The Russian Election: Time for a Sobering Reality Check

March 18, 2024
Protests during the Russian election were a welcome sign that the opposition movement has survived Alexei Navalny, but they should not be viewed as ushering in major changes. President Vladimir Putin will rule Russia for the foreseeable future.

One wants so very much to believe that the Russian opposition is alive and well and could one day bring about political change in Moscow. That is why any sign of protest during the Russian presidential elections is welcomed and celebrated. And indeed, there were such signs: Ballot boxes were destroyed or splattered with paint. Ballot papers were invalidated, or the name of the deceased opposition politician Alexei Navalny was written on them. And on Sunday at lunchtime, people gathered outside polling stations in several Russian cities to take part in the “Noon Against Putin” campaign. This worked even better in front of Russian embassies around the world, with Yulia Navalnaya joining the queue in Berlin.

The truth is, however, that the protest was small and purely symbolic. There were no mass demonstrations or public rallies inside Russia. In Putin’s Russia, this is no longer possible. Anyone who displays even a minimum of rebellion or criticism must reckon with the harshest punishments. For all those who disagree with Putin, there are only two options: stay and keep quiet, or leave the country. The high number of Russians who have already opted for the latter was evident from the queues outside polling stations abroad. Many hundreds of thousands have left their motherland since the start of the war against Ukraine. They are sorely missed in Russia, because one day they would be urgently needed to build a new Russia without Putin.

But when will that be? The Russian potentate can remain in office until 2030. The constitution, which was amended in 2021, even allows Putin to be re-elected once more—until 2036. In reality, however, such legal considerations are irrelevant. Putin has always changed the legal framework to his advantage in the past. Putin will therefore rule Russia until he dies or is deposed by force.

No opposition—either at home or abroad—ready to fill the void is in sight. Navalny's death has taken away the unifying, central symbol of hope. Anyone who believes otherwise should take a look at the sympathetic but toothless work of the Belarusian opposition figure Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

What will happen now? Putin can rule even more repressively at home and put even more military pressure on Ukraine. Now that Ukraine is running out of ammunition, the Russian president will not even think about negotiating a peace. Therefore, anyone who hopes for an end to the war, or believes it is possible to strike a deal with Putin, is dreaming—or has not yet understood the realities.