Three challenges Putin is likely to face

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

The official results of Russia’s presidential elections were exactly as the Kremlin ordered them to be, but they’re unlikely to have brought much satisfaction to incumbent President Vladimir Putin.

The falsifications in the results were so blatant that Putin’s desire to prove that the vast majority of the population supports the continuation of his autocratic rule remains unfulfilled.

Rather than disciplining political elites, he may have inadvertently informed them of the limitations of his control and the fragility of his power. Despite the strict administration and security measures, several unexpected “surprises” exposed the fragility of the seemingly strong system of Putin’s power.

Ukraine is responsible for some of these surprises, having launched a series of astonishingly accurate drone strikes on Russian oil infrastructure. Strikes were launched on infrastructure facilities deep in Russian territory, for example in Samara Oblast, where the Kuibyshev Oil Refinery caught fire last Friday. The cumulative impact on the Russian oil industry, which was also affected by sanctions that led to numerous technical failures, turned out to be more significant in the domestic oil market than in crude oil exports.

Moscow responded with a mass strike on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, but the country’s power grids are now more resilient than during the brutal winter of 2022-2023.

Putin’s rule appears to have come full circle, approaching yet another surge in terrorism

The invasion of [Russian] Belgorod and Kursk oblasts by Russian armed formations, who recruit and train volunteers willing to fight the Putin regime, became another alarming event.

Putin warned of a “sanitary border” and restrictions on movement in certain regions that would protect them from airstrikes and artillery fire. To make this threat more convincing, he also ordered a mass missile strike on Kyiv, but not a single accurate hit was recorded due to the effective work of Ukrainian air defense. The shockingly low quality of Russian weapons is evidenced by the accidental missile hit of the Kapitan Lobanov fishing vessel during the Baltic Fleet drills near Russia’s Kaliningrad.

The stalemate in high intensity fighting in Ukraine has led to significant changes in official discourse: Putin’s long-time press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has declared that a “special military operation” has turned into a real war. He then clarified that the “legal status” of the operation hadn’t changed, but the increased Western involvement had essentially turned it into a war. These shifts in rhetoric have set the context for the plan announced by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to create two new combined armies consisting of 14 divisions and 16 brigades. A high-profile conscription campaign cannot compensate for heavy losses in ongoing frontal attacks. Shoigu’s big plans can be implemented only through a new wave of mobilization, which will provide an additional 300,000 soldiers.

The previous “partial” mobilization in September 2022 caused serious public discontent. It led to mass emigration of young people, so the Kremlin denied its intention to repeat this forced measure before the elections. From a military and strategic perspective, the need to triple the number of new conscripts that could be involved in the spring draft is imperative, as Putin demands new achievements to prove that Russia has the initiative. Politically, however, the decree could overshadow the start of Putin’s new presidential term since public opinion, as far as can be gauged, is strongly opposed to mobilization.

The Kremlin faced three internal “surprises” during the campaign to turn the election into a referendum on the indefinite continuation of the war. First, Boris Nadezhdin, a potential presidential candidate with a cautious intention to end the war, gained strong public support and was dropped from the race.

Second, the level of mourning in the crowd at the funeral of Alexei Navalny, a defiant opponent of the Putin regime who was killed in an Arctic prison and buried at the Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow’s Marino district, demonstrates the growing discontent in Russia. Third, many Russians gathered at the polling stations at noon on Sunday, March 17, to protest Putin’s new term, as Navalny had called for before his death.

Last Friday’s deadly terrorist attack in Krasnogorsk outside Moscow, committed by the revived ISIS-K group, showed the depth of the danger that exists in Russia. Russian intelligence services were and remain too busy investigating and prosecuting anti-war activists to pay due attention to the threat of Islamic extremism, even when U.S. authorities warned them of a possible attack.

Speaking at the Federal Security Service (FSB) board four days before the Crocus City Hall massacre, Putin called this warning “outright blackmail” aimed at destabilizing Russia. In a statement made the day after the terrorist attack, he didn’t mention the U.S. warning and tried to find a Ukrainian “trace” by ordering new missile strikes on Kyiv and Lviv. For “patriotic” Russian commentators, the shock caused by the terrorist attack is only a means to fan anti-Ukrainian slander, while studying the real reasons for the new spread of Islamist networks is irrelevant.

Lies and false indignation cannot create even a semblance of unity in Russian society, traumatized in advance by a losing war and disillusioned with Putin’s selfish leadership. The tragedy in the concert hall was mixed with a flood of news about residential buildings hit by missiles and villages destroyed by explosions. Putin’s rule, which began with the terrible explosions in Moscow in September 1999, appears to have come full circle, approaching yet another surge in terrorism fueled by internal strife.

At the turn of the millennium, Russia put its trust in a new, energetic leader who promised to ensure a better future for the country. Since then, this leader has turned into an aging autocrat obsessed with an imperial past who has unleashed a devastating war. Internal stability and increased ties with the West were prospects that seemed to open the way for Russia to reform. The latter turned into a dangerous confrontation and the first turned into riots and repression, while the militarization of society nullified the reform plans.

Six more years with Putin is too long for a rapidly degrading state waging a self-destructive war.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine