Putin wins in a sham landslide

Russia’s president is now in charge until 2024. What does this mean for the world? Emily Hohler reports.

“Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Joseph Stalin, surprised no one with his landslide re-election on Sunday,” says Alina Polyakova in The Atlantic. But although his victory was a “foregone conclusion” (he had no serious challengers and took 76% of the vote), the Kremlin still fretted about appearances, conducting an “elaborate” campaign to produce the high turnout that would “ensure Putin’s mandate”. It worked. Thanks to Putin’s “long-running disinformation campaign” to legitimise the “brazenly illegitimate election”, threats of “annihilation by the West” if people didn’t vote and widespread offers of freebies, turnout exceeded 67% – at least according to TASS, the Russian news agency. Putin’s grip on power now extends to 2024.

The West needs to get tough

On the face of it, his victory was a “testament to the strength of his regime”, says Zack Beauchamp in Vox. “He staged a simulacrum of democracy, handed himself another term in office, and faced little in the way of opposition.” The snag is that while Putin “has a secure hold on power for the foreseeable future, he will eventually grow old and die” (he is now 65). And the government he has created is “so dependent on him that no one knows who – or what – will take over once he’s gone”. The problem of succession is why, in the long run, democracies are “less prone to crisis and collapse”.

Russia without Putin won’t “turn into Denmark”, counters Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal. Putin has been allowed to “merrily” conquer Crimea, invade Ukraine and help Bashar al-Assad fight a deadly campaign in Syria, while his agents have “revived Cold War networks” in Europe and helped plunge America into a “crisis of self-doubt” by interfering in the 2016 presidential elections. With the attempted murder in Salisbury of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, “Don Corleone has moved into our gated community”.

What is needed is not “lectures and symbolic sanctions” from European diplomats, but a “horse’s head under the bedsheets”. This need not involve bloodshed. The US should negotiate defence treaties with Russia’s neighbours in the Caucasus and apply military and diplomatic pressure in Syria and elsewhere. Along with China, Iran and “camp followers” such as Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and Syria, the “global balance of power is being upended”. Russia must be “constrained”.

Not as scary as he looks

Yet Putin is “not as scary as he looks”, says Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. While he is “reckless, he is not irrational”. The “real danger” is not that he actively seeks conflict with the West, “but that he miscalculates and creates confrontations that he cannot control”. For example, promises of an “early conclusion” to the Syria conflict have not been met; the Mueller investigation could lead to more severe sanctions; and the Salisbury poisoning has provoked an “unexpected display of Western unity”.

The “cumulative result” is that Russia is “much more isolated than it should be”. Even far-left and far-right European politicians sympathetic to Putin are “unlikely, ultimately, to break with the EU or the Western alliance”, not least because the country’s economy remains too weak.
“A Russian government that specialises in assassination and nuclear threats does not have all that much to offer its foreign admirers.”