The Week In Russia: The 87 Percent Solution 

By: - April 2, 2024

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I’m Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL’s Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what’s ahead.

Putin claims a landslide victory in what a monitoring group calls Russia’s “dirtiest, most falsified” election ever. The predictable vote was dominated by the death of the Kremlin’s biggest foe, Aleksei Navalny, and the defiance of the citizens who turned out to mourn him.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

‘The Decisive Vote’

On paper, President Vladimir Putin ran against three challengers in the March 15-17 election. But his real opponent was Aleksei Navalny.

If that wasn’t clear when the brief, bland campaign began in December, it was plain as day on February 16, when Russia’s penitentiary service announced that Navalny, 47, had died at a harsh Arctic prison known as Polar Wolf. During a visit a day earlier, his mother said, he was in good spirits and seemed relatively healthy, over two years of harsh treatment behind bars notwithstanding.

His family and many friends and supporters charge that Putin had Navalny killed, possibly in connection with a proposed prisoner swap that could have freed him and removed him from Russia — the homeland to which he returned in January 2021, despite the obvious likelihood of arrest, after barely surviving a nerve-agent poisoning he blamed on the president and the Federal Security Service.

Others say it’s more likely he died as a result of his time in prison, during which he spent more than 300 days in solitary punishment cells and reported that was subjected to frequent mistreatment, including sleep deprivation and the denial of medical care.

Either way, his death was the defining event of an election whose outcome was never in doubt — much as his defiance over more than a decade as Putin’s most prominent foe, and the Kremlin’s efforts to blunt his challenge — shaped Russian politics amid an ever-tightening clampdown on dissent.

“The decisive vote in this weekend’s Russian presidential elections was cast on 16 February,” Sam Greene, a professor at the Kings Russia Institute in London, wrote in a blog post on March 17.

The Hegemon And The Heretic

The indelible images from recent weeks in Russia came from Navalny’s funeral and the days that followed, when tens of thousands of people came to pay their respects.

Navalny was a politician, but in the weeks before and after his death, the preelection battle played out mostly beyond the realm of electoral politics, from which he had been banished years earlier when he was barred from challenging Putin for the presidency in 2018.

As a result, the threat Navalny posed to Putin seemed to transcend politics. Case in point: For more than a decade, Putin never uttered Navalny’s name in public — but he has done so now that Navalny is dead.

“For Putin,” Greene wrote, “Navalny was dangerous not because he could have won an election or led a revolution. Rather, Navalny died for the reason that dogmatists have murdered heretics for millennia: his example threatened one day to provoke a crisis of faith.”

Chased first out of politics and then into prison, Navalny never had a chance of making anything close to a decisive difference in the election this month. But he represented a vision for the future, something analysts say has been conspicuously absent from Putin in his public remarks amid the war against Ukraine, including a February 29 state-of-the-nation speech.

In contrast with Navalny’s talk of a “beautiful Russia of the future,” Putin’s election campaign “offered no discernible platform for change or progress, and neither did those of his three Kremlin-approved opponents,” Greene wrote.

“The Kremlin worked hard to ensure that these elections — which would, should he serve to the end of his next six-year term, extend [Putin’s] rule longer than Stalin’s — were devoid of any vision for Russia’s future,” Greene wrote.

Borne Back Ceaselessly

Putin instead has evoked the past, or a frequently falsified version of it, to justify Russia’s conduct today. Critics say he is pulling Russia back in time and is trying to do the same with the rest of the world, with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine — with its obliterated cities, vermin-infested trenches, and war crimes evincing comparisons with the worst of the 20th century and beyond — providing the most blatant and bitter example.

“Having failed to find a path to the future, having lost the race for it to both the Global West and the Global East, but at the same time having leadership ambitions, Putin’s regime began — with stunning energy — to make its way into the past,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, wrote in November.

“Instead of catching up with modernization, the Russian system chose to catch up in the opposite historical direction, with de-modernization, the peak of which was the ‘Special Operation’ project,” he wrote, referring to the Kremlin’s legally enforceable term for its war against Ukraine.

In times of war, candidates for high office often hold out the prospect that they will bring peace — Volodymyr Zelenskiy did so during his successful presidential campaign in Ukraine in 2019, as the war in the Donbas dragged on, but Russia’s full-scale invasion ensued instead.

Putin has made no such promise — on the contrary, he has repeatedly cast the war against Ukraine and the confrontation with the West as facts of life, elements of a new normal that are here to stay.

If anything, analysts say, the Russian state’s oppression at home and aggression against Ukraine may get worse now that he has secured a new six-year term — and done so with an official result, 87.3 percent of the vote, that the Kremlin is using to claim almost monolithic support despite evidence of widescale fraud.

The independent monitoring group Golos called the vote “the dirtiest, most falsified presidential election” in Russian history.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the marginalization of civil society and the “intense repression” of independent voices in Russia mean it “can only be described as undemocratic.”

Since the election, there has been no letup in the onslaught against Ukraine.

Since the election, there has been no letup in the onslaught against Ukraine — in fact, Russian attacks appear to have intensified.

In addition to residential areas, Russian missiles and drones targeted power plants, dams, and other infrastructure on March 22, in what energy in what Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko called “the largest attack on the Ukrainian energy industry in recent times.”

On March 21, Russian forces fired 31 missiles at Kyiv, Ukrainian officials said, in the biggest assault on the capital in weeks.

A day earlier, authorities in the eastern city of Kharkiv said five people were killed by Russian shelling there, and two civilians were killed in the Kherson region in the south when their car was hit.

On March 15, the first day of voting in the presidential election — which Russia also held illegally in the parts of Ukraine that it controls — a massive missile-and-drone attack killed 20 people in Odesa, the Black Sea port that Putin falsely called “a Russian city” in December.

That’s it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

Yours,

Steve Gutterman

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to [email protected].

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