Putin’s Militarized Election Campaign

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 40

(Source: Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign from its first days was dressed in a military uniform. Like Caesar 2,000 years ago, Putin decided that military triumph is much more convincing than election promises. Last December, four days after announcing his intention to lead the country for another six years, Putin went to a Russian air base in Syria. There, he announced the victorious completion of the “operation against the terrorists” in this country. It was the first but not the last military triumph of the supreme commander that fit into the scenario. “Comrade Supreme Commander-in-Chief, our achievements here have reinforced the belief of the soldiers, sergeants and officers in our victory under your guidance,” the deputy commander of the “Euphrates” artillery group, General D. Klimenko, told Putin without hesitation (Kremlin.ru December 11, 2017).

During the next three days, Putin spoke at a reception in honor of the Heroes of Russia, and received similar praise. On December 22, 2017, the president took part in a traditional meeting of the Defense Ministry Board. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu did not even try to hide the pre-election nature of the event, stating: “With the 2018 elections so close, we certainly need to sum up the development of the Armed Forces for the past five and a half years, under the leadership of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief” (Kremlin.ru, December 22, 2017). Once again, Shoigu thanked the president for ensuring the security of the country. On December 28, 2017, Putin awarded military officers who had distinguished himself in Syria. Each of the awarded expressed gratitude to the supreme commander.

Then, the turn of the military industry came. According to the pre-election scenario, Putin had to appear not only as a great commander-in-chief, but also as a great manager of military equipment production. In late January 2018, the president visited two of the largest military industry enterprises: the engine-building plant in Ufa and the Kazan aviation plant (Kremlin.ru, January 24, 25, 2018). During the visit to Kazan, a decree was signed to resume production of the strategic Tu-160 bomber, a move that will guarantee job security in the sector for the next decade. In addition, Putin held a meeting in the capital of Bashkiria about the need for future diversification of the military industry by increasing the share of civilian products manufacturing to 30 percent of the total output of the military industrial complex. Participants showed willingness to initiate criminal penalties on those who would disrupt civilian goods production at Russia’s military plants, as it is stipulated in the state defense order (Kremlin.ru, January 24).

The “defensive” bias of Putin’s activity at the start of the presidential campaign was clear. On the one hand, apart from the announced victory over the Syrian terrorists, the Kremlin did not see any other victories on the international arena or in its domestic policy. And the position of a besieged fortress, whose inhabitants are preoccupied with the manufacture of weapons and preparation for defense, provides an excellent consolidation of the population around the figure of the “commander” of the fortress. Besides, there is a great opportunity to ignore unpleasant questions, explaining your silence with the need to keep secret the face of a potential enemy.

On the other hand, Vladimir Putin knows quite well that his electoral base is concentrated in the defense institutions and law enforcement agencies, and these are the voters he intends to give hope for tomorrow. In Ufa and Kazan, he did not tire of explaining to the workers that the reduction in defense spending was “purely technical” in nature—the previous year, the state decided to repay the accumulated bank debts of defense enterprises at once, which caused a significant increase in the military budget. The new arms program, approved by Vladimir Putin, would reliably ensure workers’ well being for the next ten years, just as the previous one. The president also participated in conferences formally devoted to the study of the Syrian military experience, but which instead repeatedly featured immeasurable praise of Commander Putin.

However, the situation has changed dramatically since the defeat of the “Wagner” tactical group of Russian mercenaries in Syria (see EDM, February 15). The official propaganda campaign failed to quench the rumors about hundreds of Russian victims in Syria. Talking about a complete victory in Syria has become risky. Putin was silent for two weeks after news came to light about the rout. However, the Kremlin arguably had no other election agenda other than a militaristic one. Then, instead of victory in Syria, Putin’s electoral base was offered another triumph—a virtual victory over the United States. The main theme of the March 1 presidential address to the Federal Assembly was a presentation on the yet-unseen nuclear weapons that have allegedly been created in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s leadership. The signal of this message was clear and simple: in spite of Washington’s attempts to “contain” Russia, the country has achieved military superiority over the US. To increase the propaganda effect, Russian citizens were urged to come up with names for the missiles that could destroy America (see EDM, March 1, 5, 8).

State propaganda immediately commenced a new wave of militarism. The commander-in-chief began mentioning regularly his own key role in his Crimean victory over the “evil-minded” Americans. The Russian president seemed to admire the efforts of thousands of engineers and workers who forged the nuclear shield and the sword of the Motherland, but did not forget to give credit to himself: “This very demanding and complex joint work was a real discovery even for me, a man who has been working on it maybe not every day, but every week for many years” (TV Chanel One, March 11).

And his subordinates did not hesitate to give him that credit, too. “What he talked about is the result of his many years as the head of state for the coordination of not only the military-industrial complex enterprises, but also of each individual designer,” said the state Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (RBC, March 1).

This advertising campaign haling Putin peaked in the last week before the election. On online social networks, two propaganda films dedicated to the president were released: Miroporyadok 2018 (“World Order 2018”) and Putin. Each video stresses how Vladimir Putin had revived the Armed Forces. Putin reminded his audience of what happened to the Kursk submarine back in August 2000. According to the Russian leader, the cause of the demise of the submarine and its crew was a general decline of the Russian Armed Forces in those years: “We know well what condition the army was then. Therefore, frankly speaking, there is nothing surprising in it, but the tragedy is enormous.” But today the army is in excellent order: “Our army is not just reborn, we have created a new army.” And all thanks to Vladimir Putin: “I climbed up and looked into the Armata tank [Russia’s next-generation main battle tank], this is part of the work of the commander-in-chief.” (Moskovskiyi Komsomoletz March 12).

The fact that Putin chose militarism as the main theme of his presidential campaign could be expected. Over the past six years, the Armed Forces have become an essential political tool of the Kremlin. In the absence of visible successes in the economy and social sphere, society is accustomed to replacing them with a real or fictitious success in the military sphere. Putin’s March 1 message to the Federal Assembly was a de facto declaration of a new Cold War. After Putin’s expected victory in the upcoming presidential election, on March 18, Russia’s residents will have to pay for this militarization.