Stronger, unchallenged, emboldened: what to expect from Vladimir Putin after his crushing election win in Russia
‘Putin isn’t going to retreat an inch. He’ll push for maximum independence from the West’
Vladimir Putin now has a stronger hold on Russia – and stronger place in the world – thanks to an overwhelming mandate for yet another term as president.
Re-elected for another term on Sunday, on the strength of almost 77 per cent of the vote, Putin can rest safe in the knowledge that his domestic opponents are likely to spend another six years in the shadows.
The Russian leader, 65, rules unchallenged, even as the Russian economy stagnates after the longest recession in two decades.
Abroad, he faces spiralling conflict after the UK directly accused Putin of ordering the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal earlier this month. He has faced US and EU sanctions over his 2014 annexation of Crimea and diplomatic pressure over Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But his foreign opponents are mired in their own problems, from Britain’s messy exit from the European Union to chaos and division in the US administration of President Donald Trump.
And Putin’s defiance of the West has played well in the campaign with an electorate nostalgic for Russia’s superpower status.
“Putin isn’t going to retreat an inch,” said Evgeny Minchenko, a Moscow-based political consultant who advises the Kremlin. “He’ll push for maximum independence from the West and build alliances with other centres of power.”
Relations between Russia and the West are already at their lowest level since the collapse of the Soviet Union 26 years ago.
Despite a friendly-ish relationship with Trump, Putin’s new mandate gives him little incentive to seek entente with Washington, especially as the investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election intensifies.
Putin-friendly leaders have made gains in recent Italian and German elections. Western countries are likely to see more Russia-linked hacking and propaganda aimed at disrupting elections or otherwise discrediting democracy – including the US midterm elections in November.
Since Putin’s domestic popularity bumps whenever he stands up to the West, expect more tough talk from Putin the next time he faces threats at home, and bolder Russian vetoes at the UN Security Council of anything seen as threatening Moscow’s interests.
Confrontation with the West has played well for Putin, even in the context of the alleged assassination plot against Skripal.
Putin campaign spokesman Andrei Kondrashov credited the tension with the UK for boosting turnout for the president on Sunday. “We need to say thank you to Great Britain because they again misread the Russian mindset,” he said, according to Interfax.
Putin will use his next six years to assert his vision of a strong Russia, according to Joerg Forbrig, senior programme director of the German Marshall Fund of the US.
“Putin now has a feeling of success, he feels the West is splintering,” Forbrig said by phone from Berlin. “The priority in the next term is to build on that.”
In Syria, Russian-backed forces helped rout the Islamic State group, and Putin argues that Russia saved the day in a conflict that had confounded US-led forces fighting against IS.
Now those Russian-backed Syrian forces are closing in on the last strongholds of Western-backed rebel forces.
Viewing that as a geopolitical and military victory over an illegal Western-led intervention, Russia is unlikely to pull out of Syria any time soon.
An emboldened Putin could position the resurgent Russian military as a peacemaker in other regional conflicts – for example in Libya, where Russia has oil interests and where a disastrous Western invasion seven years ago left a lawless state now seething with extremists.
To Russians, Putin’s biggest victory in 18 years in power was annexing Crimea and crushing Ukraine’s ambitions to move closer to the EU and Nato.
Putin is frustrated at the resulting US and EU sanctions but appears unwilling to make concessions that would bring them to an end.
Moscow’s actions in Ukraine sent a warning signal to other countries in Russia’s orbit that reaching westward is dangerous. And former Soviet bloc states within the EU are increasingly drifting back toward Moscow, from Hungary and Poland to the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Putin’s new mandate could theoretically hand him the power to make bold reforms that Russia has long needed to raise living standards and wean itself from its oil dependence.
But Putin has convinced Russian voters that drastic change is dangerous, and that protecting the country from threats takes precedence over improving daily life.
“I came here to vote for stability,” said Larisa Kuznetsova, a 62-year-old pensioner, outside a polling station in central Moscow. “That’s what we count on from our president in such a frightening world.”
Experts predict Putin may enact some changes like expanding affordable housing and fighting corruption on a local level.
But less likely are bigger changes such as overhauling the pension system, which is unpopular among a strong Putin voting base, or spending cuts in the security sector, unpopular among the ex-KGB friends in Putin’s entourage.
Russia has weathered a two-year recession, and inflation and the deficit are low. But personal incomes have stagnated, the health care system is crumbling and corruption is rife.
The biggest question for Russians over the next six years is what happens after that.
Putin is constitutionally required to step down in 2024, but he could change the rules to eliminate term limits, or anoint a malleable successor and continue to run things behind the scenes.
Asked at an impromptu news conference Sunday night if he would seek the presidency again in 2030, when he would be eligible again, the 65-year-old Putin snapped back: “It’s ridiculous. Do you think I will sit here until I turn 100?”
Associated Press and Bloomberg