by Pavlina Pavlova

After the country went to the polls on Sunday 18 March, few were surprised in Russia and abroad that incumbent President Vladimir Putin won the elections. He has dominated the country’s political landscape for almost two decades and ruled longer than any Russian leader since Stalin. Putin is nowadays as much a symbol of Russia as the bear, the matryoshkas and the two-headed eagle. He has monopolised the country’s political landscape and become the sole face of the country.

From an external perspective, to offend Putin nowadays means to offend Russia, and when speaking about Russia’s next steps, one unavoidably thinks in realms of what Putin intends to do. Internally, the Kremlin’s decades of strict control over media and all the country’s political processes have produced a situation where it is possible to complain about corruption or poor socio-economic situation, but where criticising Putin personally is close to be perceived as an act of treason. Even more so after annexing Crimea, criticism of the government came to be regarded as unacceptable.

While one can question the official numbers, Putin is genuinely popular and enjoys high approval ratings. The problem comes when defining what support means, after eighteen years of a personality cult. As well-known Putin critic and chess champion Garry Kasparov puts it: “I’m fond of asking in response to Putin’s ‘popularity’; is a restaurant considered popular if it were the only one in town and every other restaurant was burned to the ground?”

Challenging Putin would only be possible if there was an alternative, but the consequence of managed democracy is that there is essentially no viable political path for any alternative to him. As a result, a defining feature of Russian voters is, unavoidably, apathy. Supporters or not, if Putin will be elected anyway, why should I cast my vote? The public has low expectations and as acknowledged in a survey conducted by Levada Centre, the leading independent polling organisation working in the country, very few Russians believe elections are a realistic means of changing anything.

As real competition is traditionally absent, the authorities focused on the turnout of the elections as a crucial indicator of the leader’s legitimacy. Putin needed a strong turnout to keep potential challengers far and supporters close. As long as he can show strong public support, his position is unchallenged. For now, the Kremlin’s elites can sleep peacefully, though the dreamed 70/70 scenario – a 70% vote for Putin and a 70% turn-out didn’t come true. The 67.5% turnout was respectable and the just under 77% support over-fulfilled the quota. In comparison, in the previous elections the turnout was 65.25% and the support for Putin 63.6%. The President overpassed even his best result from 2004 – in overall numbers, the second presidency was supported by about 50 million people, the fourth one by 56 million. Aside from suspicions about rigged votes, one can conclude that deservingly so. Putin sustained the atmosphere of crisis and exploited various international scandals – building his popularity on ‘them against us’ rhetoric and strengthening need for solidarity towards him among Russian voters.

The politician who was at the beginning of his presidency in the early 2000s, a pro-Western exception in a pool of anti-Western Russian elites, is now the loudest protector of Russians “being attacked from all sides”. Investigations of the alleged election meddling abroad, the doping ban imposed by the International Olympic Committee, and the United Kingdom’s accusation that the Kremlin ordered a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian double agent –are all strengthening Putin’s internal position by creating an environment of threat and diverting attention from internal problems Who could question Putin if the West is questioning us, the nation, through him?

The strategy of chaos helped to secure a strong mandate for the next six years, but what is next to expect from the country under the new old leader? Russian foreign policy has often been demonised, particularly after the annexation of Crimea and the country’s involvement in eastern Ukraine. Putin is redefining 21st-century warfare, which is no longer bound by the limits of the nation-state, but the basic line remains simple. As with all players in global politics, Russia will have to react to rapidly changing situations, trying to reduce its risks, exploit its gains and retain its conquests. Russian foreign policy is more likely to be risk- evasive than risk-taking.

The Russian stance on the troubled frozen conflict with their western neighbour was reiterated by the fact that the date of the election was moved to correspond to the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea region. Putin is determined to preserve his image back at home as a guarantor of stability and minimalise risks of external disruption. This does not exclude a possibility of expansionist politics, but such actions would be reactions to unforeseen circumstances rather than long-term strategic plans. Instead, non-conventional warfare such as cyber warfare and disinformation campaigns will play primary role.

If Russia changes in the next election cycle, it will not be due to external pressure, but because of internal tensions. With record-high turnout and support we could assume that Russia is heading for a long period of stability or stagnation, depending on one’s perspective, but while the outside world is focusing on Putin, the structure of power in Russia is about to face crucial re-organisation.

Putin’s ascent to power was accompanied by federal reforms that created bases for a vertical power structure in Russia by taking power from regional leaders. What could be his last term – he will be 72 in 2024 when finishing his mandate and the Russian Constitution allows only two consecutive terms for the President – will be defined by regrouping around potential successors. He may decide to seek elimination of the constitutional limit of two consecutive Presidential terms, reshuffle for taking the seat as a prime minister as he did in 2008-2012 or nominate a loyal successor and hold the power from behind.

Regardless of the direction he takes, Putin needs to start preparing Russia for life after him and he will be doing so in an increasingly difficult environment. More dominant side-line players will be emerging, trying to secure their grip on power and get more autonomy for themselves. As appetite always comes with eating, their loyalty and relationship with state will be shifting as they become bolder in the pursuit of autonomy. With time passing the question of his successor will continue to be more pressing and talks about post-Putin era louder. Without organised attempts to direct the inevitable replacement, the power structure built over two decades may crumble. The crucial question for Europe’s security is thus not what another six years with Putin will bring, but what will be coming after him.

23 April 2018
This text was published in Bullseye issue 72