‘Putin lives in a world where he is carrying out a certain historical mission’
April 29, 2023
  • Tatyana Stanovaya

    Political analyst 
  • Farida Kurbangaleeva

Tatyana Stanovaya on what the presidential elections in March 2024 might look like amid the “special military operation,” whether Putin’s successor could take part in them and why friendship with the West is unlikely, even if Russia loses the war.
The original text in Russian appeared in Republic. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.
In the spring 2018 presidential election, Vladimir Putin received 76.69% of the vote. Source: Twitter
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov has said that Vladimir Putin has not yet decided whether he will run for president in 2024. Do you think he really has not made a decision, or are they being sly?

I can only say that this is Putin’s principled position for all 23 years that he has been in power – to keep the public in the dark until the last moment. So I don’t see anything new here. I think that we will most likely find out about his real plans in December, at the latest in January. Until then, the position will be: “We need to concentrate on work and not think about elections.” And while there are no breakthroughs in Putin’s understanding of the situation with Ukraine, the chances of him leaving are very low.

What is more advantageous for Putin before the elections – to end the war or to continue it in one form or another?

I think these two things are unrelated for him. We are used to thinking in the traditional, democratic way: there is an agenda, there are voters, there is a program. But Putin lives in a different world: in a world where he is carrying out a certain historical mission.

Thus, victory in Ukraine is a matter of time for him. He believes that he has time, he will not rush. And as everything runs its course, so it will go.

Elections are separate. Regardless of how the situation develops with the military operation, the elections will be held as planned, and he will not do anything special for them. This is his principled position: engaging in populism is harmful for national interests.

And if we look at it objectively, which option would be preferable for his election campaign – with or without the war?

I understand what you are trying to get out of me. To say that he will want to wrap up the war by the time of the elections. No, there is no such logic. We are still talking about his decisions. Of course, it would be helpful for him to win.

But what is victory for him? Victory is the capitulation of Kyiv, which is unrealistic in the near future. The current situation is such that the keys to it are not in Putin’s hands.

He can neither speed it up nor slow it down, he is waiting. He is waiting for the conditions in Ukraine to mature, and the West to get tired and begin to crack, and then everything will work toward Kyiv surrendering.

But I don’t see him specially changing things for the elections. Again, recall how we were guessing: “Now it will be the anniversary of the war – he must show the people something; now it will be [the Victory Day of] May 9 – he must show something.” This is false logic. How many times have I tried to convince Western journalists that there is no sense in waiting for him to serve up “gifts” on a special date. There will be none.

There is even a reverse logic here: about a month or two after the start of the war, we began to see the victimization of Russia: “Russia is a victim.” And it is beneficial to convince the public that the West is going to destroy Russia, that there is a real military threat from NATO, that Russia is fighting in Ukraine against the full military might of NATO, and so on. And in this logic, he does not need any victories.

And if Russia will have suffered a military defeat by the time of the elections, will Putin still stand for reelection?

I can see that. Though if there is a serious military defeat, a very intense struggle will begin within the elite.

The siloviki, who are responsible for security, will push the idea of canceling the elections. Putin, of course, would have many arguments in favor of this scenario. But it is not certain that he would decide on it.

Again, he can use the “Russia is a victim” card – “the whole world is against us, so vote for me, because who else but me?”
But if there is a military defeat, then the political reverberations will be very serious, and louder and louder will grow the voices of the anti-Putin patriotic public, which is not yet so anti-Putin, though, let’s say, on the verge.”
For now, they are being careful not to rock the boat. But privately, of course, many blame Putin for the military situation in which Russia finds itself today – it is not very advantageous.

By the way, the first candidate for president has already emerged: Marine Corps Captain Ivan Otrakovsky, who was nominated by the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, which is known for its criticism of the Kremlin. Is he a representative of a real political force that can oppose Putin in the elections, or is he a creature of the presidential apparatus to frighten the public?

He is neither. These are outcasts who are coming out of the woodwork against the backdrop of the difficult military situation. I’m pretty sure the Kremlin won’t register him to run – I can’t imagine they would. He will not be given any platform and they will most likely try to squeeze him out of the political field. He poses no real danger to the authorities.

For at least the next few months, the regime will remain relatively strong, basically in complete control of the political field. And even the systemic opposition is still more systemic than oppositional. Now nothing anti-Putin can appear anywhere.

And if it appears, it will be immediately crushed, and cruelly and pointedly. Thus, I would not expect any surprises, at least today. And I can say the same about the mood in the Kremlin, where there are no worries about how the elections will go. If Putin runs, they have no doubt that he will get more than 75% of the vote.

What will Putin’s election campaign be built around? Will the “special military operation” (SVO) figure in the ideological component?

I can’t guess what it [the campaign] will be like throughout the election year. The only thing I can refer to is documents recently published by Verstka, which, as far as I know, are authentic, about how governors are being prepped for the elections. How to work with what audiences, what to focus on, there are a lot of interesting things. But I sense that for now, they [the authorities] have an inner desire not to bet heavily on the SVO, patriotism, mobilization.

They would rather talk about social problems, some kind of national consensus, conservative, traditional values. In other words, try to look for a value-laden basis for uniting society around the president. But this is now, and what things will be like in a year is very difficult to predict. Everything is forgotten very quickly, and it may turn out that what is being done now will not be in demand in six months.

Will soldiers and their families support Putin or will they oppose him?

We should turn to sociology. And sociology shows that today, firstly, this is not such a large constituency to say that it will really have a significant impact on the balance of forces. Secondly, among people who have family members in the war or are serving themselves, the anti-Putin line is not very noticeable. Rather, it’s the other way around.

I do not want to predict how the situation will develop, but I do not see any danger for the presidential campaign from that angle.
And the Kremlin has come to understand very well how to work with this part of society. They rely on a mixture of patriotism and financial and social assistance.
Because the people who go to serve and their families, for the most part, have a pronounced financial interest.

These people will receive social payments, benefits... they will be given attention. The Kremlin understands this very clearly.

Who will be Putin’s official opponents?

I can only say that today the systemic opposition is in a much weaker state than a year ago and, I would even say, than in all 23 years of Putin’s rule. They are in a position where it is increasingly difficult for them to bargain with the Kremlin.

They are losing “their” heads of regions, their ratings are going down.

Everything is shaping up in such a way that Putin will win by a huge margin. Thus, party leaders are not very willing to take part in such a “fight.”

Most likely, if nothing radically changes, some “technical candidates” will be nominated from the systemic parties who will not pose any threat, not run a serious campaign, but will help to legitimize the elections themselves.

Some political scientists believe that against the backdrop of Putin’s failures in the war, the elites will look for a successor to replace him. Do you believe in such a transition of power?

The reality is completely different. The dissatisfaction of the elites is silent – it is not political and is absolutely passive. We do not have any elites that can be considered a political force, who have a plan, ambitions, an agenda – there are no such forces. There is only Putin and his administration. And there are all the rest who, no matter how dissatisfied they are with the war and sanctions, will silently do everything, pretend that they all support it and definitely will not get in the way.
Recruiting station. April 2023, Vichuga, Ivanovo Region. To bolster the Russian army fighting in Ukraine, the Kremlin is betting on a combination of patriotic propaganda and financial and social assistance. Source: VK
The only scenario that I would not rule out completely is if Putin himself decides that due to some circumstances, the time has come to choose a successor. And in this case, the elites will be forced to support his choice. If Putin is in a much weaker position, it will be more difficult for him to guarantee the victory of such a successor. If he is in such a position as now, he will be able to elect absolutely anyone without any problems: he will utter the name, and that person will be elected.

Our elites do not decide anything strategic. How to carry out a mobilization, how to deliver draft notices electronically, how to execute a pension reform or imprison someone – the elites handle these things, but not strategic issues.

And if he loses the war and his position is shaken, will the elites decide for him?

I can’t imagine that they could directly decide for him. Of course, if Russia starts to lose, Putin will face very serious internal risks. Still, I do not think that there is a threat that someone can really challenge him personally, because after all, a significant part of the population is behind Putin, and going against all that is very difficult and risky for any player.
“But they will try to weave intrigues behind his back, ignore his interests, coordinate less, inform less – this is possible. It would be the erosion of the regime, when it slowly begins to crumble from within.”
Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin at a protest rally in Moscow. January 2011. Source: Youtube
If you want an example, then the most striking is from the end of 2011, when there were mass protests over the falsified Duma elections – then we saw how the regime could crumble. We saw how [former finance minister] Alexei Kudrin joined street rallies on [Prospect] Sakharov, we saw how deputies from United Russia, the Communist Party and A Just Russia came to talk with the non-systemic opposition. And business, which had always maintained a position of “God forbid we say something political” began to speak out. There is a scenario of how it might look in the event of a weakening of the regime and Putin.

Do you think the real level of support for Putin will fall by the time of the elections?

Today, independent polling data, like Levada Center and Russian Field, shows that society supports the war and supports the government. Moreover, this rally ‘round the flag effect still has legs. It has not gone down. And I do not see any trends going in the other direction. Thus, if there are no cataclysms, I would not expect a serious decline in support for Putin.

The population is frightened, first and foremost, by an external threat. It lives under the fear of nuclear war, NATO attacks, biological laboratories, genetic weapons. They are told this constantly on TV.
“The basis of Putin’s power today is the public’s fear of the West, fear of chaos, destabilization and the military threat. If all that were to disappear, there would be no trace of the Putin regime.”
Meaning that Putin has nothing to offer society, except for war?

He is offering society protection from an external threat. Everything else – patriotism, traditional values – does not really work.

“Look, Putin promises to protect us from NATO – let him protect us, we don’t really want to get involved. I have my garden, my car, my children go to school, my interests are here, just you stay away from us.” Yet at the same time there is a very strong resentment and anger toward the West as an enemy. And it works to the benefit of the regime.

How will Western countries react to Putin’s re-election in 2024? Swallow it like the “nullification” of Putin’s previous presidential terms?

What can they do? They are not going to send troops. They will react in the same way as with the “nullification.” I do not think that they will recognize the elections. The elections will nevertheless take place. Another thing is that a lot can happen in a year. And it is very hard to say how the [West’s] attitude toward Putin will change – I would say, how quickly it could radicalize. But it will get worse all the time.

Can Putin get reelected, sit out the war and go on ruling as if nothing had happened?

We must decide what war we are talking about. If it’s the war in Ukraine, then it doesn’t matter. Russian society lives in the logic of war with the West, and this war will not end.

Whatever happens to Putin and whatever happens to Ukraine – even if tomorrow he and Zelensky sign a peace agreement, although I would absolutely rule that out – the war with the West will not go anywhere.

Let’s imagine that Ukraine launches a counter-offensive, it is extremely successful and the Ukrainians take back all the territories that Russia had captured. A coup takes place in Russia, liberals come to power and sign a peace agreement with Zelensky. Everyone apologizes to Ukraine. They are ready to pay billions in reparations for decades. OK. But Russian society remains anti-Western. And the new liberal authorities will be insanely unpopular. And power will endlessly change hands, followed by destabilization, chaos, the proverbial 90s. How would you deal with such a Russia? There can be very different scenarios of who will come to power and how they will keep control of the country. But society will still remain the same as it was 70 years ago, 40 years ago, 20 years ago and now.

After Russia practically turned into a fascist state and attacked a neighboring country, the West will not be imbued with Russia’s national pains. So the situation is a dead end?

It is a dead end. Thus, I am very pessimistic about Russia’s future. And in my opinion, the war essentially doomed Russia to the worst possible scenario for the future. Simply because Russia will not be able to defend its place in the world the way it would like to – of course, unless there is a systemic crisis in the West, which Putin dreams about.

But that is unlikely. If everything is relatively stable in the West and it continues to act more or less unitedly toward Russia and Ukraine, I do not see how Russia could assert itself and defend its national interests, no matter how the war ends. And let’s not forget about China. Perhaps, over time, Russia and Ukraine will fade into the background, and a lot will depend on how the confrontation between the US and China plays out.

Has Putin’s policy become a catalyst for these processes?

He had very serious opportunities to carry out systemic reforms. He could have achieved a lot in foreign policy. But everything went as it did. I’m going to say something that the West doesn’t like to hear: the West bears a certain amount of responsibility itself for the fact that, after the end of the Cold War, it underestimated the significance of Russia’s concerns across the spectrum of strategic dialogue. Now everything has gone too far, and the point of no return has been passed. Russia has no chance to get back on a normal civilized course while Putin and the Putin regime are in power, and his regime can exist even without Putin.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy