elections in Liberia, one candidate managed to receive 240,000 votes out of only 15,000 registered voters. (It’s regarded as the most rigged election in history.)

The professionals take a savvier approach. For our book, How to Rig an Election, Nic Cheesman and I interviewed people who had rigged elections. What many of them told us is that there is a rigging “sweet spot,” which is probably about 60 to 65 percent, decisive enough to crush the opposition but nonetheless believable to outsiders. We describe how dictators occasionally even take the extraordinary step of rigging elections downward when their henchmen have stuffed ballot boxes too aggressively.

Russians have long been election-rigging innovators. They understand how to manipulate in style, often with brazen strategies to engineer the “correct” result. In one municipal election in the late 1990s, party officials plotted to split the vote away from the “real” opposition candidate, Oleg Sergeyev, by putting two other men named Oleg Sergeyev on the ballot (one was a tram driver, the other a pensioner). Last year in St. Petersburg, voters were confronted with three Boris Vishnevskys on the ballot. One was the “real” one; the other two had not only changed their name, but also altered their appearance so that their photographs on the ballot were largely indistinguishable from the man they were trying to impersonate.

Given that Russian elections are routinely rigged in clever ways, the 99 percent results in Ukraine cannot be attributed to ignorance or naivete. Instead, the most plausible explanation is that these elections are not about international legitimacy or providing political cover for annexation. Both efforts would be dead on arrival no matter the tally, and Putin has already accepted his status as an international pariah. (Clearly, Putin sometimes even relishes his status as the geopolitical “bad boy” who annexes territory and commits war crimes.)

Rather, the tallies were produced for consumption within Russia. What the Kremlin wanted was a resounding pro-Russian verdict that could be dutifully reported by stooges on state propaganda networks.

Some Russians will, of course, doubt the figures, but a verdict of 99 percent is consistent with the funhouse-mirror world that Kremlin propagandists have already created for their viewers. After months of messaging that Ukraine is a “fake country,” near-unanimous desire to join a “real country”—one not run by “Nazis”—follows logically. Besides, the media apparatus in Russia aims not to convince the people of what is true, but rather to convince them, as the journalist Peter Pomerantsev puts it, that “nothing is true, and everything is possible.”

The announcement of these results has likely been timed to quell dissent domestically by reinforcing the official line that Russians are fighting on the side of justice. After mobilizing hundreds of thousands of conscripts, Putin’s regime is in a precarious position. It must continue to present Russian forces as a liberating army, working to deliver what Ukrainians themselves want. This authoritarian, imperialist state is using the veneer of so-called referenda to justify territorial expansion, implicitly acknowledging the principle that democracy is legitimate, even as the entire Russian political apparatus works against democracy at home and abroad.

Such is the modus operandi of dictators in the modern era, using the trappings and language of democracy to justify autocracy. In the past, dictators didn’t hold elections. Now they frequently hold them, rig them, and use the sham results to justify their absolute power. That’s part of the reason more elections take place now than ever before in human history, even as the world is becoming less democratic. Many of the world’s elections are rigged.

Similarly, a country with “democratic” in its official name is predictably an awful authoritarian regime. See historical examples such as the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), or modern-day exemplars such as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The autocrats have tried to co-opt democracy.

In political science, this effort to pass authoritarianism off as democracy is called “counterfeit democracy” or “electoral authoritarianism.” In the instance of the sham referenda in Ukraine, Putin was using the illusion of democracy to feed a domestic propaganda machine rather than trying to dupe an international audience. As the war shifts against Russia, we should expect to see more electoral cosplaying, as Putin the autocrat seeks to justify his tyranny with democracy theater.