The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has already said Putin is “beyond any competition” from other potential candidates in next year’s election and “enjoys the absolute support of the population.”
This is not far from reality, as according to a survey by the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia, nearly three-quarters of Russians are unsure who they would vote for if Putin was not on the ballot. The rest are divided between other potential candidates.
While we know the outcome, we also know this campaign will be very different from Putin’s previous runs for office. 2023 Putin is not 2014 Putin or even 2021 Putin. Nine years ago, he managed to annex Ukrainian territory quickly and almost bloodlessly. Now he is responsible for a war with Ukraine he hasn’t been able to win and has forced the Russian population to share its consequences. At least 300,000 Russians are dead or seriously wounded as a result of the disastrous adventure he led.
About 70% of Russians know someone who’s been conscripted since 2022, and 50% know someone who’s been killed. It’s hardly been an effective “Special Military Operation,” especially when compared to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Nine years ago, no one would have considered organizing a mutiny against the president. He didn’t show fear, nor did he place a 30ft table between himself and even his closest allies. His image was of a dynamic leader, diving for ancient amphoras in the Black Sea, or being photographed shirtless on horseback.
Putin and his political advisers have become hostage to his own image as an alpha male. This is in part because they’ve actively used the 19th-century concept of “official nationality,” a theory based on the principles of autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationality, all three of which are used in Kremlin propaganda.
The term nationality (narodnost in Russian) is used to deny Ukrainian identity and is the cornerstone for the “subordination-domination” model towards Ukraine. “Orthodoxy” is meanwhile used to provide religious and mystical grounds for the war and a wider confrontation with Western civilization, casting it as part of a historical struggle.
However, these two concepts rely on the presence of an autocrat, still perceived as sacred by most Russians. The leader should be strong and energetic, especially during times of war. That image has had to be sustained, even as Putin reached 70 years of age. His health is an issue of constant speculation.
This will be reflected in the line-up of opponents for the presidential election. His “sparring partners” can under no circumstances be younger, healthier, or more sportif than the president — even those who are ideologically approved and serve within his regime.
There are no doubts that Putin will be declared the winner. All polling companies, and especially government ones, declare that public trust in the Russian president is extremely high.
Despite this, Putin has reached the limits of the constructed ideological paradigm of autocracy, where the leader is always strong, powerful, and successful.
He will still be the most talked about person in Russia, but his formal legitimacy, which is useful for the ruling class in its efforts to preserve its own privileged position, doesn’t equal domestic legitimacy.
Looking back on Putin’s rule over the last 23 years, it is fair to assume that he will not focus on economic betterment for the ordinary people. Instead, he will need to win the Russo-Ukrainian war — which seems impossible on his terms — or start a new conflict against a weaker opponent.
Whether this is Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, or some other country isn’t so important. What matters is that Putin pretends to have a vision for the future — even if that means the shedding of yet more blood and further geopolitical mayhem.
Dr. Oleksandr Shulga is the head of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR), the only institution in Ukraine conducting monthly sociological monitoring in Russia. He has 16 years of advanced experience in the field of quantitative and qualitative sociological research. During these years, Dr. Shulga was engaged as a supervisor, consultant, or expert to carry out various studies, including areas of the potential risk of escalating tensions and instability.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.