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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council in Moscow on March 15. Photo by Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev via Reuters

What to watch in Russia’s presidential election

Updated March 19 | Vladimir Putin won a fourth sixth-year term in Russia’s presidential election Sunday with 77 percent of the vote.

Original Story:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win a second consecutive term – his fourth overall – in Sunday’s elections.

A victory would mean Putin gets another six-year term, ending in 2024. Russians who have recently reached the voting age of 18 have known only one other leader — Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012.

In 2012, Putin won 64 percent of the vote, and he continues to maintain broad support in Russia, partly because of his policies, but also because the Russian media-political system is structured so that no significant alternative leader is able to emerge, said Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest and director of its U.S.-Russian Relations Program.

Other candidates include Russian ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky and former reality television star Ksenia Sobchak. Long-time Putin critic Alexei Navalny was barred from running after he was convicted with fraud in what his supporters called trumped-up charges. But “many of the opposition candidates have flaws for various reasons in the eyes of Russian voters,” Saunders said.

“For most Russians, the time under Putin’s leadership has been a time when the economy turned around and the country became more prosperous,” he said. “I think many Russians feel really proud of their country again as a major power in world affairs in a way that they really couldn’t in the 1990s.”

However, Russia’s economy is struggling — some 20 million people live in poverty. Young Russians in particular are dismayed by the lack of economic opportunities, and they represent Putin’s most vocal critics. Russians generally are prepared to endure some economic hardship because they feel it is important to the country, Saunders said. “But to what extent are people prepared to sacrifice their personal prosperity for the sake of their feelings of national pride?”

For now, Western sanctions have put the Russian government in a position where it can blame its poor economic performance on someone else, he added.

What other challenges does Putin face?

Putin faces numerous political challenges as he seeks re-election, including what to do about Ukraine and Syria, said Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Vladimir Putin is not really facing any good choices. It’s balancing one risk against the other.”

The conflict between the government of Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists is somewhat frozen for now, Aron said, even though there are still casualties on both sides. Additionally in Syria, Russia is getting increasingly bogged down, but Putin can’t leave Syrian President Bashar Assad because he promised to restore the government, Aron said.

How do Russians feel about their role in the world?

Russia’s motivation to stay involved in the Middle East includes driving home the message that it is a world power and can take on more, said Michael Kofman, a research scientist and fellow at the Wilson Center.

Before 2014 and Russia’s annexation of the formerly Ukrainian territory of Crimea, the United States underestimated the power Russia still has in the international system, particularly its military power, Kofman said. “I think that people continually underestimate Russia’s ability to sustain operations abroad. It is always weak but its mythos, its exceptionalism is based on its resilience.”

With these involvements in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, is Putin stretching himself too thin? Agnia Grigas, a fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, says yes. “I think Russia is overstretched in its capacities and fronts, including Syria,” she said. Putin is “treading a thin and dangerous line,” and pushing forward on any of those fronts “could derail Russia.”

Putin is constrained resource-wise between the Ukraine and Syrian conflicts, and there is not much of an appetite among the Russian public for a more aggressive military engagement, said Alina Polyakova, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy program’s Center on the United States and Europe. “Russians don’t want to see their young soldiers come back home in body bags.”

If elected, would Putin serve out his full term?

Putin is increasingly not controlling the day-to-day running of the government so much as making sure the country is positioned for his successor, Kofman said.

It’s possible that Putin will not serve out his entire term, Saunders noted. When former Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin resigned before his term ended on New Year’s Eve 1999, Putin (who was prime minister at the time) became acting president until his official election in 2000. Putin could do the same thing with a hand-picked successor.

Once he prepares his post-presidential life, including financially and security-wise, he could choose to step down “not at the end of his term when he is somewhat weaker — because people know that he’s leaving — but maybe a little earlier than that, closer to the peak of his power and he’s able to structure something that’s better for him,” Saunders said.

Even after Putin leaves office, “he will likely remain in power in some form or another,” Grigas predicted. Putin essentially created modern-day Russia and all that it entails, including efforts to aggrandize its status in the international arena and regain influence, she added.

After the end of his term, Putin could continue to rule from the shadows, Polyakova said, if Russia does not go the way of China, which just erased term limits for President Xi Jinping.

“It’s about installing Putin in the Russian history and his version of what Russia is as the founder of modern Russia, because that’s what he is now. And I think that’s the legacy that he’s most concerned with,” she said.

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