MOSCOW — When Russian President Vladimir Putin took the stage on a square outside the Kremlin to claim victory in Sunday’s national election, he did so at an open-air concert celebrating the fourth anniversary of his annexation of Crimea.
He thanked the crowd for their support in the “very difficult circumstances” of recent years and then led a chant: “Russia! Russia! Russia!”
With his landslide win Sunday, Putin got the election show he wanted. As he figures out what’s next, expect rising tensions with the West.
In the weeks leading up to Putin’s reelection to six more years in power, the president hardly campaigned and offered few concrete plans for major domestic reforms. He did, however, awe Russians with displays of fantastic new weaponry while state-controlled television intensified a drumbeat of reporting about the threats allegedly posed by the United States and its allies.
The unified story line: Russia is under attack, and it needs a strong leader to survive.
“This is a consolidated response to the pressure that is currently exerted on Russia,” the co-chair of Putin’s electoral headquarters, Yelena Shmelyova, told the Interfax news agency after the results came in. “There is a view that this unfairness is growing even stronger. This is our common response to it.”
As Putin assembles his next government in the coming months, he’ll need to manage the competing interests of a ruling elite angling for influence in a post-Putin era that will someday arrive. The result, many analysts say, is that as infighting over the country’s domestic course continues at the top, Putin will have an interest in intensifying the conflict with the West.
“This destruction of the systems of governance leads to adventurism abroad,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser turned prominent Putin critic. “That’s why this activity abroad will only intensify.”
Pavlovsky said British Prime Minister Theresa May, for instance, delivered Putin a “pre-election present” by quickly accusing Russia of the attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and mustering an assertive response. The British response angered Russians, he said, motivating some voters who may have otherwise stayed home.
“I believe any sensible person understands that it’s craziness, idiocy and nonsense to think that anyone in Russia would allow themselves to do something like this on the eve of the presidential elections and the soccer World Cup,” Putin said about the Skripal case in his victory news conference, referring to Russia’s hosting of the championship this summer. “It’s simply unfathomable.”
More quietly, Russia is threatening escalation in Syria, where its fight in support of President Bashar al-Assad is raising the risk of a military collision with the United States. Last week, the head of Russia’s General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, accused Washington of planning a cruise missile strike on Damascus. He offered no evidence but pledged that Russia would retaliate against “the missiles and launchers used.”
“The strategy of coercion by unpredictability and the resolve to be unhinged will continue for a while,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst based in Moscow. “But the problem for Putin is that he has a plan to escalate, but not one to de-escalate.”
Six years ago, when he last ran, Putin stepped up his anti-American rhetoric amid large and continuing street demonstrations against him. U.S. officials, thinking it a campaign ploy, expected him to dial back the heat once he was safely in office — but that never happened. And it’s unlikely to happen now.
Escalation abroad helps Putin consolidate power at home. As a power struggle within the ruling elite over his succession looms, he may need it.
With his win of another six-year term Sunday, the road is clear on paper for Putin, who is 65, to rule until 2024 — something that would give him close to a quarter-century in power.
But what then? Analysts increasingly say they wouldn’t be surprised to see him try to extend his rule beyond that, perhaps by taking a page from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book and eliminating term limits or taking on some kind of extra-political office that would turn him into a national leader akin to Iran’s ayatollah.
“Someone who rules for so long will be tempted to perhaps continue this existence,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, the lead domestic policy specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “For a person who annexed part of another country, there are practically no limits.”
The first signs of how Putin manages succession will come when he puts his next government together after his inauguration in May. Keeping Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his current post will be a sign Putin wants to minimize the speculation about his successor. Reinserting the comparatively liberal former finance minister Alexei Kudrin into the government would be a setback for the hard-line military and intelligence wing in the Kremlin and a sign that Putin may seek to carry out some economic reforms.
Despite the uncertainty in the Kremlin, the pro-democracy opposition to Putin looks more disorganized than it’s been in years. The most striking symbol Sunday of the Russian president’s staying power, in fact, was not his inevitable electoral victory. It was a debate streamed on YouTube between two leading faces of the opposition — anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny and former liberal television host Ksenia Sobchak.
In a live broadcast that more than 100,000 people viewed at one point, Navalny lit into Sobchak for running at all. Her decision to do so, he said, simply added a patina of legitimacy to Putin’s “false and fake” election. The government allowed Sobchak to run and gave her television airtime, while Navalny was barred from the ballot and was kept off TV.
“I will judge you by your actions,” Navalny told Sobchak. “Your actions until now have been disgusting.”
Sobchak’s future is another wild card. As the daughter of Putin’s onetime mentor, the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, she is in the unique position of having a personal relationship with Putin even though she criticizes him publicly. She has announced plans to form a new political party — something that could further sideline Navalny, who is the Russian opposition leader with the most nationwide support and who wants to tear down the Putin system.
“One can hardly expect serious change,” Kolesnikov said.