Putin Will Win, But the Show Must Go On

The Russian president is poised for another term—and conflict with the West has done wonders for his popularity.

A man enters a polling booth in Russia's 2018 presidential elections.
A man enters a polling booth in Russia's 2018 presidential elections. (Yuri Maltsev / Reuters)

MOSCOW—There are seven candidates challenging Vladimir Putin in Russia’s elections on Sunday, and yet the atmosphere here is something less than suspenseful. The incumbent president, at age 65, has been in power since 2000, and there’s no doubt that he will remain there for another term. The chief unknown concerns how many will vote.

The Kremlin is hoping for, at a minimum, a 70 percent turnout, with Putin winning 70 percent of the votes—a possibility that is hardly unreasonable, with Putin’s popularity, according to reliable polls, standing at more than 80 percent.  (The Kremlin’s control of the airwaves helps account for this.) A high turnout with overwhelming support for Putin will serve to legitimize his victory among friends and foes alike, even though the electoral process looks to many to have been rigged to exclude Putin’s chief potential competitor, the anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. (Navalny was barred thanks to a conviction, and suspended prison sentence, for embezzlement on what appear to be trumped-up charges.) Navalny enjoys unquestionable, if still minority, backing, especially among the young, and has called for a boycott of the election.

Yet the show must go on. For the past few months, a series of debates, conducted on state television without Putin, the sole candidate who matters, has served to underscore little more than most of the contenders’ manifest unsuitability for the presidency—surely the intended result. (Putin has not taken part, adhering to Russian traditions by which the head of state remains aloof, tsarlike, above the fray.) Insults, deranged rants, and even fisticuffs have prevailed—without, of course, any candidate engaging in direct criticism of Putin. The opposition figure and journalist, Ksenia Sobchak, labeled (unjustly) by some in the Western press as “Russia’s Paris Hilton” for her stint on a reality TV show that ended six years ago, suffered especially brutal (and sexist) derision for her liberal views.

Yet for all the fire and fury flooding the airwaves now, and in contrast to the pre-election protest era of 2011-2012—that began with demonstrations against falsified State Duma elections and nevertheless ended with Putin winning his current term in office—these are days of resignation among most in the Russian electorate. The opposition six years ago fractured and lacked a cohesive, consistent message; now, with the exception of Navalny, it also much tamer and less ambitious than it was. Putin, it is assumed, will win.

But it was not always this way.

In the 1990s, when strikes plagued Russia, poverty was spreading, pensions went unpaid, the ruble collapsed, life expectancy plummeted, and presidential elections convulsed the country like natural disasters, it’s almost impossible to remember how politicized daily life was, how political arguments sundered families and wrecked friendships. Long gone are memories of how, in 1993, then-President Boris Yeltsin shelled his own parliament (called the Supreme Soviet at the time) to quell a political insurgency against him and the economic “shock therapy” he had imposed. Yet the constitution that grants the current Russian president almost tsarlike powers dates from the immediate aftermath of this armed conflict on Moscow’s streets, and was drafted to make sure it never happened again.

What is keeping Putin so popular? In large part, the West itself. The sense is strong in Russia that the country is under siege. This is both because of sanctions imposed (and relentlessly multiplied for one reason or another, from Russian intervention in Ukraine to alleged election meddling in the U.S.) by the United States and the European Union, and because of the expansion of NATO (in violation of promises made by the first Bush administration to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev), which has also brought with it the placement of missile defense installations near Russia’s borders. The overthrow, in 2014, of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych—basically a Putin ally—coupled with the 2008 Bucharest Declaration that Ukraine (and Georgia) will one day join the alliance, prompted Putin to seize Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. This was the moment that provoked the ongoing West-versus-Russia standoff and provides the backdrop for the still-unproven charges of President Trump’s “collusion” with the Kremlin’s interference in America’s 2016 election.

All this has convinced many Russians that the West, and the United States in particular, is out to get Russia—or, at the very least, utterly disregards Russia’s perceptions of its security interests (which do not coincide with having the world’s most powerful military alliance move up to its borders). The West’s ceaseless demonization of Putin personally has in fact sanctified him, turned him into the Patron Saint of Russia. After all, this is a country that has been invaded from the West three times in the past two centuries alone, and has grown accustomed to a siege mentality. The outbreak of the current conflict with the West has done wonders for Putin’s popularity, which has remained above 80 percent since 2014. In fact, the standoff, by turning Russians’ attention to dangers originating abroad, may have actually saved his presidency, which only seven years ago had appeared weakened by the protest movement.

The possibility of armed conflict breaking out between Russia and NATO now looms, with Russian and NATO forces facing off in the Baltic region, Russian and U.S. troops operating in close proximity in Syria, and the Trump administration deciding to supply the Kiev government with lethal weapons it may use against Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. This has alarmed at least four U.S. senators enough that they are urging the Trump administration to resume strategic dialogue with Moscow. It’s worth noting that Sobchak, the liberal Russian presidential candidate and the sole woman running against Putin, has called for a “reset” of relations with the United States, and has even traveled to Washington to deliver that message.

You could easily argue that Putin has driven the country down a dead-end street, with only sanctions and more sanctions on the horizon. But Russians are used to hunkering down and suffering hardship for the sake of their country. In a time of perceived crisis, they show no sign of backing away from him. Given the potential consequences of war with Russia, and the fact that policies designed to punish and “isolate” Russia economically have not worked, U.S. talks with the Kremlin have a better chance of succeeding at, among other things, reducing tensions in the Baltic region and extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (set to expire in 2021). It’s undeniable that Russia has the power to disrupt a world order largely dominated by the United States—what Russia needs is a stake in adhering to that order. Differences between Russia and the West will remain; the point is to contain them through dialogue and prevent them from leading to catastrophe.

Will the Trump administration heed the senators’ call for talks with Russia—with Putin elected anew to the presidency? Will Trump, beleaguered by charges of collusion with Moscow, have the political fortitude to make meaningful overtures to Russia, as Nixon, at the height of the Cold War, did with the Soviet Union and China, to the outrage of so many Republicans?

These questions seem to answer themselves. And that should worry us all.