Russian Hopes and Fears Post ‘Election’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 42


Executive Summary:

  •  Russia’s recent presidential “elections” are likely to mark a turning point in President Vladimir Putin’s behavior at home, abroad, and toward those Russians who oppose him.
  • While optimists may hope he will use his unchallenged power to make peace and reduce repression, many pessimists are convinced he will move in the opposite direction.
  •  Most immediately, Putin’s “reelection” is changing how Russians, especially opposition figures, view the situation, as the prospect of six more years of Putin is radicalizing many.

Even though Russia’s recent presidential “elections” were democratically meaningless, such an exercise is likely to have a significant impact on the behavior of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime in the coming months. Optimists may say that he now has a free hand to end the war against Ukraine and seek rapprochement with the West. Optimism suggests that only a Russian leader with the demonstrated support of such a large share of the population can make the sharp turn that their vision of the future would require. The vastly more numerous pessimists, however, are confident he will increase repression at home and become even more aggressive abroad (Bhasin and Gandhi, Timing and targeting of state repression in authoritarian elections, 2013; Cherta, March 15; Holod, March 17). This belief stems from a long history of autocratic Russian leaders and Putin himself turning to repression and aggression when their opposition is convinced that there is no reason for them not to do so.

Russians and others wondered before the election was held not who would win but what would happen in Russia afterward. While optimists saw the vote as a chance for Putin to change course, as many dictators who stage elections have done, the overwhelming majority is convinced that, after March 17, Putin will increase repressions both domestically and internationally (Bhasin and Gandhi, Timing and targeting of state repression in authoritarian elections, 2013; Cherta, March 15; Holod, March 17). The rise in repression before the elections—a surge reflected in the murder of opposition figure Aleksei Navalny and in the Kremlin’s moves against various segments of the population—suggests that the future for their country is bleak (see EDM, February 8, February 20, February 27).

Putin’s regime will continue to use the war in Ukraine to justify increased repression, just as leaders throughout history have used wars as a scapegoat for such measures. The Kremlin leader’s background in the Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB), whose officers generally viewed repression as the answer to all problems, adds fuel to the fears of the Russian people. Putin has obscured that by using carrots and sticks to gain support from the people he is repressing. In the run-up to the election, for example, he promised lavish benefits to various groups in the population (e.g., Regnum, February 14;, February 29). These were only campaign promises, however, mainly because money is short given massive war spending. The Kremlin leader is likely to revoke these promises. He may continue to shower funds on certain groups, leading some in Russia and the West to wrongly conclude that he is about to become less repressive.

That pattern, in turn, sparks additional hopes and fears, with the former far more likely to prove false than the latter. Some will see Putin’s new promises as a sign that he plans to pull back from his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The more skeptical, nevertheless, are already highlighting that there is little to no reason to believe that he will end the war effort and that there is far more reason that he is likely to redouble his aggression and perhaps expand it elsewhere (Holod, March 17;, March 19). This combination is fueling three other fears among Russians: Putin will boost taxes now that the voting is over, he will allow the ruble to drift lower or even collapse against Western currencies, and, most worrisome of all, he will launch a new mass mobilization to pursue his military goals despite repeated denials (Meduza, December 14, 2023; RTVI, February 1; iStories, March 11; Mosckovich Mag, March 11;, March 12).

Tax increases and depreciation of the ruble are likely, though they may not be as immediate or catastrophic as some now believe. Any mobilization that occurs almost certainly will not happen until after the spring draft in April. The Russian military cannot handle one any sooner (, March 13). These delays will undoubtedly lead the optimists to conclude that Kremlin denials about the three aforementioned fears should be accepted as true. In reality, any delays will only give the Putin regime greater opportunities to establish more restrictive measures. These measures would seek to stop any mass emigration to avoid the chaos that ensued the last time mobilization swept Russia (, March 14).

In addition to these hopes and fears, two other potential fallouts may come from the Russian vote. On the one hand, Putin may follow these “elections” with a reshuffling of his government. Still, it is doubtful that he will bring in any newcomers whose arrival might signal a change in direction regarding either repression or aggression (, January 9). On the other hand, there is already evidence that the vote itself is radicalizing the Russian opposition, leading its members to focus on more immediate issues rather than spending their time talking about a post-Putin future (The New Times, March 18; Fond Strategicheskoy Kul’tury, March 18).

This combination of factors is why the title of this article refers to both fear and hope, a clear nod to the work of the great Russian-British writer Alexander Werth who wrote one of the best books about Russian life during World War II. He titled it Russia at War (1964) and hoped that he would be able to follow it with a book to be called “Russia at Peace.” However, what happened in the Soviet Union after 1945 and even after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the ouster of Khrushchev in 1964 precluded that. He felt compelled to title his follow-on volume Russia Hopes and Fears (1969). Like Werth, the best anyone can do now in the wake of Putin’s latest “election” triumph is to remain trapped between the two emotions, with the basis for fears far greater and more immediate and any hopes far smaller and more distant.