Western leaders line up to condemn Putin’s sham election – as result labelled most corrupt in Russian history

‘Putin removes his political opponents, controls the media, and then crowns himself the winner. This is not democracy,’ says Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron

Tom Watling
Tuesday 19 March 2024 08:12 GMT
Western leaders denounce Putin's 'illegal' election win as allies send congratulations

Western leaders have lined up to condemn the sham election that has handed Vladimir Putin another six years in power – as an independent Russian vote monitoring group called it the most corrupt in the country’s history.

The Kremlin claimed that President Putin won more than 87 per cent of the vote, by far the biggest landslide in post-Soviet Russian history. That follows years of repression and a crackdown on dissent that has accelerated since Moscow invaded Ukraine two years ago and the whole election process being controlled. In claiming victory, Putin again sought to threaten the West against deploying troops to Ukraine, saying that a possible conflict between Russia and Nato would put the world “a step away” from a third world war.

The announcement last month that Putin’s fiercest critic, Alexei Navalny, was dead – with the opposition leader having spent his last few weeks in a brutal Arctic prison on charges that the international community have decried as trumped up – was the starkest example of the state of Putin’s Russia ahead of the election. World leaders laid the blame for Nanalny’s death at Putin’s door, and his widow Yulia called Putin “a killer, a gangster”.

Other Navalny allies later accused Putin of being a “bloodsucking bug who will soon burst” after the Russian leader said his rival’s name for the first time in public for the first time in years as he claimed victory

“Putin removes his political opponents, controls the media, and then crowns himself the winner,” said Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron. “This is not democracy.”

Golos, an independent Russian watchdog, described the vote as the most fraudulent in Russian history. Branded a “foreign agent” in 2013, the organisation was barred from sending observers to polling stations. One of its leaders, Grigory Melkonyants, is in prison awaiting trial on what Golos says are politically motivated charges.

“Never have we seen a presidential campaign so out of line with constitutional standards,” the group said in a statement. “The campaign was conducted in a situation where the foundational articles of the Russian constitution, which guarantee political rights and freedoms, were essentially not in effect.”

Noting that Putin changed the constitution in 2020 to allow him to run well beyond the two-term limit, something he has now eclipsed twice, first in 2012 and again in 2024, Golos added: “The basic constitutional safeguard against the usurpation of power has been dismantled.”

These comments were echoed by the French, German and Polish foreign ministries, as well as by the European Union and several Baltic states. Calling Russia a dictatorship, a German government spokesperson said the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, would not congratulate Putin on his re-election in a vote viewed by Berlin as “predetermined”.

Yulia Navalnaya, widow of Aleksei Navalny, outside the Russian embassy in Berlin after she voted in Russian elections on 17 March 2024 (Getty)

Lithuania, meanwhile, is set to be the first nation to formally refuse to recognise the results of the elections. The country’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, described the election as a “reappointment lacking any legitimacy” and that only three per cent of Russians who voted remotely from Lithuania signed for Putin.

“The elections are obviously not free nor fair given how Mr Putin has imprisoned political opponents and prevented others from running against him,” said John Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson.

Having declared victory at his campaign headquarters on Sunday night, Putin said the country had a lot of tasks ahead, suggesting that Russia could try and set up a buffer zone inside Ukrainian territory. A senior Ukrainian official said on Monday that this was a clear indication Moscow planned to escalate its war. “This is ... a direct manifest statement that the war will only escalate,” presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters. The Kremlin leader did not provide details but said the buffer zone may have to be big enough to stop what he said were foreign-made weapons striking Russian territory.

Putin also hailed his Kremlin-controlled triumph at the polls as indicative of the “trust” and “hope” the country has in his leadership, a narrative the West has been eager to dispel. Putin spoke later on Monday at a large stadium event in Moscow to mark the 10th anniversary of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, which started the path towards the current invasion. He offered more of the same war propaganda to the thousands gathered.

Ukraine has repeatedly struck at Russia’s Black Sea fleet – which is based in Crimea. Kyiv has damaged and sunk a number of warships in recent months and several other vessels have had to be moved.

Russian state media told its viewers that international congratulations were pouring in from foreign leaders around the world. In reality, though, the praise came only from a few countries.

Russia and China have become increasingly close during Xi Jinping’s rule over China (via Reuters)

Chinese president Xi Jinping, who declared a “limitless friendship” with Putin just weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, said: “Your re-election is a full demonstration of the support of the Russian people for you.

“China attaches great importance to the development of China-Russia relations and stands ready to maintain close communication with Russia to promote the sustained, healthy, stable and in-depth development of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Similar words of support came from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi. Both countries are believed to be supplying weapons to Russia to be used against Ukraine. Some Central and South American leaders and presidents of nations with historic and close current ties to Russia also passed on their regards, such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Putin also received congratulations from both India and the UAE, nations with whom the Russian leader has sought good relations in recent years. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said on X/Twitter: “Warm congratulations to H.E. Mr. Vladimir Putin on his re-election as the President of the Russian Federation.”

Given the threat of arrest for those who gathered in Russia to protest the vote, Navalny’s associates urged those unhappy with Putin or the war to go to the polls at noon on Sunday – and lines outside several polling stations both inside Russia and at its embassies around the world appeared to swell at that time. Navalny’s associates suggested thousands heeded their call.

Among those was Navalny’s widow Yulia, who spent more than five hours in the line at the Russian embassy in Berlin. She told reporters she had written her late husband’s name on her ballot. Asked whether she had a message for her country’s president, Ms Navalnaya replied: “Please stop asking for messages from me or from somebody for Mr Putin. There could be no negotiations and nothing with Mr Putin.”

Other allies of Navalny reacted with fury after Putin decided to name the opposition leader in public for the first time in years. Putin described the death as a “sad event” – despite being accused of his killing – before claiming that he had agreed to a prisoner swap just days before Navalny’s death. That was likely to rub salt in the wounds of Navalny’s family and supporters.

“Putin called Navalny by name for the first time, a month after he cynically killed him,” said Leonid Volkov, who was Navalny’s chief of staff during his presidential run in 2018. “The bloodsucking bug revels in its impunity. It will burst soon and that will be some splash.”

Georgy Alburov, another member of Navalny’s opposition movement, said: “If every serial killer was given a press conference instead of a trial, this is what it would be like.”

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