RIGA, Latvia - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday cleared the way to hold Russia’s presidential election in occupied Ukrainian territory in March - part of a highly managed process to keep him in office until at least 2030, even as Russia’s war has forced Ukraine to delay its own national elections because the country is living under martial law with millions of citizens displaced.
Putin, who has been Russia’s paramount leader since Dec. 31, 1999, is expected to formally announce in coming weeks that he will run for a fifth term as president. (He also served one term as prime minister from 2008 to 2012.) Putin is certain to win, given a rigged electoral system in which anti-regime opposition figures have been jailed or forced to flee the country to avoid arrest.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week declined to comment on reports that Putin had decided to run, noting that the Russian leader had “not made any statement.”
In Russia, with its long history of electoral manipulation, the main speculation is about who would be part of an “initiative group” of citizens put together by the Kremlin to nominate Putin - part of an effort to create an air of excitement and clamor for the 71-year-old to run again.
Among the names reported by the Kommersant newspaper Monday as likely members of the group were a blonde nationalistic singer with the stage name Shaman; the first Russian woman in space, 86-year-old Valentina Tereshkova; 78-year-old film director Nikita Mikhalkov; and a 90-year-old Russian pediatrician, Leonid Roshal.
Another formality is choosing which candidates will run against Putin. Possible challengers include the longtime Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who is 79, and the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Leonid Slutsky, 55. Neither has announced a decision.
The two men are among the few party leaders not barred from running, unlike the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and others, most of whom have been imprisoned for political reasons.
Critics say Zyuganov and Slutsky are not real opposition figures but are co-opted in a system designed to create a veneer of democracy, without any real threat to Putin or his regime.
Russian authorities typically bar candidates seen as a threat, with Grigory Yavlinsky, co-founder of the progressive Yabloko party, prevented from running in 2012 and Navalny barred in 2018.
Among the handful of candidates who have announced they will run is opposition pundit Boris Nadezhdin, a member of the local council in the Dolgoprudny municipality of the Moscow region, who frequently appears on state television and calls the war in Ukraine “a fatal mistake.”
To pave the way for holding elections in areas of occupied Ukraine, Putin on Tuesday signed a law Tuesday enabling the vote to be held under conditions of martial law. That signaled his intention for the presidential election, due in March next year, to be held in four partially occupied regions of Ukraine - Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia - where martial law is in effect.
Putin, defying international law, has declared those four regions to be annexed by Russia. Crimea, which Russia invaded and illegally annexed in 2014, has been incorporated into Russian elections since then. In September, Russia held regional elections in Crimea and parts of the four other Ukrainian territories, as well as in Russia. The votes in the occupied territories were widely condemned as illegitimate.
The move to conduct the Russian presidential election in occupied Ukraine demonstrates Putin’s determination to make the illegal annexations irreversible, and signal they would be off the table for Moscow in any future peace talks. Putin has repeatedly blamed Kyiv for refusing peace talks, even as Moscow demands that Ukraine surrender all the territory that Russia is trying to seize - a capitulation unacceptable to most Ukrainians.
Ukraine’s presidential election is also due to be held in March, but its constitution prohibits elections from being held under martial law. Voting would be compromised with Russia occupying much of the nation’s south and east, tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the front lines, and millions of people displaced either internally or as refugees outside the country.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week that it was “not the time for elections,” adding that speculation on the subject was “irresponsible.”
With Russian military officials preparing for a protracted fight in Ukraine, Putin will stage the election against the background of the grinding war, widely seen by Russia’s elite as a catastrophic mistake that caused massive casualties, poisoned Russia’s relations with its major Western trading partners, for little clear advantage, and turned a neighbor into a mortal enemy.
In any nation with a free media and fair elections, the war would be a recipe for a potentially disastrous loss. Recent opinion polls have showed waning support for a war that the Kremlin expected to win quickly but most Russians now expect to continue at least another year.
In a national poll last month, independent polling agency Levada Center found that 70 percent of Russians would support Putin if he ended the war - but only 34 percent said they would support this if he returned occupied territories to Ukraine. In a separate question, more than 56 percent favored peace talks, while 38 percent supported the continuation of fighting.
Given the fatigue, many analysts predict that the Kremlin will play down military issues during the campaign and focus instead on conservative family values and bread-and-butter concerns, such as low unemployment and higher-than-expected growth fueled by robust weapons manufacturing.
The Kremlin’s tight media control, its wall-to-wall pro-war propaganda and its cult of personality around Putin has eliminated any electoral uncertainties. Multiday voting and electronic voting have been used in recent years to boost turnout and, critics say, to manipulate results.
Putin’s typically sky-high approval rating has been hovering in the low 80s, and Russian media outlets have reported several projects to boost it further and promote voter turnout, including raffling off dozens of apartments, vacation trips and other prizes.
The Kremlin engineered support for the war through a massive propaganda effort insisting that Russia was not the aggressor. “We had no other choice because we had already been attacked,” Putin said to thunderous applause at a meeting this month of the Civic Chamber, a pro-Kremlin consultative body.
The Russian leader falsely blames the United States and its allies for the world’s ills, including the war in Gaza. He openly expresses disdain for the rules-based global order and often accuses the West of plotting to dismember Russia for its resources.
“You need to know and understand where the root of evil is, where is this very spider, which is trying to entangle the entire planet, the whole world with its web and wants to achieve our strategic defeat on the battlefield,” Putin said last month, referring to the United States.
The Russian leader compares himself to Russian czars who expanded Russian territories, or to ancient princes. At the Civic Chamber, he extolled the feats of a 13th-century medieval prince, Alexander Nevsky, who collaborated with Mongol rulers and battled Swedish invaders.
“In many ways, the same thing is happening today, when we say that we are defending our moral values, our history, our culture, our language,” Putin said.