As was widely expected, on Sunday Vladimir Putin was once again reinstalled (reconfirmed, re-enthroned) in the Kremlin. The term “elected” cannot be used in this case since nothing that happened on March 18, 2018, or in the months leading to this date, qualifies for the internationally recognized basic standards of the term “election.”
In full control of the Kremlin for more than 18 years, Putin has already been at the top of the Russian state longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader in the last century—including Leonid Brezhnev—and is now left to compete only with the three-decade reign of Joseph Stalin.
The official numbers of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) gave Putin 76.7% of the vote with a turnout of 67.5%, making up almost 52% of Russia’s electorate. According to the CEC, the official number of people who voted for Putin was 56.4 million. However, Sergei Shpilkin, the renowned expert in electoral statistics, has estimated that ballot stuffing this year amounted to at least 10 million. In each of the three previous cases of “presidential elections” (in 2004, 2008, 2012) Shpilkin and his colleagues calculated the number of added (falsified) votes at between 8.8 and 14.6 million.
Whatever the actual level of Putin’s public support, the official numbers provide Putin with a level of legitimacy that Russian presidents never had before. The real question that now arises is how he is going to use it.
The general consensus is that Putin’s policy on the domestic front would be a still further tightening of his grip on the last remnants of civil society, a further destruction of the already almost-fully-destroyed rule of law, meager—if any—meaningful economic reforms, and definitely a new level of ideologization of Russian society based on anti-liberal, conservative, Orthodox religious values. Russia’s level of political rights and civil liberties in previous years has been sliding down to non-free status. Now its status is just one notch above the very bottom in Freedom House’s political freedom index, meaning that it is close to the level of the totalitarian regimes of Cuba and North Korea. Given Putin’s persistence and Russia’s rapid political deterioration, it is rather hard not to expect that Russia will soon sink to the lowest level in the political freedom index.
As for Putin’s possible foreign policy in the coming years, we can get a hint of it based on a number of his recent statements, comments, and interviews. It appears that Putin’s traditional interest in disturbing Russia’s immediate neighbors and grabbing pieces of land in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine has been visibly redirected towards Belarus, since Mr. Lukashenko’s dictatorship—lacking any serious foreign allies except for Russia—seems to be particularly vulnerable to absorption. In addition, the Russian “czar” has started to look for more ambitious targets beyond the borders of the former Soviet republics. Recently, his attention has been directed towards his key adversary—the United States—and the most irritating part for him within the United States, its democratic political system. In the documentary movie “The World Order, 2018,” which was prepared by the Kremlin propaganda team before the March presidential vote, Putin firmly articulated his two approaches to the United States: to be emphatically positive towards president Trump and to show strong “disappointment with the unpredictable [democratic] political system” of the United States.
Otherwise, in his interview with NBC anchor Megan Kelly, Putin appeared even more decisive—by naming (unprecedentedly) five times the most crucial problem for him and his key partner (president Trump): namely, the United States political system and the United States Congress. He blamed Congress for all of America’s alleged crimes, such as intervention into Russian internal affairs, different accusations of Russia, proclaiming Russia as an enemy, and the introduction of sanctions against Russia—something that Putin has never done before. It remains to be seen what particular instruments he is ready to apply towards this enemy—intervention into congressional elections this Autumn, cyber-attacks, propaganda, blackmail, or otherwise. But having seen Putin’s approach for years, it is hard not to foresee that one of the main targets of his aggressive foreign policy—either open, or clandestine, or both—in the coming years is going to be the democratic political system of the United States, with the United States Congress at its center.