Whether or not Russia's elections were fully fair, the world needs to face up to what Putin's victory really means

The Russia that will be forged by President Putin over the next few years and beyond will be a more contemporary and modern version of authoritarianism, and not a mere copy or revival of any particular model from Russia’s past

Sunday 18 March 2018 19:11 GMT
Putin casts his vote
Putin casts his vote (Reuters)

Official reports of a 100 per cent turnout in a supposedly free and fair election are usually the most blatant indication that it is anything but. So it was with some districts in the Russian Federation, if anything substantiating long-held suspicions that the entire exercise was merely a propaganda stunt for Vladimir Putin.

As such, the election wasn’t much more convincing than the absurdist results recorded during Soviet times, routinely disregarded by the rest of the world. It is true that President Putin permitted some other candidates and criticism to surface during his sham election – but they were tightly controlled. Anything or anyone who looked too unreliable was unceremoniously suppressed.

Given the circumstances, it was essential that Mr Putin deny his opponents the only real weapon they possessed: a low turnout that would indicate weariness and disaffection with his regime.

The uncomfortable truth is that Mr Putin does enjoy popular support, though exaggerated by him. Some Russians, convinced by his crude nationalism, are genuinely devoted to the new strong man for Mother Russia, while many others are frightened about what he is doing to their nation. And that is to set Russia more firmly on a path to a new authoritarian nationalism. Popular in Russia or not, it is worrying for the rest of the world and will not serve them well.

It is a moment to understand what Russians – and the rest of the world – will be in for as Mr Putin becomes the nation’s longest-serving leader in more than a century when he surpasses Stalin’s record in a few years. The new authoritarianism of Putin is not a reborn Tsarist one, if only because he lacks a dynastic tendency and is a more intelligent operator than the Romanovs usually proved themselves, both more attuned and able to manipulate the present sense of national hurt and humiliation after the fall of the Soviet empire. It is symbolic, for example, that these are the first Russian elections to be held in illegally occupied Ukrainian Crimea. On the other hand, Mr Putin and his family are sometimes accused of acquiring personal wealth that might make even a tsar envious about their sheer audacity.

Mr Putin, though a scion of the KGB, is no communist. Certainly he has a clear notion that the Russian state needs to direct its resources and businesses towards some goal of national greatness. He also is demonstrably hostile to some oligarchs. Yet there is no impulse to expropriate private property without compensation on a vast scale or bring in five year plans and outlaw markets. Lenin has not been reborn inside that muscular little torso.

Mr Putin seems in fact rather uninterested in economics and reforming Russia’s failing industries. Even though Russia remains today a military and nuclear superpower, its economy ranks about the same size as Australia, Spain and South Korea. Mr Putin is repeating one of the cardinal errors that led to the collapse of the USSR – vast military expenditures at the expense of living standards and productive investment. Western sanctions, though a useful political badge of honour for Mr Putin, continue to damage the material base for his military and territorial ambitions. In the end, that may undo him.

Mr Putin is also unlike his predecessors because the theatres of war available to him are wider now. Proxy wars, as in Syria, are still practised, but now there is also cyber warfare and, as Britain has suffered, violent espionage.

Territorial expansion, thanks mainly to Nato and the EU in Europe, will not be as open to Mr Putin as Stalin or Catherine the Great; but that will not prevent him from gradually pulling former Soviet republics and the forgotten lands east of Romania and across the Caucasus into Central Asia back into a Russian sphere of influence. It will not be as crude, usually, as a simple military annexation. Even in Crimea and Ukraine, the Russians chose to camouflage their own forces and deploy proxies and mercenaries. Territorial ambitions in the 21st century will be achieved through different means including using gas supplies as a weapon of economic warfare, and the threat of computer attacks as blackmail.

Had the Russian media been free to report more comprehensively on the attempted murders of the Skripals, they might conceivably have helped Mr Putin in his campaign, demonstrating his ruthlessness in going after traitors abroad, an entirely legal activity for the Russian government under their own laws. It is revealing, then, that the Kremlin is apparently so embarrassed by their activities that the media downplayed the story. The Russian ambassador’s suggestion that the British themselves tried to kill the Skripals – or perhaps the Swedes or the Czech Republic – has an echo of some of the sillier propaganda that the Soviets tried to put around in the bad old days.

The Russia that will be forged by President Putin over the next few years and beyond will be a more contemporary and modern version of authoritarianism, and not a mere copy or revival of any particular model from Russia’s past. We know already its main outlines, and the effects on the rest of the world. They are as chilling as anything during the Cold War. A high turnout and support in the federal elections will renew Mr Putin’s mandate, but in truth he needs little encouragement.

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