Putin set to extend one man-rule in Russia after stage-managed election devoid of credible opposition

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By Christian Edwards, CNN

President Vladimir Putin is set to tighten his grip on the country he has ruled since the turn of the century, with early results from Russia’s stage-managed election indicating a predictably large victory for the Kremlin leader in a result that was a foregone conclusion.

Minutes after polls closed on Sunday, the head of the Russian Central Election Commission (CEC) said Putin was in the lead with 87.9% of the vote, with 24.4% of the count in.

The result means Putin will rule until at least 2030, when he will be 77. Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, he will secure a third full decade of rule.

With most opposition candidates either dead, jailed, exiled or barred from running – and with dissent effectively outlawed in Russia since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – Putin faced no credible challenge to his rule.

The result was inevitable, but the ritual of elections is nonetheless crucially important to the Kremlin as a means of confirming Putin’s authority. The ritual used to be held every four years, before the law was changed in 2008 to extend presidential terms to six years. More constitutional changes in 2020 removed presidential term limits, potentially allowing Putin to stay in power until 2036.

Russia also held the presidential election in four Ukrainian regions it annexed during its full-scaled invasion. Ukraine said the elections violated international law and would be designated “null and void.”

CNN in Russia as lines grow at polling stations in support of Navalny

Putin’s fiercest opponents have died in recent months. After leading a failed uprising in June, Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed two months later after his plane crashed while traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The Kremlin denied any involvement in Prigozhin’s death.

The elections were held a month after the death of Alexey Navalny, Putin’s most formidable opponent. Navalny, who was barred from running for election in 2018, was poisoned by the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok in 2020; a CNN-Bellingcat investigation identified the Russian Security Service (FSB) team specializing in toxins and nerve agents that tailed him. Following his treatment in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia in 2021 and would eventually be sentenced to a total of more than 30 years in prison during various trials.

Navalny died in an Arctic penal colony on February 16. Russia’s prison service said he “felt unwell after a walk” and lost consciousness, later attributing his death to natural causes. The Kremlin denied any involvement in his poisoning or death.

Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, had urged Russians to turn out collectively as a show of opposition on Sunday, the final day of voting across Russia’s 11 time zones and 89 federal subjects. In the runup, the Kremlin warned against unsanctioned gatherings.

A CNN team in Moscow saw the line outside a polling station grow rapidly at midday as part of the so-called “Noon Against Putin” demonstrations inspired by Navalny. A woman waiting in line told CNN: “This is the first time in my life I have ever seen a queue for elections.” Asked why she had come at that hour, she replied: “You know why. I think everybody in this queue knows why.”

The election was also marred by more graphic acts of defiance. As of Saturday, Russia had filed at least 15 criminal cases after people poured dye in ballot boxes, started fires or lobbed Molotov cocktails at polling stations. Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia’s CEC, said 29 polling stations across 20 regions in Russia were targeted, including eight arson attempts.

The election comes after more than two years of war which have exacted huge costs on the Russian population. The Kremlin keeps its casualty numbers shrouded in secrecy, but Western officials believe more than 300,000 Russian troops have been killed or injured on the battlefields of Ukraine.

A source familiar with a declassified US intelligence assessment told CNN that Russia has lost a staggering 87% of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had prior to its invasion of Ukraine. But Moscow has sought to offset its losses by through a “partial” mobilization and by recruiting able-bodied men from prisons.

Putin’s invasion has reshaped the world’s post-Cold War geopolitical axes, prompting the West to treat Russia as a pariah state after decades of more amicable relations. The war has also shrunk Putin’s world, after the International Criminal Court last year issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine, obliging more than 100 countries to arrest the Russian leader if he sets foot on their soil.

But the war has also opened new avenues for Russia, which has sought to forge new partnerships and strengthen existing ones. Russia’s relations with China, North Korea and Iran – which have not condemned the invasion – have deepened, and Putin has attempted to court countries in the Global South as he pitches a vision of a world not led by the West.

Putin’s critics accuse him of inventing foreign policy problems to distract from his government’s inability to solve Russia’s myriad domestic problems, from low life expectancy to widespread poverty.

While Russia weathered sanctions imposed by Western countries better than expected, the conflict has warped its economy by sucking resources into military production. Inflation has spiked, basic goods like eggs have become unaffordable, and tens of thousands of young professionals have left the country.

The war has also accelerated a crackdown on dissent more brutal than any previous time during Putin’s 24-year rule. Independent media has been silenced and civil society organizations shuttered, while hundreds have been jailed for opposing the war.

But the war has also provided Putin with a patriotic cause around which to rally Russians.

Gauging popular opinion is difficult in authoritarian countries like Russia, where monitoring organizations operate under strict surveillance and many fear criticizing the Kremlin.

But the Levada Center, a non-governmental polling organization, reports that nearly half of Russians strongly support the war in Ukraine and more than three quarters are somewhat supportive. Levada also reports Putin’s approval rating at over 80% – a figure virtually unknown among Western politicians and a substantial increase compared to the three years before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

After the election, Russia is set to continue to press home its growing advantage in Ukraine. Russia’s superior manpower and supplies of ammunition last month helped force a Ukrainian retreat from the eastern village of Avdiivka, and Moscow’s troops are testing Ukraine’s defenses at several sites along the 1,000-kilometer frontline.

CNN reported last week that Russia appears on track to produce about 3 million artillery munitions a year – nearly three times more than the United States and Europe – according to NATO intelligence estimates of Russian defense production.