With War as Backdrop, Putin Looks Ahead to Another Term as President

When asked last week what kind of leader should replace President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, his longtime spokesman gave a quick and simple answer: “the same.”

“Or different, but the same,” the spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told a Russian television network, adding that he was confident that should Mr. Putin run, he would win the election “without doubt” and would remain “our president.”

Few doubt that Mr. Putin will seek another presidential term in an election scheduled for March. He is widely expected to formally announce his candidacy next month.

There is little question about the outcome, too; in Russia’s authoritarian political system, Mr. Putin is always reported to have won in a landslide. He has led Russia as either president or prime minister since 1999.

But the coming presidential election carries more significance; it is the first one since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — Mr. Putin’s most consequential decision since he first crossed the Kremlin’s walls as his country’s leader two decades ago.

And the election ties directly into Mr. Putin’s war strategy for 2024; specifically, will he order a new mobilization of soldiers, which could be unpopular domestically, after securing his fifth term as Russian leader.

“War and mobilization are increasingly unpopular,” said Andrei Pertsev, who analyzes Russian politics for Meduza, a Russian news website based in Riga, Latvia. “They make people anxious.”

Critics question the purpose of a presidential election in a country at war where most opposition leaders have been either driven into exile or jailed, the Kremlin-controlled electoral apparatus filters who can run or not, and most popular news outlets only sing praises to the incumbent.

Conscripts at the Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, dedicated to “the military feats of the Russian people.”Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

Grigorii Golosov, a professor of political science at the European University at St. Petersburg, Russia, said Mr. Putin wanted to make sure that no one could cast doubt over his legitimacy at the helm of the Russian state, most of all various groupings within the country’s ruling class.

“Both the population at large and the Russian ruling class are aware that there hasn’t been any real political rivalry in Russia for many years,” he said. “But there is no big difference between real legitimacy and its imitation.”

Mr. Golosov said that even a semblance of electoral legitimacy would help Mr. Putin weather a domestic crisis, should one arise, citing the failed mutiny by the warlord Yevgeny V. Prigozhin in June as one potential example.

“Similar situations could arise in the future,” Mr. Golosov added.

This will be the first election since Russia revised the Constitution that effectively allowed Mr. Putin to run for the fifth time by allowing him to claim that his term-limit clock was reset.

Several other candidates are expected to run, including representatives of two political parties — the Communist and the nationalist leaning Liberal Democratic — that have acted as convenient sparring partners during Mr. Putin’s previous campaigns. As happened during the two preceding elections, the Kremlin might also allow a liberal candidate to enter the race — though experts said this was still an open question because any such candidate would most likely campaign against the war in Ukraine.

For instance, Boris Nadezhdin, one of the few Russian politicians who have announced their intention to run, called the war — or special military operation as he referred to it — Mr. Putin’s “fatal mistake” and declared that ending it would be his No. 1 priority.

Boris Nadezhdin, right, in Moscow in 2011. He is one of the few Russian politicians who have announced their intention to run in the presidential election in March.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev/Associated Press

“Putin is dragging Russia into the past,” Mr. Nadezhdin said in an interview with Zhivoy Gvozd, a Russian news outlet on YouTube, this month. “The main problem is that Putin is destroying the key institutions of a modern state.”

In order to be formally registered as a candidate, Mr. Nadezhdin would need to collect 100,000 signatures from across the country. The Central Electoral Commission would have to vet them, a process that analysts say allows the Kremlin to filter out unwanted contenders.

“I find the probability of him getting registered practically negligible,” said Mr. Golosov, the political analyst.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Igor Girkin announced his intention to run and unite all pro-war forces under his banner. Mr. Girkin, also known under his nom de guerre Strelkov, stoked Russian nationalism as a warlord and military blogger in Ukraine but also occasionally criticized the Kremlin.

Mr. Girkin is in jail on extremism charges for criticizing the way Mr. Putin executed the war, saying that the Russian leader was “too kind” to his adversaries.

Both Mr. Nadezhdin and Mr. Girkin are unlikely to be allowed to join the race.

Igor Girkin, who is in jail on extremism charges, announced his intention to run and unite all pro-war forces under his banner.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

The election, nevertheless, can potentially present problems for the Kremlin, experts said. Though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, elections in Russia have occasionally represented a significant inflection point when the political system has been more vulnerable than usual. At the end of 2011, for instance, tens of thousands of Russians filled central squares of Moscow and other big Russian cities protesting parliamentary elections they considered rigged.

This year, the war in Ukraine adds a new element of uncertainty, analysts said. While Russia has managed to hold off the Ukrainian counteroffensive and is mounting assaults of its own, it is sacrificing tens of thousands of soldiers while failing to achieve any meaningful breakthrough or coerce Kyiv to negotiate.

And as long as the war drags on, Russians remain anxious that it could require another round of mobilization of men to fight it. The Kremlin ordered a draft in the fall of 2021 but has not announced another one, concerned about domestic backlash. Waiting until after the election would remove at least some political risk.

A survey by Russian Field, a nonpartisan Moscow-based research company, found that for the first time since the start of the war, more Russians said they supported negotiations than a continuation of armed combat. Almost two-thirds of people reached by telephone said they would support a peace deal in Ukraine if it were signed tomorrow.

The poll was conducted among 1,611 respondents, with 6,403 refusing to participate, highlighting the difficulty of polling in Russia.

The independent pollster Levada reported similar shifts in its poll released at the end of October, with 55 percent of respondents saying that they would prefer peace talks as opposed to a continuation of the war.

People attending a rally in Moscow in February, two days before the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

The Kremlin is aware of this shift in mood, said Mr. Pertsev of Meduza. While Mr. Putin remains deeply interested in the military situation, the Kremlin has been visibly moving his agenda away from the war to more mundane issues, such as the country’s infrastructure development, Mr. Pertsev said.

On Monday, for instance, he presided over a ceremony for the delivery of 570 buses to 12 Russian regions.

“The war only makes things worse for the presidential campaign,” Mr. Pertsev said in an interview. “It reminds people about difficulties.”

Ahead of the presidential campaign, the Russian state organized a vast Rossiya exhibition in Moscow. There, people walk through a 500-feet-long video tunnel that showcases the country’s various achievements under Mr. Putin’s rule, such as the construction of apartment buildings and highways. There is no mention of the war.

Mr. Pertsev contends that the exhibition is designed to create a “theatrical backdrop” for Mr. Putin’s campaign. The Kremlin has also organized a contest in which families can win certificates for new apartments or trips across Russia. The time frame of the contest coincides with the election period.

“Russia’s power vertical is using election to demonstrate once again that everything is going well and that the West hasn’t broken Russia,” said Mr. Pertsev. Another major factor for holding the election, he said, is that Mr. Putin “likes it when his work and people’s love for him is demonstrated publicly.”

“The older he gets, the more he likes it,” he said.

An army recruiting poster offering 550,000 rubles in Ovsyanka, Russia.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times
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