Expect a more assertive Russia after Putin win

Vladimir Putin won re-election to a fourth term as Russia’s president with a landslide victory in Sunday’s ballot. The only part of the outcome that was ever in doubt was voter turnout: Putin needed a large majority of voters to go to the polls. In this — as in so many other things — he got his wish: Tentative figures show 67 percent of voters cast ballots, leaving little doubt about the legitimacy of the results nor of Putin’s mandate. With this affirmation, Putin will now focus on his next term and the world should worry about what he will do.

Putin won a resounding victory. Squaring off against seven challengers, he appears to have gained 77 percent of the vote, with Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party candidate, taking 13 percent of votes cast and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist, collecting 6 percent. The other candidates won even less. The most important potential challenger, opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, had been barred from contesting in the race. He called on supporters and like-minded citizens to boycott the “false and fake” election, arguing that their participation would provide a veneer of legitimacy for Putin.

His call had little impact, especially when the machinery of the state was focused on boosting turnout. In addition to a national public relations campaign to encourage voting, some cities provided free public transportation, while others offered free food and other giveaways. There are also reports of ballot stuffing, evidence of which has been caught on video. The head of the Central Election Commission has said that “we are immediately reacting to all claims no matter where they come from.”

No doubt, much of the vote tampering could stem from excessive zeal for Putin. In fact, he did not need the help. Opinion polls show the president with stratospheric approval ratings — one survey put support for him at 69 percent, more than 10 times that of his nearest rival — and they have climbed steadily throughout his term.

Unfortunately, however, the foundation of Putin’s popularity is thin. While richly endowed with natural resources — energy supplies in particular — the Russian economy has struggled, contracting 3.7 percent in 2015, and another 0.2 percent in 2016. It has expanded since then, growing 1.5 percent last year, and is projected to expand 1.8 percent in 2018. GDP per capita has fallen since 2013, and nearly 20 million people are thought to live in poverty, the highest figure in a decade. U.S. Sen. John McCain famously dismissed Russia several years ago as “a gas station masquerading as a country.”

In the absence of an economic fix — and Putin has offered no concrete plans to remedy his country’s problems — he has other ways to win popular support, most notably the reclamation of Russia’s great power status. The president has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century and he asserts — and many Russians agree — that their country is under siege. The hallmark of the Putin era has been the muscular re-assertion of Russian prerogatives in the world and more is to be expected in the aftermath of this vote, especially if he cannot provide sustained improvement in the quality of life for his supporters.

The West needs to prepare for sustained hostility and more acts of aggression. Sunday’s ballot was held on the fourth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Russia, a reminder of Putin’s territorial ambitions. Days before the election, a former Russian spy was attacked in England with Russian-manufactured nerve agent, a move that British Prime Minister Theresa May denounced as “an unlawful use of force,” language that parallels that of international law justifying an armed reprisal. It was only the most recent in a series of attacks against individuals the Russian government considers traitors or threats to the regime.

Putin also continues to play the spoiler in Syria, backing the regime of President Bashar Assad and inflicting horrific human rights abuses on civilians. Putin has achieved Moscow’s long-sought ambition to marginalize the United States in Middle East peace talks, confirming Russia’s status as a force to be reckoned with in international councils.

Putin’s re-election is also a challenge to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of settling Japan’s territorial row with Russia over islands off Hokkaido seized by Soviet troops in 1945. Though Abe has sought to make progress on the long-standing dispute through repeated talks with the Russian leader, Putin is more inclined to take territory than to give it up. Consistent with the view that the U.S. seeks their country’s containment, Russian officials have condemned Tokyo for its close ties to Washington, complaining in particular about the deployment of missile defense systems in Japan, ignoring the North Korean threat that they are intended to counter. Japan must now anticipate a more hard-line diplomatic stance and the continued frustration of its attempts to settle outstanding issues with Russia.