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Why Putin Isn’t Forever

The Kremlin’s political theater shouldn’t be mistaken for an election or symbol of stability. It’s a sign of Putin’s weakness and the country’s descent into a deeper tyranny.

By Damon Wilson

March 2024

This weekend Russia will hold its eighth presidential election since the fall of the Soviet Union. It will be Vladimir Putin’s fifth time running, and there is no doubt that after the official results are tallied, he will be inaugurated for another six-year term. There is even speculation among top opposition leaders that we can already predict the figures the Central Election Commission will report on Sunday when the polls close. Putin will garner around 83 percent of the vote, and turnout will reach 78 percent. How do we know this? They are the Kremlin’s “desired targets,” and in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, what the Kremlin says matters more than reality.

Suffice it to say, the event that will take place over the next three days across Russia is not a real contest. Its outcome should not be taken as an indicator of Russian support for Putin, his disastrous war in Ukraine, or the stability of his regime. The image that the Kremlin desperately wants to project with this charade — that Putin is a strong leader who enjoys the support of his people — is a fiction that has relied on 24 years of procedural manipulation and increasing political repression, including the murder of his main political rival, Alexei Navalny, in a remote Arctic prison in mid-February.

It may seem obvious, even silly, to point out that the Russian presidential election will be neither free, nor fair, nor legitimate given the trajectory of the country over the last decade. However, this exercise in political theater will be touted by the Kremlin to legitimize Putin’s continued rule at a significant inflection point for Russia, Ukraine, and democracy worldwide.

It is all the more crucial, then, that we understand the election for what it is and what it is not.

This election reflects Russia’s descent into deeper tyranny, but it does not mean that we must deal with Putin forever. The system that Putin has built, while more resilient than expected, is a highly personalized dictatorship, and unstable by nature. This is therefore not the time to disengage from the efforts — both inside and outside of Russia — to challenge the legitimacy of his regime.

First and foremost, we must not allow the specter of perpetual Putinism to affect our support for Ukraine. As the full-scale war there rages into its third year, some in the West may be persuaded to accept these election results as justification to further delay much-needed military assistance or open peace negotiations with Russia at the expense of Ukrainian freedom. Much attention has been paid to the difficulties faced by the Ukrainian army, but Russian advances have come at a high cost. The recent “suicide” of a pro-Russia military blogger who accurately reported the tens of thousands of Russian casualties in the capture of Avdiivka indicate that the Kremlin recognizes the increasing risk of public backlash as the war continues and losses mount.

Second, we cannot allow the Kremlin propaganda about this election to go uncontested throughout the world. The Kremlin-controlled media outlets RT and Sputnik have penetrated deeply into regions of the Global South and Middle East, seeding narratives that exploit well-founded criticism of Western hypocrisy and the very idea of authentic democracy. Holding fake elections in Russia is not more democratic than postponing elections in Ukraine during wartime. We must not cede this space to destructive Russian messaging. We instead need to provide greater support to local civil society groups in these regions that can advocate for real electoral contestation.

Third, we need to invest into Russian civil society and its vision for a democratic future.

Underneath the regime’s effective apparatus of violence and repression, there are clear signals indicating that the Russian people are deeply skeptical of the regime and hungry for change. Earlier in the campaign, hundreds of thousands of Russians lined up to support the efforts of Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin to register as antiwar candidates. Official governmental pollsters have admitted that only 10 to 15 percent of the population actively support the war, and Levada Center independent polling shows that more than half the population would favor an immediate end to the war and holding peace negotiations.

Throughout the country, wives and mothers are demanding the return of soldiers from the front and protesting the state’s flagrant disregard for human life. And with the uptick in repression, ordinary Russian citizens have united to raise funds, write letters, and elevate the voices of the growing numbers of political prisoners — clearly seeing them as victims of Kremlin tyranny, not as enemies of the people.

In death, Alexei Navalny has marshaled a greater authentic reaction from Russian society than anything the Kremlin has organized over the last decade. More than eight-million people viewed the livestream of the funeral service online, and tens of thousands went to the cemetery in person to lay flowers at Navalny’s grave. Videos circulated online that showed mourners bursting into spontaneous chants to denounce Putin and the war in Ukraine.

Putin’s fifth term portends an increase in political repression — a new wave of mobilization may be announced, and government censors may finally try to fully block YouTube. Nevertheless, we must do what we can to ensure that Navalny’s legacy of civic involvement and political participation can survive to pave the way for a future democratic opening in Russia. For this, greater resources and more strategic thinking are needed to reconsider the West’s approach toward the country, including sustained support to Russia’s independent media and its democratic movement.

As democratically minded Russians go to the polls on Sunday at noon to participate in a collective demonstration called for by Navalny’s team, they may spoil their ballots or vote for anyone other than the incumbent. Whatever they decide to do in the voting booth, they will no doubt remember Navalny’s refrain: “Don’t give up.”

We can’t give up either.

Damon Wilson is president and CEO of the National Endowment for Democracy.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Wang Zhao via Getty Images




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