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With Putin’s new coronation, Kremlin cultivates image of leader for life

When Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared for a late-night news conference to claim a fifth term, he looked visibly elated, as if manipulating another election to remain indefinitely in power with 87.28 percent of the vote were a triumphal victory in a real competition.

The tally, virtually unimaginable in any democratic nation, suggests that the Kremlin is now less focused on manufacturing a veneer of electoral legitimacy and more on creating a cult of personality around Putin as Russia’s undisputed national patriarch and leader for life.

Mark Galeotti, a Russia analyst at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said this outcome of the vote showed that Putin’s regime has shifted from an earlier model of “managed democracy” and is now “heading into its banana republic stage.”

“We should see elections under Putin as not being about popular sovereignty, but about popular subordination,” Galeotti said. “It is about the masses voting to accept Putin as their czar.”

He added: “It’s not just that the Kremlin is no longer embarrassed to rig the election. I think it’s almost, ‘So, what you can do about it?’ — a kind of challenge to civil society, ‘Of course you know we’re lying, but you’re going to have to swallow it because you’ve got no alternative.’”

Russians, by choice or not, are now locked into Putin’s repressive, increasingly totalitarian path — his bloody war in Ukraine and decisions to shun the West, isolate Russia’s economy and escalate hostility toward NATO. Western leaders, meanwhile, face a strident, emboldened adversary in command of a nuclear arsenal.

In autocracies, much of politics ends up revolving around the obsessions of the supreme leader — in Putin’s case, eliminating all personal political competition and destroying Ukraine as a large and thriving Western-leaning democracy on Russia’s border.

It was telling that Putin mentioned both of those threats in his late-night victory address. Appearing supremely confident, Putin shrugged off the “unfortunate” death of his main rival, Alexei Navalny, in prison last month, which has left Putin with no conceivable challenger. He even spoke Navalny’s name aloud, which he is known to have done only once before.

Putin also staked out his determination to continue the war against Ukraine, even at the risk of war with NATO. “It is clear to everyone that this will be one step away from a full-scale World War III,” Putin said, blaming the West for providing support to Kyiv.

Putin’s 87.28 percent election result generally tracks with his recent wartime public approval ratings. But Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who served at Russia’s U.N. mission in Geneva and resigned over the invasion of Ukraine, said that no one in Russia’s elite is convinced by the numbers.

“I think they don’t really care about the figures,” Bondarev said. “They just know that everything is still under control, that Putin still manages to outplay anybody. And, of course, nobody from the very beginning considered these elections to be elections.”

Some observers speculate that Putin, an impenetrable and often seemingly isolated figure, is the only person who fully believed the Kabuki theater of Russia’s election.

“This is the result of his team’s work, which is bringing him on a tray whatever he wants to see,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik, a Russian political consultancy, now based in France. “But he sincerely believes … that the population supports him. He really does believe these figures are true.”

Stanovaya added: “Putin lives in the picture of the world he created for himself, and everything that doesn’t fit into it is removed from him.”

The message of the election to Russia’s opposition supporters is that they will always be dismissed as a tiny minority who can never win — despite Sunday’s remarkable protest, dubbed Noon Against Putin, in which voters in Russia and cities abroad formed long lines outside polling stations at precisely 12 o’clock.

The protest spoiled Putin’s picture of overwhelming popularity and showed that many Russians are still fired up by Navalny’s dream of a free and democratic Russia.

The noon protest, however, posed no threat to the regime. Nor did other displays of frustration, including a flood of photos of ballots spoiled with anti-Putin slogans posted on Russian social media.

Official tallies outside Russia, where Putin was beaten by little-known candidate Vladislav Davankov in cities such as Warsaw, Prague, The Hague and Yerevan, Armenia, highlighted the extent to which the Russian opposition has been forced into exile.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who has accused Putin of ordering the murder of her husband, attended a protest in Berlin. On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed Navalnaya and her allegations.

“There are a lot of people who are completely detached from their homeland,” Peskov said. “Yulia Navalnaya you mentioned belongs to the camp of those people who are losing their roots, losing ties with their homeland, losing their understanding of their homeland and ceasing to feel the pulse of their country.”

Amid his late-night elation, Putin dismissed Western criticisms of the election in comments that offered insight into the real problem of nearly a quarter-century of Putin’s rule. He craves the legitimacy that democracy offers, but he fears democracy’s safeguards against corruption and abuses, as well as its purifying accountability.

“What did you want? For them to stand up and applaud?” he said, portraying the criticisms as just part of a Western military war against Russia. “They set themselves the goal of restraining our development. Of course, they will tell you whatever they want.”

But the path he has taken — war against Ukraine, isolation and repression of all opposition — forces Russia into a cycle of repression and harsher authoritarianism. To survive, Putin needs the energizing effect of a mobilized militaristic nationalist minority to cow internal dissent and reinforce the regime.

“The level of repression is already very high,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “The war of attrition is continuing, and any other methods of conducting it are not really being reviewed.”

Russia’s Central Election Commission, which routinely bars genuine opposition candidates from running against Putin and airbrushes manipulations, announced the turnout at more than 77 percent. Putin attributed this to the unifying impact of the war, comments that actually highlighted the benefit to the regime of an extended conflict and its mobilizing effect on hard-line nationalists.

“This is linked to the dramatic nature of events that Russia is going through, linked to the present-day situation, linked to the fact that we are forced to literally protect the interests of our citizens, our people with arms in hands, and create the future for a full-fledged, sovereign and safe development of Russia, our motherland,” Putin said in his late-night news conference. “The results, and primarily turnout, show that common people feel this and understand that very many things depend on them.”