Vladimir Putin’s re-election Sunday to a fourth term as Russia’s president constitutes far less of a voter mandate than a 76 percent majority would suggest. It should not deter the West from pushing back harder against Putin’s aggressive foreign adventurism.
Under Putin, Russia’s “managed democracy” preserves the illusion of legitimate elections and a popular mandate, even though the results were fixed. Putin’s United Russia Party set itself the goal of a “70/70 election” — a 70 percent turnout and at least a 70 percent majority.
But the turnout goal apparently fell short. Anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was disqualified from the ballot, causing many younger Russians to stay home rather than vote for a stooge.
Putin’s image, maintained through absolute control of television and most news media, appeals to older Russians. The question is whether that can last to the end of his latest six-year term. In a legitimate election, economic issues would have sunk Putin.
The economy is only now showing signs of recovery after five years in the tank. Corruption is endemic. The military swallows 30 percent of the budget. The national health care system is in crisis. Pension funding is threatened. The Economic Ministry has admitted that the standard of living won’t improve much until 2035.
Putin’s security forces control domestic dissent while his foreign adventures assure older voters that Russia still matters on the world stage. But those adventures are beginning to backfire.
The 2014 incursion into Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have been costly, as has Russia’s investment to prop up Syria’s dictatorship.
Russian cyberattacks designed to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election were far more cost-effective. For a mere $200 million, he helped get his preferred U.S. presidential candidate elected, deepened U.S. political and social divisions and convinced Russian voters he was a puppet master.
Days before Russia’s election, Putin boasted of a new “invincible” nuclear missile, which might not actually exist. The United States accused Russian hackers of cyberattacks aimed at disrupting the U.S. power grid. Britain blamed Russia for a nerve gas attack on the streets of Salisbury that poisoned a former spy and his daughter.
For the most part, Putin has dodged the bullet for all of this, though sanctions imposed after the Ukraine incursion continue to bite dozens of Putin cronies. The Obama administration expelled diplomats and seized Russian compounds to punish Russia for election meddling. Last summer Congress authorized more sanctions, and last week the Trump administration finally complied.
The U.K. has expelled diplomats but Russians continue to have heavy investments in London real estate. The United Nations is dithering about the nerve gas attack in Salisbury. Russia will still host the World Cup this summer.
Putin wants to be seen as the great and powerful Oz. It’s time to start pulling back the curtain.
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch