What is (and isn’t) at Stake in the Russian Presidential Election?
March 7, 2024
  • Mark Episkopos

    Eurasia Research Fellow, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Mark Episkopos writes about the Kremlin’s efforts to shape the optics surrounding Russia’s upcoming presidential election, reflecting on the government’s two-fold goal of generating near-unanimous public consensus behind Vladimir Putin and promoting a sense of domestic wartime unity.
There is little doubt that Vladimir Putin is slated to win the March 15–17 election in a landslide and continue serving as Russia’s President for the foreseeable future. The question, however, was never whether Putin will win, yet the way in which he wins and the surrounding optics – including who runs against him, his margin of victory, and how the candidates conduct their campaigns – offer a rare window into the Kremlin’s priorities and self-perception.

Russia’s contemporary political system, though clearly at odds with institutions of liberal democracy as understood in the West, was buttressed in prior decades by a looser and more flexible discourse of popular sovereignty and consent. In this self-styled framing of political authority, the leader does not impose themself on the people but is instead presented as the steward of their collective will and the ultimate guarantor of state interests. Though this system has little to do with Western representative democracy, there is still a guiding logic to it. The leader cannot cite their present hold on power as a justification for their continued claim to power – there must be some kind of legitimizing mechanism if this system is to maintain popular buy-in over the long term.

For Putin, this process is the electoral system introduced during Russia’s turbulent transition to statehood in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.
The contemporary Russian state bears little resemblance to its 1990’s counterpart, but Russia has largely retained its Yeltsin-era trapping of representative government.”
The reason is simple: these legitimizing ceremonies and rituals, once established, can be difficult and costly to dislodge. It is much easier to tweak or bend these institutions than it is to uproot them, which is why the Kremlin merely amended the Russian constitution in 2020 to allow Putin to serve additional consecutive terms rather than pushing for deeper structural changes to formalize his central role in contemporary Russian politics.

A Legitimizing Ritual

Putin is thus invested in preserving the electoral process and performing his role in it, however much of a formality it has become, precisely because he claims to abide by the letter of the Constitution. And since he does, Kremlin has devoted much time and resources to the election, despite the outcome never being in doubt. By weight of all available evidence, Putin enjoys overwhelming support among the Russian population. Russian veteran polling agency Levada Center, which has kept track of Putin’s approval rating since 1999 puts his favorability at a prodigious 86% as of February 2024, the highest since 2016.

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the Kremlin’s consolidation of domestic power and generated the conflict’s prolonged “rally behind the flag” effect. The Kremlin cast the war as the tragic result of choices made by Western and Ukrainian leaders, not by the Putin administration, and such sentiments have gained purchase among Russians. The war set in motion a nationwide crackdown on perceived anti-government sentiment, spurring yet another wave of emigration by Russia’s already greatly-depleted domestic opposition that was fueled by new wartime speech laws and vastly heightened enforcement of existing foreign agent legislation.

Yet part of the ritual is not simply to reaffirm the fact of Putin’s continued popularity but to project a particular image of the Russian President. To fully achieve the popular mandate he seeks for himself, Putin must secure both a high voter turnout and an overwhelming margin of victory. He won in 2018 with 77% of the vote among 67% of all registered voters – any result that is at least not as impressive will pose a setback for the Kremlin, which has reportedly set a voter turnout target of 70% or higher in the 2024 election cycle.
Boris Nadezhdin supporters queuing to put their signatures down so he can be registered. Yekaterinburg, January 2024. Source: X
Shaping the Electoral Field

This requires exactly the right kind of opponents - not too strong as to mar what must be a crushing victory for Putin, but not so weak or nonexistent as to undermine the ceremony’s established procedures. It is a difficult balance to strike, and the Kremlin has, perhaps unsurprisingly, tilted heavily in the former direction.

One of this election cycle’s clearest red lines is candidates who oppose Russia’s continued prosecution of the Ukraine war. The most notable such case is that of Boris Nadezhdin, a former member of the State Duma who tried to run for president in Russia on an anti-war platform. Nadezhdin has long been part of Russia’s “systemic” or mainstream opposition, dutifully filling the unenviable role of liberal commentator on Russian political talk shows. Yet he, too, was barred from running after the CEC claimed that over 15% of his collected signatures were illegitimate. A sudden spike in support for Nadezhdin in late January may have led the Kremlin to believe that he is on track to win a larger-than-anticipated share of the vote; according to other expert interpretations, Nadezhdin was never meant to get on the ballot in the first place.
More fundamentally, Russian leadership is loath to allow any candidate, however poorly they perform electorally, to define themselves as anti-war.
SHAMAN, a patriotic pop singer and official representative of Putin's campaign. January 2024.
Source: VK
In the short term, the proliferation of “anti-war” discourse can erode what has so far been a home front solidly united in support of the Russian war effort. In the medium to long term, these sentiments can shape domestic attitudes about the terms of war termination in ways that may not align with the Kremlin’s plans for Ukraine. Presidential candidate Vladislav Davankov of the “New People” liberal-adjacent opposition party has so far avoided wading into this minefield by sticking to the vague stance of “peace and negotiations on our terms,” more or less echoing Putin’s own stated position.

The most successful mainstream systemic opposition politicians have historically been the ones who might have occasionally taken more hardline positions than Putin, whether on foreign or domestic issues, partly because such figures made him look more centrist by comparison. The late Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia’s LDPR party, built his career along these lines, leveraging over-the-top rhetoric against NATO and West to become one of Russia’s most prominent TV commentators. His successor and presidential candidate Leonid Slutsky is a faceless figure incomparable to boisterous Zhirinovsky.

Putin’s refusal to articulate his post-2022 endgame in Ukraine has, in effect, blocked the “hawkish opponents” from playing their usual role. The Kremlin’s sensitivity on this issue is evinced by its difficult relationship with pro-Russian military bloggers and commentators. The most prominent of these figures, Igor Girkin, a veteran who emerged as one of the most strident critics of Moscow’s handling of the Ukraine invasion, was finally arrested in July 2023 and given a four-year prison sentence on charges of “inciting extremism.”

Hawkish Russian politicians understand they will have to unreservedly endorse any terms for war termination that the Kremlin potentially agrees to, however maximalist or minimalist. Slutsky has thus abstained from discussing the war’s end as a substantive policy issue, falling back on calls to “victory over Ukrofascism” and other such doctrinaire formulations.

In sum, candidates meant to represent the “liberal” opposition cannot allow themselves to be seen as more invested in peace than Putin; those like Slutsky who might present themselves as “hardliners” cannot allow themselves to be seen as more hawkish than Putin.

That, more broadly, is the nub of this exercise: the Kremlin seeks to project a sense of wartime unity even as it purposely maintains uncertainty? surrounding its wartime goals and negotiating positions.

Looking from the outside one may see this election cycle as contradictory. The Russian people are being asked to rally around the government’s prosecution of the most destructive and dangerous war in Europe since 1945 without being offered a vision, let alone a policy roadmap, for how all of this should end.

Yet, as the country prepares to vote for Putin in mid-March by massive margins, a more visceral conviction presents itself. The Kremlin hasn’t fully explained its victory conditions in Ukraine. There is, however, much less ambiguity over what losing looks like, and the overwhelming majority of Russians surely don’t want to lose.
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