Election shows Russians embrace Putin, reject the West

Election shows Russians embrace Putin, reject the West
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As John Bolton takes over for outgoing National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, he is likely to ponder: What does the Russian presidential election tell us?

On March 18, 67 percent of the Russian electorate voted, choosing Vladimir Putin to serve his fourth presidential term with 77 percent of the vote. This was a tightly controlled election, with Alexei Navalny, a leading opposition figure, banned from running. Some election tampering was reported. 

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As the Kremlin largely chose who was allowed to run, it was voter turnout and the rate of support that mattered. While some old-school Soviet tactics were observed on election day (such as cheap delicacies sold at the polls) it still appears that Putin got a solid mandate from the Russian people, and it is important to understand why.

 

First, the Kremlin controls the media. The independent Rain TV has a tiny audience and is limited to the internet outside of Moscow. But significantly, the Russians are living better — and longer — than ever in recent history.

The quality of food has deteriorated since the Kremlin imposed a ban on certain imports from the EU and the U.S. in response to sanctions placed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, but there are none of the shortages or queues for basic foodstuffs that were staples of the Soviet era. 

Medical care is subpar by Western standards, but life expectancy and fertility have increased recently despite state health budget cuts. While many in law enforcement and intelligence cannot travel abroad, the majority of Russians can. They love their Turkish beach vacations, and Putin allows them. 

Putin’s imprint on Russia is unmistakable: the quest for world power, meddling in the affairs of countries near and far, but little economic growth.

While in his first two terms (2000-2008) the Russian GDP grew around 7 percent per year and there was a talk of “catching up and overtaking” Portugal, today, Russia’s economy is growing at an anemic 1.5 percent, after negative growth in 2014-2016.

Russia remains an oil and gas exporter and continues selling weapons and nuclear reactors, as it has for the last 50 years. Its performance is not impressive in the new, 21st-century industries: AI, robotics, biotech, sophisticated IT; and there are few signs that this is about to change. 

Politics remain stilted. Under Putin’s rule, prominent political opponents are not allowed to challenge him, or they wind up shot like Boris Nemtsov or chased out of the country, like chess champion Garry Kasparov

Corruption is rampant, as the Transparency International index, which ranks Russia between Gambia and Bangladesh, indicates. 

Nevertheless, the majority of Russians — 77 percent — voted for Putin. In addition, 12 percent of voters supported Stalinist/communist agricultural businessman Pavel Grudinin, and 6 percent voted for imperialist, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Thus, 95 percent of Russians reject the pro-Western, liberal approach, which makes any kind of rapprochement difficult. 

Simply put, Russians do not buy the notion of Russian integration with the West and reject transformation into a tolerant, democratic society with a law-based market economy. As much as Russians suffered under the czars and the commissars, this is still a people who is proud to have built a massive empire.

Putin’s assertion that the collapse of the USSR was a “geopolitical catastrophe” resonates with both the elites and the masses. The “It” girl, Ksenia Sobchak, and a veteran economist Grigory Yavlinsky — the two most liberal of the candidates running against Putin  — collectively won less votes than the margin of error. 

Like it or not, we in the West need to stare the stark reality in the face: The Russian people support their leader in his war in Ukraine, tough talk against America, and de-facto alliance with China, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. 

This means friction with NATO and the U.S. will continue for the foreseeable future in Europe  — from the Arctic to the Black Sea — and in the Syrian powder keg. Moscow will also support Teheran in a possible future confrontation with the U.S.

It also means that Russia is likely to continue bolstering extreme-right and far-left parties in Europe, intent on undermining the EU and weakening NATO.

While pressure on the Baltic states has subsided somewhat recently, and a few months ago, there were noises about seeking a solution in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric, especially in his recent speech to the Parliament, remains bellicose and threatening. 

Putin wants “respect” for Russia, and a new accommodation with the West, possibly in the form of a “Yalta II” deal, in which new spheres of influence are delineated. However, it is unlikely that the collective West will be ready and willing to grant him that. 

Thus, the best advice to new National Security Advisor Bolton, the American leadership and Congress is:

  • Build up military strength and hybrid conflict management capabilities;
  • keep the lines of communication open;
  • talk to the Russian people directly (we do not manage to do this well at all, as evidenced by the election results); and
  • avoid a big war.

Russia today may be adventurous and occasionally nasty — to wit, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. — but it has a weak economic base and lacks the science and technology potential, as well as the demographic resources of the USSR.

While it is unlikely to win a protracted geopolitical competition with the U.S. on its own, in the short run, Moscow may wreak havoc in the international arena. 

Two of America’s authoritarian rivals — Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping — just got essentially open-ended mandates to rule. This is a challenge unprecedented since the end of the Cold War. The Trump administration should do all it can to keep Moscow and Beijing apart, and prepare for a long slog.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and principal at International Market Analysis Ltd. He is the author of "Russian Imperialism: Development and Crisis."