According to state-run exit polls and early returns, Vladimir Putin has won another term as Russia’s president. He faced no genuine opposition during his presidential campaign, and used all of the tools of his government’s well-oiled propaganda machine to ensure he received a huge percentage of the vote.
Putin’s win, which cements him as one of the most powerful leaders in modern Russian history, means he will remain in office until at least 2024. He has spent years using brute force to reestablish Russia’s prominence as a world power, and his aggressive approach included invading and annexing part of eastern Ukraine, and helping Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad retain his hold on power despite years of brutal fighting.
Putin has also benefitted from the election of Donald Trump, who is arguably the most pro-Russian US president in modern history. The American intelligence community unanimously believes that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to sway its result towards Trump, but the president has both angrily dismissed those assertions and shied away from seriously punishing Russia for its meddling. Trump has not yet weighed in on Sunday’s election.
Still, there are some signs that President Trump may finally be willing to confront Putin for at least some of his misdeeds. On Thursday, March 15, Trump joined the UK and other European allies in accusing Moscow of using a deadly nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy and his daughter not far from their home in the British town of Salisbury.
That same day, the US Treasury Department announced long-awaited sanctions to punish Russia for meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. The measures targeted more than 20 Russian individuals and organizations, including the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm that sought to interfere in the election, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef,” for his role in bankrolling Russian hackers.
This means that Putin’s latest victory may not be as sweeping as the numbers would suggest. Putin won at the ballot box, but whether he’ll keep winning in his confrontations with the US, the UK, and other Western countries remains to be seen.
It’s not exactly surprising that Putin won
Heading into Sunday’s election, there was little doubt that Putin would win — the question was, largely, by how much.
The Central Elections Commission said Putin had won about 76.7 percent of the vote with 99.8 percent of the country’s precincts reporting. In 2012, Putin received just under 65 percent of the vote. His nearest challenger, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, received 11.8 percent of the vote, and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky had 5.7 percent.
According to the Associated Press, there were widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and forced voting on Sunday, and Putin was trying to win by a large margin to ensure his mandate to govern is indisputable. His most visible opponent — anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny — wasn’t even on the ballot. He was barred from running because he was convicted of fraud in a case that was widely considered to be politically motivated.
Ahead of the election, voter turnout was considered to be the main signifier of Putin’s hold on Russia. Independent surveys show that most Russians approve of Putin as president, which might have kept people home as they may have assumed the results were already decided.
The Kremlin was also reportedly aiming to surpass 2012’s 65 percent turnout level. Turnout this year was reportedly about 67 percent.
After casting his ballot in Moscow on Sunday, Putin said he sought a level of turnout that “gives me the right to perform the duty of president,” according to the New York Times. “I am sure I am offering the right program to the country.”
It is also worth noting that the 2012 Russian election arguably laid the groundwork for Putin’s meddling in the American presidential election in 2016. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised questions about the legitimacy of the 2012 Russian race, which Putin took personally and has never forgiven. US intelligence agencies believe that may be why he tried to ensure she lost in 2016.
Putin is facing more pushback on the global stage
Putin’s Sunday victory may give him even more power in Russia, but he is facing increasing pressure from the international community due to a recent nerve agent attack in the UK, and Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential race.
On March 4, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter, Yulia, were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, England. It turned out they had been poisoned with a highly toxic nerve agent.
Eight days later, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely” that Russia was behind the attack on the Skripals. When asked about the event later that day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declined to directly blame Russia but said that “we offer the fullest condemnation” of the attack.
But on Thursday, the White House issued a joint statement with allies to support Britain’s claim, which said: “The United Kingdom thoroughly briefed its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the United Kingdom’s assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation.” Moscow denies it had any hand in the attack but has said it will cooperate with a British investigation. Putin on Sunday said the attack was a “tragedy” but dismissed accusations of Russian involvement as “nonsense.”
The sanctions that the US Treasury Department issued on Thursday have a bit more of a backstory.
In January 2017, the US intelligence community assessed that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election, helping Trump win the White House. Last August, Trump reluctantly signed into law the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was designed to make old sanctions against Russia permanent, and to pressure Trump to impose new ones.
The legislation forced Trump to impose costs on Putin for interfering in America’s democratic process and for his interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Republican and Democratic lawmakers crafted the bill in response to Trump’s unusual warmth toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his refusal to blame Russia for election interference; it passed both chambers almost unanimously — 98-2 in the Senate and 419-3 in the House — and it was clear that Congress would override a presidential veto.
But Trump resented Congress’s move to box him in on Russia policy. The president slammed the legislation in a signing statement, calling it “seriously flawed,” and said that he could “make far better deals with foreign countries than Congress.” CAATSA was intended to force Trump to impose sanctions in late January — but he missed the deadline. Instead, the administration released a list of 210 Russian leaders and billionaires with purported ties to Putin in order to show that the administration was watching them.
Then, on March 6, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced that new sanctions on Russia were imminent. Mnuchin added that Trump was “fully supportive of the work we’re doing.” On Thursday, March 15, the measures were finally announced. Senior administration officials told reporters that the sanctions were meant to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 election and for masterminding a global cyberattack, known as NotPetya, that hit large corporations and hospitals in the US and Europe last summer.
“The administration is, arguably for the first time, directly acknowledging and responding to Russia’s intervention in the 2016 campaign,” said Sean Kane, a former sanctions official at the Treasury Department.
The new measures target five Russian organizations and 19 Russian individuals. The big organizational targets include two Russian intelligence agencies, known by their acronyms FSB and GRU, and prominent individuals like Prigozhin. That means people connected to the intelligence agencies, and Prigozhin himself, cannot travel to America or do business with American companies, and will soon see their US assets frozen.
Experts also say the timing of the sanctions was surely meant to show support for London and condemn Moscow after the nerve agent attack.
The question remains, though — does this mean Trump’s attitude toward Russia has changed? Well, it’s complicated.
Is Trump tough on Russia now?
Despite the sanctions, Trump continues to minimize the extent of Russia’s involvement in his election. He thinks Russia didn’t interfere — and that Democrats use the Trump-Russia narrative as an excuse for losing the election. Trump has famously called the investigation into whether his campaign colluded with Russia a “WITCH HUNT!”
Even Trump’s own national security team said he could be tougher on Russia. On February 13, Coats, the intelligence director, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia would continue to interfere in American elections, saying, “Frankly, the United States is under attack.”
Two weeks later, on February 27, Adm. Michael Rogers, who leads US Cyber Command, said during a congressional hearing that Trump had yet to ask him to take measures against Russia’s hackers. “If we don’t change the dynamic here, this is going to continue, and 2016 won’t be viewed as something isolated,” Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This is something that will be sustained over time.”
Other military leaders have echoed the admiral’s sentiment, including Army Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, Trump’s nominee to replace Rogers after he retires this spring. “I would say right now they do not think much will happen to them,” he said of Russia during one of his confirmation hearings on Thursday, March 1. “They don’t fear us.”
That, in part, is why experts seem skeptical that Trump will suddenly become a Russia hawk. Trump has “a reluctance ... to speak clearly about the threat Russia poses to the United States and our allies,” Evelyn Farkas, formerly the Pentagon’s top Russia official, said in an interview.
And lawmakers, many of whom are usually critical of the president, feel he could do more to punish Russia. California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Thursday that if the president believes Thursday’s action “sufficiently addresses the sanctions package Congress sent to respond forcefully to Moscow’s election interference, then he is sorely mistaken.”
Trump likes to boast that he’s much tougher on Russia than his predecessor Barack Obama. But this past week is the first time he really did anything to back up that claim. “By no means will this constitute the end to our ongoing campaign to instruct Mr. Putin to change his behavior,” a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday morning.
The US president has yet to weigh in on the latest Russian election results, and it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll respond. One thing’s for sure, though — Putin is not going away anytime soon.