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The Resurgence of Putin’s Pawns: A Critical Perspective

President Vladimir Putin has consistently utilized puppets effectively. These puppets are politicians aligned with the regime who, either at the Kremlin’s direction or with its approval, pretend to be opposition candidates but avoid posing any real challenges. This system, in place since at least Mr. Putin’s initial re-election in 2004, has always functioned seamlessly, upholding the illusion of Russia’s pseudo-democracy. However, as the presidential election in March approaches, this arrangement appears to be faltering, with Mr. Putin’s puppets starting to assert themselves.

Just a month ago, many Russian voters were unfamiliar with [ppp1]. Today, following a rapid and captivating emergence onto the political scene, [ppp1] has become a prominent figure in the country’s political landscape. Prior to this sudden rise to prominence, [ppp1] was best known for his association with Sergei Kiriyenko and his involvement in the latter’s liberal parliamentary group. Mr. Kiriyenko, who briefly served as prime minister in 1998 before transitioning to a key role in Mr. Putin’s administration, abandoned his liberal stance. As the president’s deputy chief of staff overseeing electoral campaigns, he holds the authority to determine candidates’ eligibility.

In his capacity, Mr. Kiriyenko has frequently relied on political puppets. For instance, in 2018, he extended an offer to [ppp2], a well-known journalist and the daughter of a former mayor of St. Petersburg who had once overseen Mr. Putin. Despite discouragement from friends, including the author, Ms. Sobchak accepted the seemingly dubious offer. She argued that participating in debates and addressing taboo topics on state television was crucial. Ultimately, Ms. Sobchak garnered less than 2 percent of the vote, evidently fulfilling Mr. Kiriyenko’s intentions. The outcome aimed to discredit the liberal, pro-Western middle class she represented, demonstrating the insignificance of their votes and their potential dismissal.

This year, [ppp1], aged 60, seemed destined for a comparable role. Like Ms. Sobchak, he is a familiar face to television audiences, often appearing on chat shows in recent years portraying a pro-Western liberal persona. In these orchestrated settings, he stood out as one of the few individuals willing to critique Mr. Putin and contemporary Russia. However, on each occasion, he was convincingly overshadowed by more numerous and articulate propagandists. Regardless of his genuine beliefs, Mr. Nadezhdin engaged in the charade.

Mr. Nadezhdin asserted that he had not conferred with his old acquaintance Mr. Kiriyenko regarding his candidacy. Yet, it is challenging to accept his claim. According to Kremlin insiders speaking on condition of anonymity, Mr. Kiriyenko personally approved the entire endeavor. Mr. Nadezhdin was perceived as controlled, non-threatening, and likely to secure the same meager percentage of votes, once again underscoring the insignificance of Mr. Putin’s adversaries. It appeared to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.

However, the campaign took an unexpected turn. Following Mr. Nadezhdin’s declaration as the sole antiwar candidate in the race, denouncing Mr. Putin’s incursion into Ukraine as a “fatal mistake,” tens of thousands of individuals in Russian cities rallied to endorse him. (A presidential candidate necessitates 100,000 signatures for registration.) The queues in support of Mr. Nadezhdin sparked a sensation. Amid the stringent wartime atmosphere in Russia, they emerged as the sole legal avenue for protesting against the war.