Putin lost the election


Vladimir Putin officially won 88 percent of the vote in Russia’s presidential elections on March 17, but his victory is both a symptom of weakness and a harbinger of defeat. Think of him as modern Russia’s equivalent of the premodern Greek king Pyrrhus, who suffered unacceptably high casualties while almost toppling Rome in the third century BC. Like his ancient predecessor, Russia’s ruler has actually snatched defeat from the jaws of a seemingly resounding victory and will soon come to rue his decision to falsify the electoral results so immodestly.

Winning with a mere 70 percent would have done the trick, but Putin evidently decided that he needed the equivalent of an overwhelming mandate to continue ruling. Why go for broke and claim a win that is reminiscent of Soviet elections, where the sole candidate always won 99.99 percent? Strong, self-confident and genuinely beloved leaders don’t have to falsify so outrageously. They can just let the people show their love in a fair and free election. Weak, self-doubting, and genuinely unloved leaders, in contrast, need to feign popularity and legitimacy, because they know — and the people know — that they’d lose a free vote.

It’s therefore a mistake to conclude that Putin’s super-strong electoral showing enhances his power. That would be true if the vote were genuine. But since Putin and his minions fudged the numbers, it’s obvious that they did so to create the illusion of unadulterated mass popularity.

In fact, Putin is anything but the strongman his image proclaims he is. He is indecisive when he needs to be decisive and decisive when he needs to be indecisive. He is prone to enormous blunders — the greatest being invading Ukraine and thereby losing it and strengthening NATO. His throne has been under assault — by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Alexei Navalny and Boris Nadezhdin, as well as by Russian elites skeptical of his ability to guide the ship of state in such stormy weather.

Despite his bluster, Putin has to know that he’s not the master of the universe he once claimed to be. Unless he’s completely out of touch with reality (which is possible), he knows that he’s set his country on a path to perdition. The war in Ukraine cannot end in victory, because, even if Ukraine loses on the battlefield, Russia will have lost up to a million soldiers; its army and economy will have been shattered; and its occupation of Ukraine will be long-lasting, costly and ultimately ineffective. Ukraine has become a lose-lose case for him.

Putin must also know that his popularity is nowhere near 88 percent, if only because he felt obligated to reach for the stars instead of settling for the real number. Two Russian analysts say that, according to their Kremlin sources, Putin actually garnered about 39 percent of the vote, while his antiwar challenger, the unknown Vladislav Davankov, got about 27. Despite their unverifiability, the numbers accord with the guesstimates of pro-Putin sentiment that many respectable opposition Russian analysts make.

Naturally, Putin will claim that he now has the mandate to intensify the war effort. Many more Russians will be forced to give up their lives in exchange for marginal gains of Ukrainian territory. Putin desperately needs a breakthrough of some kind: the collapse of Ukrainian defensive lines, the capture of some still intact city or the assassination of a leading Ukrainian. Moreover, that breakthrough must happen soon, so as to permit him to argue that it’s the direct result of his election victory.

But Ukrainian lines are likely to hold, capturing a small town will be nothing to crow about and assassination is difficult and could easily backfire, increasing Western support of Ukraine. All Ukraine needs to do is hold out in 2024 and then resume its offensive in 2025. That would be disastrous for Putin.

The economy is no less of a mess, despite some Western claims to the contrary. Russian opposition economists, such as Vladimir Milov, Igor Lipsits and Mikhail Krutikhin, convincingly argue that, first, Russian statistical data cannot be trusted; second, even when used, the data shows selective growth in military-related sectors, and not overall growth of the consumer economy; third, that Russia has already incurred a huge budget deficit and will be hard-pressed to meet its war-related obligations without raising taxes and squeezing the middle class; and fourth, that Ukraine’s destruction of Russian oil refineries will have a variety of negative effects, ranging from gas shortages to higher inflation.

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In any case, even if one rejects these Russians’ analysis, it’s clear that Putin will have to perform some magic to get the economy moving again. Like Leonid Brezhnev, who was mired in “old thinking” and came to be associated with what Mikhail Gorbachev called the “era of stagnation,” Putin is the last man in the Kremlin to produce fresh ideas for reforming Russia’s economy. As with the USSR, the primary obstacle to reform is the regime: Brezhnev had to go for the Soviet Union to experience perestroika, and Putin will have to go for the same to happen in Russia.

Putin would have been far better off retiring to his bunkers and leaving the Russian mess to someone else. Instead, he decided to opt for a Pyrrhic electoral victory and join Comrade Brezhnev on the “ash heap of history.”

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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