From Republic.ru, April 26, 2023, https://republic.ru/posts/108121. Condensedtext:
Editors’ Note. – Less than one year remains until the Russian presidential election, which is due to be held in March 2024. Kommersant reports that the Kremlin has already started preparing for the campaign. Officials in the presidential administration are operating under the assumption that the election will take place despite the war, and that Vladimir Putin will run in it. [Republic journalist] Farida Kurbangaleyeva spoke with political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya about what a presidential election might look like in the era of the “special operation” [in Ukraine], if a slot could be found in it for Putin’s successor, and why Russia can’t count on friendship with the West, even if it loses the war.
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‘Putin is living in another world, a world where he is fulfilling a historic mission.’
Question. – . . . Which is better for Putin to do before the election – end the war, or continue it in some form?
Answer. – I think these are two unrelated things for him. We are accustomed to thinking in a traditional democratic manner: There’s an agenda, there are voters, there’s a platform. But Putin is living in another world, a world where he is fulfilling a historic mission.
So for him, victory over Ukraine is a matter of time. He believes he has time, and he’s not going to rush things. And let the cards fall as they may.
But the election is separate. Whatever course the special operation takes, the election will be held as scheduled, and he is not going to do anything special for it. This is his principled position: Engaging in populism is harmful to national interests. I think this is somewhat misguided optics that make sense in the West, but do not work for Putin’s Russia.
Q. – If we forget about his particular way of thinking and look at it objectively: Which option would be preferable for his election campaign – war or no war?
A. – I understand what you’re trying to get me to say: That he will want to end the war before the election. No, there’s no such logic. We are, in the end, talking about his decisions. Of course, it would be beneficial for him to win. But what is victory for him? Victory is Kiev’s capitulation. This is not realistic in the near future. Putin is not in the driver’s seat here. He can’t speed things up or slow them down; he is waiting. He is waiting for conditions in Ukraine to ripen, for the West to get tired and start fracturing, and this is what will lead to Kiev’s surrender.
But I don’t see him rushing this just for the election. Again, let’s recall the kind of predictions we made: “It’s the anniversary of the war, he needs to show the people something; it’s almost May 9 [i.e., Victory Day], he needs to demonstrate something.” This is faulty reasoning. And how many times have I tried to convince Western journalists that we shouldn’t expect him to present “gifts” by a specific date? That won’t happen.
There’s even a reverse logic here: About a month or two after the war started, we began to see the victimization of Russia: “Russia is a victim.” And there’s an advantage to making society believe that the West is getting ready to destroy Russia, that NATO poses a real military threat, that Russia is battling the full might of NATO on Ukrainian territory, and so forth. And with this kind of logic, he doesn’t need any victories.
Q. – Will Putin be reelected if Russia suffers a military defeat around the time of the election?
A. – I can imagine that happening. But if it’s a major military defeat, a very intense struggle will begin within the elite.
The siloviki [uniformed officers], who are in charge of security, will push the idea of canceling the election. There will naturally be many arguments for Putin to follow this scenario. But it’s not a given that he will decide to do so.
Again, he could play the “Russia is a victim” card. He could say, “The whole world is against us, so let’s vote for me, because who else [is there] besides me?” But if there is a military defeat, then there will be major political trials. And voices from the patriotic community, which is bordering on being anti-Putin, will become louder and louder. For now, they’re being careful and trying not to rock the boat. But in private, of course, many are blaming Putin for the military situation that Russia is in today, which is not terribly advantageous.
Q. – By the way, the first presidential candidate has appeared: Naval Infantry Capt. Ivan Otrakovsky, who was nominated by the All-Russian Officers Assembly, which is known to be critical of the Kremlin.This Otrakovsky is even more aggressive and repressive than Putin. Is he a representative of an actual political force that could oppose Putin in the election, or did the presidential administration create him to scare society?
A. – He’s neither. This is a fringe group that has crawled out of the woodwork amid a complex military situation. I’m almost certain that the Kremlin won’t register him. In fact, I can’t even imagine it. He won’t be given any platform, and they will try to squeeze him out of the political field. He doesn’t pose any real danger to the government.
For the next few months at least, the regime will remain relatively strong and in almost complete control of the political field. Even the establishment opposition is now more establishment than opposition.
Right now, nothing anti-Putin can appear – from anywhere. And if it does, it will be immediately dismantled, brutally and publicly So I wouldn’t expect any surprises, at least not for now. And I can say the same thing about the mood in the Kremlin, where no one is worried about how the election will be held.
Q. – So this matter is already resolved for them: The election will be held and Vladimir Vladimirovich will win?
A. – If Putin participates, they have no doubt that he will get over 75% of the vote.
‘The elites’ discontent is unspoken; it isn’t political, and it’s totally passive.’
Q. – What will Putin’s election campaign be built around?Will the “special military operation” figure in this ideological component?
A. – I can’t even begin to guess what the election race will be like a year out. The only thing I can cite are documents recently published by [the investigative outlet] Vyorstka, which are authentic, as far as I know, and talk about how the governors are preparing for the election. Who the audiences are, how to work [with them], what to focus on. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there. But my sense is that [the authorities] have no real desire to focus too much on the “special operation,” patriotism or mobilization.
They have more of a desire to speak about social problems, some kind of national consensus and conservative traditional values. That is, to try to find a framework of values that would unite society around the president. But that’s now. It’s hard to predict what will happen in a year. Everything is changing very quickly, and it may turn out that what’s being done now won’t be needed in six months.
Q. – Will people who have taken part in the war and their relatives support Putin, or will they oppose him?
A. – Here we need to turn to polling data. And polls shows that today this slice of society is not large enough to have any real impact on the political landscape, and that there are not strong anti-Putin sentiments among people who send their family members to war and are themselves service personnel. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I don’t want to predict how the situation will develop, but I don’t see any danger for the presidential campaign from this side. The Kremlin understands very well how to work with this segment of society. It is placing its bets on a mixture of patriotism and, if you like, financial and social assistance. Because most service members and their families have a marked financial interest.
Q. – And they will be supported financially in every possible way.
A. – Of course. Social payments, benefits – attention will be devoted to these people. The Kremlin understands this very clearly.
Q. – Who will Putin’s official rivals be?Will they be [Russian Federation Communist Party head Gennady] Zyuganov, [A Just Russia – For the Truth head Sergei] Mironov and a provisional [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia again?
A. – I can only say that today the establishment opposition is in a much weaker position than a year ago, and I would even venture to say that it is in its weakest position in the 23 years of Putin’s rule. They are in a position where it is becoming harder and harder for them to bargain with the Kremlin. They are losing their regional heads; their approval ratings are falling.
Everything is being set up for Putin to trounce them in the election. That’s why the party leaders don’t particularly want to participate in this “battle.”
Barring any radical changes, the establishment parties will nominate some spoiler candidates who won’t present any threat or run a serious campaign, but who will help legitimize the election.
Q. – Some political analysts believe that, given Putin’s failures in the war, the elites will seek a replacement for Putin in the form of a successor. Do you believe in such a transition of power?
A. – This has nothing to do with reality. The elites’ discontent is unspoken; it isn’t political, and it’s totally passive. We don’t have any elites that could be considered a political force, that have a plan, ambitions, an agenda – there are no such forces. . . .
Q. – And if he loses the war and his position takes a hit, will the elites decide for him?
A. – I can’t imagine that they could decide directly for him. Naturally, if Russia starts losing, Putin will face real risks at home. I don’t think there’s a threat that someone could actually challenge him personally, because a significant part of the population is behind him, and it would be very difficult and risky for any player to go up against all of this.
But they may try to scheme behind his back, ignore his interests, coordinate less with him and not share as much with him. It would be the erosion of a regime, when it slowly starts to crumble from within.
If you want an example, the most striking one was in late 2011, when there were mass protests due to falsification of the State Duma elections [see Vol. 63, No. 50, pp. 7‑11]. That was when we saw that the regime might crumble. We saw [then-finance minister] Aleksei Kudrin come to Sakharov [Prospect]; we saw deputies from United Russia, the RFCP and A Just Russia come talk to the nonestablishment opposition. And the business community, which would never say anything political, God forbid, started speaking out. That’s a scenario of how things may look if Putin and the regime start to weaken.
Q. – What do you think? Will Putin’s actual – not imagined, but actual – level of support fall by the time of the election?
A. – As of today, independent polls from the Levada Center and Russian Field show that society supports the war and the government. Moreover, this rallying around the flag (the rallying effect is a phenomenon of political sociology that involves a sharp jump in support and approval for a national leader in times of international conflict or crisis – Ed.) is still having an effect. It is not letting up. And I don’t see any reverse trends happening. So I wouldn’t expect a significant drop in support for Putin if there are no major cataclysms.
The population is primarily afraid of an outside threat. It is living in fear of nuclear war, an attack by NATO, biological laboratories and ethnic bioweapons. And they’re always talking about this on television. This is why they prefer to toe the authorities’ line: “The state is calmer, and who else [would keep it under control] if not the government?” If everything starts to come apart from within, we will definitely be cut up into several states, and it will be worse than it was in the 1990s.” No one wants that.
I often hear that so-called average Russians, who had negative feelings about Putin before the war and opposed him, have started saying during the war that now is not the time to settle scores. “Once we end the war, we’ll deal with Putin.” Actually, if I were Putin, I’d be afraid of the war’s end. More so than its continuation. After all, his rule today is based on society’s fear of the West, its fear of chaos, its fear of a destabilization and military threat. If any of this goes anywhere, that will be the end of the Putin regime.
Q. – So Putin doesn’t have anything to offer society other than war?
A. – He is offering society protection from an external threat. None of the rest of it – patriotism, traditional values – actually works. In other words, [the authorities] are trying to come up with something, to cobble it all together, but it is difficult to inculcate. Rather, we can talk about some hollow ambitions. People who want to adapt, who want additional opportunities, grasp at this, and because of this, patriotism is all the rage at various levels, from education and culture to the civil service. But at the day-to-day level, I don’t see this being inculcated. People would rather be left in peace.
“Here’s Putin promising to protect us from NATO. He can go right ahead, but we don’t really want to be involved. I have my vegetable garden, my Niva [car]. My children go to school, my interests are here, so just leave us out if it.” But, at the same time, there’s a lot of resentment and anger toward the West as an enemy. And this obviously works in favor of the authorities.
‘The start of this war essentially doomed Russia to the worst scenario in the future.’
Question. – . . . When Putin zeroed out his term limit,1 the results from abroad were quite interesting.For example, the Russian Embassy in the Czech Republic did not hide the fact that 82% of voters were against the constitutional amendments, and only 18% were in favor of them.That is, the numbers at foreign polling stations were not falsified, unlike the numbers from within Russia.Most likely, because they weren’t of much interest to the Russian authorities.What will happen now, after a new, large-scale wave of emigration, when hundreds of thousands of opponents of the regime are abroad?
A. – As far as I understand, the attitude toward the people who left is: “They left, and that’s okay, as long as they don’t come back if they’re against Russia.” I would not rule out an attempt to reduce the number of polling places [abroad]. And it’s possible there might be some change in the law in terms of the right to vote.
But why openly falsify [results]? It wouldn’t have any effect on the overall result, and there will be a lot of noise from it.
It could be possible to deprive foreign agents of the right to vote, or something like that. But several hundred people, that’s nothing. I don’t think it would be possible to directly ban all Russians who left Russia from voting. Again, there is a double logic at work here: On the one hand, the Kremlin thinks that everyone who left is a traitor, but on the other, as Putin says, [that group] also includes “our friends,” our compatriots, who are working for “our” interests in Western countries and maintaining communication with “our” sympathizers. Why infringe on their rights? And how can you separate them from people who are not patriotic enough? This is all technically complex. So there may be some restrictions, but I don’t think they will be significant.
Q. – So Putin could be reelected, sit out the war and continue to rule as if nothing ever happened?
A. – We must decide which war we’re talking about. If it’s the war in Ukraine, it doesn’t matter.
Russian society is living under the logic of a war with the West, and that war will not end. Whatever happens to Putin, whatever happens to Ukraine – even if they sign a peace treaty with [Ukrainian President Vladimir] Zelensky tomorrow, which, believe me, is not going to happen – the war with the West is not going anywhere.
It will continue until there is some kind of rebirth in Russia, when society understands that the state is so weak that it cannot protect itself from this external threat. Then the search for an alternative will begin. And, incidentally, that alternative could be much more frightening than Putin.
Here much depends on the West itself. It has its own logic, which is completely understandable, and I don’t see how it will change. But if the West adopts a somewhat different policy that differentiates between its attitude toward the Putin regime and its attitude toward [Russian] society in such a way that society could view the West differently, then some changes could happen over time. But, again, the government within Russia would have to be very weak for this to happen.
Q. – But the West has repeatedly extended a hand to Russia, both in the 1920s, when it saved the Russians from a terrible famine, and in the 1990s, when it supported them with humanitarian aid in the form of the notorious “Bush legs.”2 Why has Russian society remained ungrateful and suspicious?
A. – None of this means anything. As far as Russian society it is concerned, the West wants to see Russia become weak, ruined and divided into several states. We are dealing with social psychology.
Russian society views the West as a destructive, festering, dark force that has no future and won’t stop at anything until it destroys Russia. . . .
Q. – It seems to me that the West won’t be too interested in Russia’s national pains since [Russia] has to all intents and purposes transformed into a fascist state and attacked a neighboring country.Does that mean the situation has reached a dead end?
A. – Yes. So I’m very pessimistic about Russia’s future. And in my opinion, the start of this war essentially doomed Russia to the worst-case scenario in the future. This is simply because it will not be able to defend its place in the world in the form it would like, unless, of course, there is a systemic crisis in the West, which is what Putin is dreaming of. In that case, we would be able to say that he was right and that his calculations were justified.
But this is unlikely to happen. If everything in the West stays relatively stable and it continues to show a more or less united front in relation to Russia and Ukraine, I don’t see how Russia will be able to assert itself and defend its national interests, no matter how the war ends. And let’s not forget about China. It’s possible that Russia and Ukraine will fall by the wayside, and much will depend on how the confrontation between the US and China develops.
Q. – Did Putin’s policies become a catalyst for these processes?
A. – He had very strong chances to conduct systemic reforms. He could have achieved a lot in foreign policy. But that’s not what happened, and history does not like the conditional mood. I’m going to say something the West doesn’t like hearing, but the West does share some responsibility here. And that is the responsibility for underestimating the importance of Russia’s concerns across the entire spectrum of strategic dialogue after the end of the cold war. Everything has gone too far now, and we have passed the point of no return. Russia has no chance of returning to a normal, civilized course while Putin and the Putin regime, which could exist even without Putin, are in power. In other words, while the regime is the same as it is now.
1[This refers to a 2020 plebiscite on constitutional amendments that eliminated presidential term limits; see Vol. 72, No. 27‑28, pp. 3‑7. – Trans.]
2[A common term for chicken legs from the US, so called because they were initially imported during George H. W. Bush’s presidency. – Trans.]