President Vladimir Putin was reelected in a landslide on March 18, winning over 76 percent of the popular vote. With turnout of more than 67 percent, Putin obtained over 56 million votes—more than half of the overall number of registered voters (Interfax, March 19). Of course, the incumbent, who has been ruling Russia since 2000, had and used all the advantages of his position as undisputed authoritarian leader. The majority of Russians are employed by the state or by state-controlled monopolies, or depend on state handouts; they all were pressured to go out and vote. Different opposition candidates were on the ballot—left-wing, nationalist and liberal—but none were seen by the population as serious contenders who could possibly become leaders of Russia, except Putin. The Kremlin mobilized Russians via different incentives, with the continuing standoff with the West high on that list. Notably, the Kremlin portrayed the March 4 poisoning, in Salisbury, England, of former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia to have been a slanderous British-led assault on Russia. The Skripals were exposed to a nerve agent known as “Novichok,” secretly developed during the Cold War in the Soviet Union. According to Russian officials and politicians, the Skripal case helped to additionally mobilize and rally the Russian population around Putin and the Kremlin, as did the demonstration by Putin of footage of new nuclear wonder-weapons during his televised address to parliament on March 1 (Vedomosti, March 19).
Putin’s victory may not be seen as just and fair by Western standards, but it gives him a powerful public mandate for six more years of unchallenged rule, a mandate to run much-needed economic reforms and to deal with the West. Russia has been accused of attempting to influence the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. US Republicans and President Donald Trump adamantly deny there was any premeditated “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russians or that any outside interference fundamentally influenced the election outcome. The Russian authorities adamantly deny there was any state-sponsored attempt to influence the US vote in 2016, though it is an undeniable fact that, in November 2016, the news of Trump’s election was treated with elation in Moscow and applause at a session of the State Duma (Interfax, November 9, 2016). In 2016, Putin swiftly congratulated Trump on his victory and expressed hope for improvement in relations (Interfax, November 9, 2016).
Hopes were high in Moscow that under the new Trump administration relations with Washington may recover, that some global quid pro quo may be found, and that outstanding geopolitical disagreements could be overcome by establishing “de-confliction lines,” reminiscent of the traditional “spheres of influence” delimitations by the great powers in the 19th and 20th centuries. At present, in Syria, where both Russian and US militaries are deployed and actively engaged, “de-confliction lines” separating their operations have been established by direct military-to-military Russo-US agreements. This territorial “de-confliction” divide in Syria has been sustained using established lines of communications as well as by regulating and coordinating military activities by both sides. Top Russian generals have praised the “de-confliction” agreements with the US in Syria, but obvious strains have been undermining this shaky balance (Kp.ru, December 27, 2017). Both the Russian General Staff and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have warned of the possibility of proxy conflicts in Syria between Russian- and US-supported local factions escalating into possible direct Russo-US clashes (Militarynews.ru, March 13).
High hopes of a possible global “de-confliction” deal between Putin and Trump never materialized. Sanctions imposed on Russia by the West due to conflicts over Ukraine and Crimea were not abolished. On the contrary, new sanctions have been imposed by the US to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, which Moscow denies. The Trump administration seems to have been dragging its feet on slapping additional punitive sanctions on Moscow to the annoyance of Congress, while Putin and Trump have been mostly avoiding personal public attacks on each other. On March 20, Trump phoned Putin and, apparently against the guidance of his advisors, congratulated Putin on his election victory. Both leaders agreed to begin planning a future summit. Trump defended his decision to extend a hand of friendship despite the Skripal case, despite Putin’s announced new nuclear superweapons aimed specifically at the US, and in spite of all the other differences and conflicts dividing the two nuclear superpowers: “Getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. They can help solve problems with North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS [the Islamic State], Iran and even the coming Arms Race [sic].” Trump’s “constructive attitude” was received positively by Moscow, but the prospects for any serious improvement in bilateral relations still seem bleak. Trump is seen as a “good guy” who, by phoning and congratulating and by proposing a summit, effectively undermined British attempts to mobilize a joint Western response to the Skripal poisoning case. But some in Moscow still fear that joint efforts of the anti-Russian Washington establishment could undermine Trump’s expressed desire to go further and sign a possible global “deal” with Putin (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 21).
While the US is politically divided, in Russia the political situation seems utterly different: After his March 18 landslide, Putin’s powerbase appears as strong and solid as ever. And yet, the Russian economy is stagnating and household incomes have been depreciating for four years in row, while the global economy and the US are growing. The Russian people may support Putin en masse, but the Russian ruling elite and government is split into various factions. Putin is a unifying figure and the ultimate center of power, but the so-called liberal-economic fraction of the Russian government and Kremlin administration is opposed to the intelligence community and military-industrial complex, and these internal parties have vastly different views on how to lead Russia into the future.
After the election, Putin will be reformatting his government and administration and formulating a coherent roadmap for the country for the coming six years, aimed at restarting economic growth while maintaining a balance of military power with the West and ultimately seeking some resolution of outstanding differences. This mission seems almost impossible to achieve for an aging autocrat, particularly one who has likely been in power too long to suddenly grasp new revolutionary ideas to turn Russia around.