Putin is master of all he surveys as Russians head to polls


In a Russia at war, there is only one real candidate and only one winner: Vladimir Putin.

As Russians cast their ballots in the March 15-17 election, the 71-year-old former KGB lieutenant colonel's popularity is high amid strong support for the war in Ukraine.

The West views Putin as controversial, claiming he has enslaved Russia in a corrupt dictatorship that leads to strategic ruin.

But in Russia the war has helped Putin tighten his grip on power and boost his popularity with Russians, according to polls and interviews with senior Russian sources.

The West, which says Putin is a threat well beyond the former Soviet Union, has supplied Ukraine with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of aid, weapons and top-level intelligence. Western leaders accuse Putin of waging a brutal imperial-style war aimed at restoring Russia’s global clout.

Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv's forces on one side and pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian proxies on the other. Tens of thousands of soldiers have been killed and many more wounded on both sides, thousands of Ukrainian civilians are dead and Ukraine's economy and infrastructure have suffered damage worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Putin's approval rating is currently 86 per cent, up from 71 per cent shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, according to Levada Centre, a respected Russian pollster. Putin's rating also jumped during the 2008 war with Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Russian television and a sophisticated social media operation project Putin as a robust patriot and deride Western leaders such as Biden as weak, foolish and deceitful.

While some within Russia's elite are skeptical about the prosecution of the war, they have nothing to gain and much to lose by opposing the Kremlin - as the failed mutiny of Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the mercenary Wagner group, showed in 2023.

State media, which dominates Russia's airwaves, is staunchly loyal to Putin. The task of the three rival candidates is to lose. None of their approval ratings are above 6 per cent.

The Kremlin's main concern is ensuring a high turnout. Some managers at state companies have ordered employees to vote - and submit photographs of their ballot papers, six sources told Reuters. Even cash machines remind Russians to vote.

The leaders of Russia's fragmented opposition are either abroad, in prison, silent, or dead.

Alexei Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition leader, died on February 16 in the Arctic penal colony, the prison service said. His widow, Yulia, has called on Russians to turn up at polling stations at noon on March 17 to show their opposition.

Russia’s war-focused economy, grew 3.6 per cent last year and real wages rose 7.8 per cent, but it faces labour shortages, investment shortages and population decline, data shows.

Putin believes he has more staying power in Ukraine than the United States and he can keep Russia in the battle for many more years, according to three Russian sources. "War is not necessarily bad for an economy in the short term," said one Russian source who asked not be identified.

"Putin can fight on for as long as he wants."

More from International