THE BLOG
28/03/2018 13:08 SAST | Updated 28/03/2018 13:13 SAST

No Surprises, But Plenty Of Alarms In Putin Landslide

The election has once again underlined how popular the Kremlin strongman remains at home.

Grigory Dukor/ Reuters
Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In an election victory that shocked nobody, Vladimir Putin was overwhelmingly re-elected as Russian president at the weekend, securing for himself another six years in the Kremlin.

Russia's main opposition leader, Alexey Navalny, was barred from standing and Putin's win, against a handful of token challengers, was further marred by allegations of irregularities, including instances of ballot-box stuffing.

POOL New / Reuters
Vladimir Putin at a polling station during the presidential election in Moscow, Russia. March 18, 2018.

But the election has once again underlined how popular the Kremlin strongman remains at home, even as he plunges Russia into repeated confrontations abroad.

After voting closed on Sunday night, one Putin press officer thanked Britain for the higher-than-expected turnout. "Once again, we were pressured, right at that moment that we needed to mobilise," said Andrey Kondrashov, Putin's campaign press secretary. "Whenever Russia is accused of things without evidence, the Russian people unite," he added.

In spite of a body of evidence, Putin, 65, denies ordering a nerve agent attack in Britain, meddling in the U.S. presidential election, doping Russia's Olympic athletes, shooting down a civilian airliner, fuelling rebellion in Ukraine, and committing war crimes in Syria. These allegations, repeat his officials, are merely anti-Russian propaganda and evidence of an orchestrated campaign by the West to make Russia look bad.

In fact, the Russian leader has characterised Western sanctions as the latest attempt by the country's centuries-old enemies to encircle and subjugate the Motherland.

The Kremlin points to what it regards as Putin's foreign policy successes, including its role in defeating the Islamic State group in Syria and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, which Russia portrayed as the Crimean people exercising their democratic will.

It's a message that goes down well with many Russians, who view Putin as a strong, nationalistic leader who, after years of humiliation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has restored Russia to its rightful place as a global nuclear power, and who is able to stand up against the bullying British and Americans.

But it is a stance that has cost Russians dearly. International economic sanctions, including from the U.S. and Europe, combined with volatile oil prices, have hammered the Russian economy, while living standards for ordinary Russians have plummeted.

None of this has, for the moment, dented Putin's image among the majority of his own people. In fact, the Russian leader has characterised Western sanctions as the latest attempt by the country's centuries-old enemies to encircle and subjugate the Motherland. Economic pain, the Kremlin argues, must be endured for the sake of national unity.

But the real question for Putin is how long the patience of his own people will last. Part of Putin's popularity was always drawn from his ability to provide stability and better living standards – things he can no longer guarantee; all he offers Russians this time is the scant prospect of economic growth and an increasingly troubled relationship with the West.