Vladimir Putin has won re-election as president of Russia, by a wide margin. According to news reports, he received over 70 percent of the votes cast, with an estimated 60 percent of voters taking part. Despite allegations of irregularities and criticisms that authorities kept legitimate opposition to the incumbent president off the ballot, Putin has achieved what he set out to achieve: a clear mandate for the next six years.
But what is that mandate? And what are we to expect from Russia in the global arena?
The Good (Enough) Life
Context is important. Putin's last election, in 2012, came on the heels of significant public dissatisfaction (which led to mass protests the Russian president claims were orchestrated by foreign interests). This year's election was in part an attempt to "put to rest ghosts of the past" by preventing displays of public discontent and demonstrating to audiences — domestic and foreign — a sense of order, continuity and strength. The strategy proved successful.
Putin's campaign also pointed to other signs of stability: In spite of low oil prices, most economic indicators in Russia, including wages, unemployment and gross domestic product growth, are stable. None of the metrics is necessarily exemplary, and Russia's poverty rate is still high, but the Kremlin is portraying its economic management as controlled and effective. Its efforts had a powerful psychological effect on the majority of the electorate. As Russians told me on my most recent visit, it could be a lot worse.
It's true that Russia faces significant long-term problems. Its demographic trends aren't positive, especially among the older European population that forms the bedrock of Putin's support. Russia's economy, despite serious efforts at reform, still runs on the sale of raw materials and traditional products like arms. In addition, the country continues to experience significant brain-drain, as talented young people leave home for abroad. The international business community recently expressed to me that economic change is on the administration's agenda but that Putin "has no new ideas." Of course, that's to be expected; part of the cost of being in power for such an extended duration is that one justifies past activities and the status quo rather than taking a hard look at what changes may be necessary.
Playing the Long Game
That said, it's likely that Putin will focus not on the shortcomings of the Russian economy in his next term, but on his capacity for intervention abroad that has, in the minds of most pundits around the world, restored Russia's prestige as a global player. Russia's diplomacy in Syria may not have made it the kingmaker there, but at the same time, no solution to the conflict can emerge without its support. Putin has managed a constructive relationship with China, thanks to Chinese President Xi Jinping's approach to Russia. Though one can argue that Moscow squandered what could have been a key relationship with the West by annexing Crimea and fighting a border war with Ukraine, Putin appears willing at this point to bear the pain of sanctions and proceed patiently on this chosen path. The most important thing for the Russian president seems to be that these projections of strength and purpose continue to play well with his domestic constituency.
For those of us who would like to see a more constructive relationship between Russia and the West, one with less risk of conflict and more effort to find common ground, it's clear that patience will be essential. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Jon Huntsman, recommends playing the long game — looking beyond today's difficulties at the enduring issues that everyone must confront in the years to come. These matters, including terrorism, cybersecurity and regional security, may offer opportunities for cooperation down the road. Notwithstanding the chilly relations between them, Russia is open to initiatives that will help build ties with the U.S. Threats exist today that concern all countries, even those whose governments aren't on the best terms.
Furthermore, the prospect of succession often turns leaders' attention from the immediate challenges that usually draw their focus to problems of the future. This is Putin's final six-year term. His effectiveness may be compromised if it's made clear that he will not seek re-election in 2024 or be tempted to adjust the Russian Constitution abolishing term limits — as Xi recently did to China's Constitution. Otherwise, a potential successor could perhaps emerge in the not-too-distant future.
A Clearer View
So back to the question: What is Putin's mandate for the next six years?
He has passed the benchmark of re-election and demonstrated his strength. But what he will do concerning domestic reforms remains to be seen, especially if he keeps relying on the same old strategy rather than on innovative new measures. If, on the foreign policy front, Putin's mandate gives him the confidence to take on new issues — ones that underscore problem-solving more than they emphasize his perception of Russia's unfair treatment on the global stage — Moscow may yet find common ground with the West. Leaders who have been in power a long time (two decades in Putin's case), however, tend to stick with what they believe has been successful in the past instead of strategically adopting the typically difficult policies that would strengthen their countries, maximize capacity and ensure their engagement as global partners.
Let's look at Putin 4.0 clearly and realistically. Answers to the lingering questions about his next term will become more apparent as the president appoints officials, clarifies his ideas about succession, allocates budgetary spending and makes public pronouncements — for the benefit of both his constituency and the global audience. Based on these actions, observers will have a better sense of Putin's long-term planning and thinking. The world will be watching.