By Jackson Oliver Webster
This article is part of a two-part pre- and post-election analysis of the Russian elections and their significance for the country and region going forward. The pre-election break-down can be found here.
It came as no surprise that, late in the evening of 18 March 2018, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was announced as the clear winner of Russia’s Presidential Election, with 56,430,712 votes representing 76.69% of participating voters. This result represents more votes in real terms for any president in the history of the Russian Federation. The most important figure for the Kremlin however was not Putin’s score in terms of votes, rather his score in terms of turnout, which fell below the announced target of 70%. The runner up was the Communist Party candidate, billionaire Pavel Grudinin, who won 11.77% of the vote, performing slightly better than expected, possibly as a result of his personal notoriety compared to Putin’s liberal challengers.
This article will outline the performances and reactions of several opposition candidates, as well as the fate of the opposition following the election. The second part will briefly discuss how Putin’s victory and eventual succession might affect Moscow’s foreign policy and defence posture over the coming years.
Liberal candidates performed particularly poorly, with Ksenia Sobchak, the self-styled “other choice against all” (“Sobchak protiv vsekh”), winning a whopping 1.68% of the vote, and veteran politician Grigori Yavlinski of the Yabloko Party obtaining only 1.05% of the vote, according to official results. Perhaps the best-performing liberal candidate was Abstention, with turnout rates especially low in the traditionally opposition-leaning city of Yekaterinburg, where, according to the Mayor’s office, only 434,000 of the city’s over 1,300,000 residents participated. Navalny will continue to claim abstaining voters as his own supporters, given his repeated calls to boycott the elections, having changed his campaign hashtag from #Navalny2018 to #NeVybory2018 (“non-elections2018”). Fraud occurred in multiple polling stations, and independent observers including Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) noted less-than-clandestine ballot stuffing on security camera footage. Grigory Melkonyats of the NGO Golos said fraud was “partly in reaction to Navalny’s boycott campaign.” In Chechnya, due to political repression and fraudulent polling, Putin won over 99% of the vote, duplicating his other strong showings in the Autonomous Republic against which he fought a war in 1999, his first action as Russia’s Prime Minister.
During the vote, Navalny and a campaign manager sat in Navalny Live’s studio with Sobchak and a member of her staff to watch the results roll in on a broadcast later replayed by Dozhd, Russia’s only non-state owned TV network. After it was evident that, to everyone’s surprise, Putin was to emerge the clear winner, Sobchak proposed that she and Navalny’s party form a united opposition for the upcoming State Duma elections. Navalny, in his typically direct style, launched into a speech ultimately condemning Sobchak as part-and-parcel of the system she claims to oppose, saying he wants nothing to do with her ‘opposition’ which he views as ‘permitted’ and ‘selected’ by the Kremlin. Some Russian political commentators have alleged that the Kremlin will begin reorganizing a straw man ‘opposition’ based on an engineered entente between nationalist and ‘liberal’ forces, with caricatures like Zhirinovksy and Sobchak serving as rhetorical punching bags for United Russia. This would be reminiscent of the early days of the Putin presidency, when Kremlin political technologists used rapid party creation and dissolution to engineer a surprise victory for pro-Kremlin factions over the Communist Party, and later reorganised these elements into United Russia. Though your author usually avoids conspiratorial thinking, he would be less than surprised if the Kremlin tapped Sobchak for some sort of role in a post-Putin political order, however this speculation will be left for another, much longer article.
Liberal movements such as Sobchak’s and Navalny’s are caught between a rock and a hard place. Either they follow Navalny’s model and refuse to take part in an unfair election process and exclude themselves; or they participate, thus legitimising an election campaign run by a politicised Federal Electoral Commission and influenced by highly-biased state-run media with rampant voter fraud. The despondent mood of the liberal opposition is best summarised by Yabloko political consultant Max Katz:
“The opponents of Putin have put forward many strategies. And none of them has worked. The boycott hasn’t worked: the turnout is very high and — it seems — will not be artificially propped. The calls to spoil bulletins haven’t worked — there are few of them. Voting for Sobchak hasn’t worked: her score is very low. Voting for Grudinin hasn’t worked . . . his score is lower than Zyuganov’s [the leader of the Communist party] in the last presidential elections. And our calls to vote for Yavlinsky haven’t worked either.”
Navalny for his part is falling back on his “political machines”, the Civic Platform Party and the FBK, to give him and his campaign longevity beyond the presidential election. His YouTube presence has been particularly active since the elections, attacking the government over its handling of a deadly mall fire in Siberia and denouncing the elimination of direct mayoral elections in Yekaterinburg. Most recently, he called for protests on 5 May in a video entitled “Putin is not our Tsar” (“Putin nam ne tsar’”).
So what can be expected, particularly from a European perspective, in the coming months and years from a reelected Putin?
Before the elections, most Western media were fixated on Putin’s particularly bellicose State of the Federation address. He boasted of all sorts of first-strike, high-tech weapons clearly in development with Western conventional foes in mind: hypersonic intercontinental cruise missiles, underwater tactical nuclear platforms, and other weapons. Many defence analysts have argued that these systems are either not beyond the conceptual stage, and may not provide any significant strategic edge should they become operational. However, the spirit of the address seemed to mark a shift towards openly aggressive rhetoric which may come to define Putin’s fifth term foreign policy.
Russian historian Irina Pavlova argues that Putin’s comments represent his will to “raise the stakes” of his current confrontation with the West. This belligerence is, she continues, a demonstration of Putin’s confidence in his own competence and position relative to his adversaries. She concludes that this assertiveness follows the general framing of Kremlin foreign policy by state media, which sets Russian civilisation against a weak and decadent Western world. It also feeds into Kremlin talking points, namely the framing of the Ukraine conflict in terms of the fight against so-called ‘Ukrainian fascists’. This creates a “modern Stalinist’” confrontation with the West in which Putin himself is the hero. “As for the sanctions the West threatens, they only strengthen this regime above all in the eyes of its own population,” argues Pavlova.
NATO defence planners, on the other hand, operate largely under the assumption that succession is, eventually, inevitable, and that this succession period will be extremely unstable. Many Western governments may view the current Russian regime as undesirable, but there is a general respect for the current Kremlin’s competence and strategic rationality. Thus, the key strategic goal for NATO in the east is to raise the cost of miscalculation for Moscow by strengthening Baltic defences. A legitimate concern is that, in the coming years, a succession battle within the Kremlin combined with long-term economic instability may cause Russia —or rather certain powerful actors in Moscow— to lash out in the ‘near-abroad’.
Moving forward, the most important developments in Russian politics worth following will be the fate of the ‘liberal’ opposition, in all its various forms, and eventually the succession process. The main question for the opposition is whether or not a united front will form between various factions —old liberals, Navalnyites, nationalists, communists, and so on. As for succession, there are multiple possible outcomes over the next six years. We will either see a reordering of the current elite as Putin steps down from power, or a constitutional amendment abolishing the two-term limit. Regardless, the West can expect an assertive stance from Moscow as Putin attempts to reinforce his domestic credibility in the face of a stagnant economy and shrinking European demand for fossil fuels.
Jackson Webster is a graduate of the Department of War Studies, and is currently reading for a master’s in International Security at Sciences Po Paris. His research focuses on Russia, its relationship with Central Europe, and cybersecurity. He is currently working on cybersecurity issues with a legal tech consultancy in Paris.
 Section based on an off-the-record conversation between the author and senior NATO officials.