Don't expect a fourth term to make Putin any friendlier to the West

“A state of confrontation with the West has become a necessity for Putin’s regime.”
March 19, 2018, 5:00pm

Vladimir Putin scored a resounding victory in Russia’s presidential election Sunday, and his campaign spokesman welcomed the good news by thanking an unlikely helper: the nation of Britain, which had spent the last week publicly accusing Moscow of poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil with a chemical weapon.

All that drama really helped get out the vote in Russia, he said.

“We must thank Great Britain” for helping to ensure high voter turnout, campaign spokesman Andrei Kondrashov told Russian state-owned RT television. “They put pressure on us at the exact moment when we needed to mobilize.”

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Kondrashov’s comments touched on what analysts say was the clearest takeaway from Sunday’s vote: Putin’s longstanding antagonism with the West has solidified into a key pillar of his domestic popularity, raising the specter of continual confrontation to justify his rule. The success of this strategy presents the Kremlin with a worrisome incentive to lean in to further conflicts with the West as Putin begins his fourth term, Russia-watchers said.

“A state of confrontation with the West has become a necessity for Putin’s regime,” Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VICE News. “I think we can expect an even more aggressive Russian foreign policy.”

Read: U.K. retaliates after Russia fails to explain poisoning of ex-spy

Troublingly, the rallying effect from any given conflict — whether over Syria, Ukraine, election-meddling, or the alleged poisoning of a spy abroad — is short-lived, Borshchevskaya said, raising the unnerving prospect of a perpetual need for fresh run-ins with the West.

“The feeling of elation doesn’t last,” she said. “You need these periodic injections to keep it going.”

A winning strategy

Putin’s victory was never in doubt, but his administration had appeared worried that low voter turnout would raise questions about his legitimacy. By Monday, the near-final tally showed the Kremlin had pretty much gotten what it wanted, observers said: a turnout of 68 percent, with 77 percent voting for Putin.

Political analysts, critics, and some of Putin’s staunchest supporters agreed that tensions with the U.S. and Europe had stoked a strong sense of nationalism that helped drive Russian voters into the president's arms.

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“He has to sell the image of a besieged fortress,” said Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess champion-turned-dissident, addressing a conference dedicated to Putin in New York City on Friday before the vote.

Following British accusations that Russia likely stood behind the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury earlier this month, Russian media appeared all too happy to fan the flames of confrontation, despite Russia’s denials of involvement.

“Don’t choose England as a place to live,” said presenter Kirill Kleymenov of Russia’s state-controlled Channel One. “Whatever the reasons, whether you’re a professional traitor to the motherland or you just hate your country in your spare time, I repeat: No matter what, don’t move to England.”

In a Twitter storm following Putin’s re-election, the editor-in-chief of Russian state-owned news outlet RT, Margarita Simonyan, put responsibility for this state of affairs on “Western politicians and analysts, journalists, and spies.”

Read: Russian exile found dead in his London home was murdered, police say

Simonyan pointed out that Putin’s 77 percent combined with the vote for “communist and nationalist” candidates reached some 95 percent of the total tally. “It is you who are to blame for this, my Western friends,” she wrote.

Putin’s campaign, such as it was, stressed his prominent standing in world affairs, down to the motto “Strong President, Strong Russia”, while placing less emphasis on domestic problems. Putin didn’t debate his domestic opponents, shielding him from public criticism over Russia’s recent economic sluggishness, which has pushed poverty to record levels. And one of his staunchest critics, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was barred from running in the election over a corruption charge Navalny claims was trumped up to silence him.

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While Putin did make promises of future domestic economic development, much of his campaign message was directed outward. At one of the few events widely acknowledged to have been a campaign speech, Putin made big economic promises, but he also unveiled “invincible” nuclear weapons and showed a video of nuclear warheads raining down on Florida.

Read: No need to be scared of Putin's new nukes (any more than the old ones)

The strategy was so glaring that his opponents started calling him out on it. The tension between Putin and the West has turned the Russian president into “the leader of anti-Americanism around the world,” said Ksenia Sobchak, the socialite-turned presidential candidate during a brief trip to Washington DC a few weeks ago.

Putin’s stance against the U.S. is “making him a hero” among opponents of the United States worldwide, Sobchak said.

Even the date of the election itself was moved last year to March 18, to coincide with the anniversary of Russia claiming the region of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. On election night, Putin himself appeared at a rally held outside the Kremlin — originally scheduled to mark the Crimean anniversary — to hail his re-election.

A slight chance for calm

Putin himself struck a more conciliatory tone in his remarks on Sunday after the vote, pledging that, “from our side, we will do all we can so that the disputes with our [international] partners be resolved by political and diplomatic means."

And some analysts acknowledged that the silver lining of Putin’s resounding victory might indeed be that it presents him with room to strike a more conciliatory stance with the West following years of rising tensions. Still, they urged caution.

“There’s this abiding hope that now that he’s been re-elected, he may be more willing to make compromises,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. “But I don’t see any way this moves forward without a certain amount of adult restraint from the Kremlin, which is tough thing to pin your hopes on.”

Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to supporters during a rally near the Kremlin in Moscow, Sunday, March 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)