Global Agenda Non-Military Security

Resilience or Rigidity? Putin’s Playbook for the 2024 Russian Election

Raul Bertoldini

Despite the ongoing war, on December 7, Russia’s Federation Council voted unanimously to hold a presidential election between March 15 and 17 next year. A day later, President Putin declared his candidacy. There is little doubt that the event will secure his victory, given the minimal genuine competition, the eradication of any legitimate opposition movements, and the recent constitutional reforms aimed at ensuring Putin’s grip on power until 2036. The polls will thus mainly aim to show off Russia’s resilience. Resilience, which forms a cornerstone of Putin’s long-term strategy, is founded on the belief that the country can outlast the endurance of Ukraine and the West.

Indeed, as the country gets ready for voting, signs of “war exhaustion” in the West start to arise, and the contrasting political climates in Russia and Ukraine are starkly evident. While Kyiv wrestles with internal political strife and the uncertainty of electing a new president during wartime, the Economist titled “Putin seems to be winning the war in Ukraine, for now”, and Russia plans to proceed with its course. Everything is indeed anticipated to reaffirm the Kremlin’s leadership, in evident contrast to the potential destabilisation facing Ukraine.

However, for his plan to succeed, Putin needs to secure a favourable outcome. Favourable means not only that he will win (something certain) but also that the event will see enough affluence and keep enough appearance of legitimacy to allow it to be showcased as a resonant display of power. Hence, in the run-up to the 2024 event, a complex tapestry of internal dynamics is unfolding.

At the heart of Putin’s strategy is the portrayal of external threats, a narrative only intensified by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the reaction of the so-called Western world. Sanctions have been significant enough for Russia to feel targeted but not crippling enough to cause collapse, with even the price cap on oil struggling to obtain its desired effect. Indeed, their impact has been mitigated by Moscow through the adaptation of domestic industries and securing alternative trade partnerships. Such economic manoeuvring, although temporary, is vital in boosting national pride and self-sufficiency, key themes in Putin’s narrative. Additionally, Russia’s symbolic resistance to Western destabilising influences has been further amplified by moves such as the proposal of a bill to make foreigners sign a “loyalty agreement” to enter the country, a clear message against perceived external meddling, or the declaration of the “international LGBTQ movement” as an extremist organisation, a move aimed at consolidating conservative support within the country, reflecting a wider pattern of using social issues to rally domestic support.

Alongside identifying an external enemy, the Kremlin’s focus includes not just emphasising the country’s resilience but also a full-blown celebration of Russia’s alleged greatness, both domestically and internationally. On the home front, several elements have already been promoting Putin’s candidacy for 2024. The president has been championing various national projects targeting sectors spacing from infrastructure to education, often presented as evidence of the government’s commitment to national progress.  Additionally, populist initiatives like the “A Family Thing” lottery serve as indirect tools for shaping public opinion, offering housing and travel incentives to garner support for Putin amidst economic strains and external pressures. On the international stage, Putin seeks to reinforce his image as a defender of Russian interests, projecting strength and influence in regions like the Middle East and Africa through meddling in regional conflicts and the promotion of his diplomatic ties with other relevant States such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Furthermore, Russia is one of the pillars of BRICS, with Brazilian president Lula da Silva recently announcing his intention to invite Putin to the 2024 organisation’s summit, sidestepping his eventual arrest on the ICC mandate.

Another crucial element in its preparation for the upcoming election is the repression of any form of opposition and a further tightening of its grip on the media. The Russian government has intensified its control over the digital and information space, restricting access to foreign news and suppressing dissent. 
Despite some external perceptions of Putin’s regime as a fragile construct, a house of cards destined to fall sooner or later, a combination of factors—including the exploitation of rival weaknesses and the Kremlin’s ruthlessness—has ensured its survival. It’s hard to assess the real popular support for the ongoing war precisely, but polls have consistently measured it between 55% and 75%. However, this is only one of the elements playing a role in Putin’s approval rating, which percentages likely remain high even if the support for his actions in Ukraine has been occasionally contested. The landscape surrounding Russia’s political future in 2024 will thus be shaped within a multitude of arenas, moving away from the least favourable topics and focusing on effective propaganda. It involves a delicate balance of portraying external threats, ensuring economic resilience, controlling information flow, suppressing opposition, and promoting national developmental projects. These elements collectively aim to fortify Putin’s image as an enduring leader of an enduring Nation, capable of guiding its country through turbulent times. As the elections approach, the effectiveness of these strategies will be crucial in determining not only the future direction of his presidency but also, consequently, Russia’s position in the evolving global geopolitical chessboard.

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