Putin Extends Rule in Preordained Russian Election after Harshest Crackdown since Soviet Era

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
A man shows a protest placard as he queues with other voters near the polling station at the Russian embassy in Berlin, after noon local time, on Sunday, March 17, 2024.

President Vladimir Putin extended his reign over Russia in a landslide election whose outcome was never in doubt, declaring his determination Monday to advance deeper into Ukraine and dangling new threats against the West.

After the harshest crackdown on dissent since Soviet times, it was clear from the earliest returns that Putin’s nearly quarter-century rule would continue with a fifth term that grants him six more years. Still, Russians heeded a call to protest Putin’s repression and his war in Ukraine by showing up at polling stations at noon Sunday.

With all the precincts counted Monday, election officials said Putin had secured a record number of votes, underlining his total control over the political system. U.S. and other Western leaders denounced the election as a sham.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said there was “nothing free or fair” about the election but seemingly resisted calls from Russia’s opposition to not recognize Putin as the winner.

Ahead of the election, Putin’s greatest political foe, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony, anti-war candidates were barred from the ballot and independent voices were silenced in a Kremlin-backed media blockade. No independent monitoring organizations were able to observe the election and analysts said online polling meant the vote was highly susceptible to manipulation. Any public criticism of Putin or his war in Ukraine has been stifled.

Putin appeared Monday evening on Red Square in the heart of Moscow at a concert to mark the tenth year since he annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Putin’s three token challengers for the presidency appeared on stage beside him and publicly supported him after campaigns in which none of them criticized him.

Putin has led Russia as president or prime minister since December 1999. At the end of his fifth term, he would be the longest-serving Russian leader since Catherine the Great, who ruled during the 18th century.

Emboldened by his sweeping victory, Putin said he planned to carve out a buffer zone in Ukraine to protect Russia from cross-border shelling and attacks. Asked if an open clash could erupt between Russia and NATO, Putin responded curtly by saying: “Everything is possible in today’s world.” He added, “It’s clear to everyone that it will put us a step away from full-scale World War III.”

Russian officials said they recruited over 500,000 volunteers for the army last year, but many expect Putin to mobilize more forces to attempt to push deeper into Ukraine. Analysts say that in the post-election period, Russian authorities could also introduce unpopular measures such as raising taxes.

The Kremlin is now “increasingly confident,” because it has “learned just how passive the population is and how effective their own repression is,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Russia’s Central Election Commission said Monday that with all the precincts counted, Putin got 87% of the vote. Central Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova said that nearly 76 million voters cast their ballots for Putin.

In illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, at least 249 people were detained for refusing to take part in the vote and for criticizing Russian authorities according to the Ukrainian Eastern Human Rights Group.

“Voting in the occupied territories took place literally at gunpoint, when members of election commissions walked from door to door accompanied by military men with weapons,” said Pavlo Lysianskyi, head of the group.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy slammed the election and voting in the illegally annexed regions saying “everything Russia does on the occupied territory of Ukraine is a crime.”

Germany also sharply criticized the vote. “Russia, as the chancellor has already said, is now a dictatorship and is ruled by Vladimir Putin in an authoritarian manner,” said Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s spokeswoman, Christina Hoffmann.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulated Putin, as did North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the presidents of nations that have historic and current ties to Russia, such as Azerbaijan and Belarus.

Navalny’s associates urged those unhappy with Putin or the war to go to the polls at noon Sunday — and lines outside a number of polling stations both inside Russia and at its embassies around the world appeared to swell at that time.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who spent more than five hours in the line at the Russian Embassy in Berlin, told reporters that she wrote her late husband’s name on her ballot.

Asked whether she had a message for Putin, Navalnaya replied: “Please stop asking for messages from me or from somebody for Mr. Putin. There could be no negotiations and nothing with Mr. Putin, because he’s a killer, he’s a gangster.”

Putin referenced Navalny by name for the first time in years at the news conference, declaring that he had been ready to release him in a swap for unidentified inmates in Western custody just days before the opposition leader’s death.

Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, disputed those claims. He told reporters during a White House briefing Monday that U.S. officials had spoken to Russia for “months and years” about releasing American detainees but “have not heard a Russian official raise Navalny as part of a prisoner swap in any of these conversations.”

Supporters of Navalny streamed to his grave in Moscow, some bringing ballots with his name written on them.

The Russian leader brushed off the effectiveness of the apparent protest and rejected Western criticism of the vote. Instead, he tried to turn the tables on the West, charging that the four criminal cases against former President Donald Trump were a use of the judiciary for political aims.

“The whole world is laughing at it,” he said.

Some people told the AP that they were happy to vote for Putin — unsurprising in a country where state TV airs a drumbeat of praise for the Russian leader and voicing any other opinion is risky.

Dmitry Sergienko, who cast his ballot in Moscow, said, “I am happy with everything and want everything to continue as it is now.”

Voting took place over three days at polling stations across the vast country, in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine and online.

Several people were arrested, including in Moscow and St. Petersburg, after they tried to start fires or set off explosives at polling stations while a few others were detained for throwing green antiseptic or ink into ballot boxes. Many more were rounded up by police for attempting to protest.

The OVD-Info group that monitors political arrests said that about 90 people were arrested in 22 cities across Russia on Sunday.

Stanislav Andreychuk, co-chair of the Golos independent election watchdog, said Russians were searched when entering polling stations, there were attempts to check filled-out ballots before they were cast, and one report said police demanded a ballot box be opened to remove a ballot.

Huge lines formed around noon outside diplomatic missions in London, Berlin, Paris and other cities with large Russian communities, many of whom left home after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.