Putin master of all he surveys as Russians cast ballots

Guy Faulconbridge |

Vladimir Putin’s popularity is high amid strong support among Russians for the war in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s popularity is high amid strong support among Russians for the war in Ukraine.

In a Russia at war, there is only one real candidate and only one winner – Vladimir Putin.

As Russians began casting their ballots in the Friday to Sunday election across the country’s 11 time zones, the 71-year-old former KGB lieutenant colonel’s popularity was high amid strong support for the war in Ukraine.

“I support Putin and, of course, I will vote for him,” said Lyudmila Petrova, 46.

“Putin raised Russia up from its knees and Russia will defeat the West and Ukraine. 

“You cannot defeat Russia – ever,” Petrova said. 

Russian servicemen fill their ballots in voting booths
The war in Ukraine has helped Vladimir Putin tighten his grip on power as Russians cast their votes. (AP PHOTO)

The West views Putin as an autocrat, a war criminal, a killer and even, as US President Joe Biden said in February, a “crazy SOB” who US officials say has enslaved Russia in a corrupt dictatorship that leads to strategic ruin.

But in Russia, the war has helped Putin tighten his grip on power and boost his popularity with Russians, according to polls and interviews with senior Russian sources.

“Don’t have any doubt: this is a job for life,” said one powerful Russian who is acquainted with thinking at the top levels of the Kremlin. 

He spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity to voice his views on political issues.

“Putin has no competitors – he is at a completely different level. 

“The West made a very serious mistake by helping to unify a large part of the Russian elite and the Russian population around Putin with its sanctions and its vilification of Russia.”

Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 after eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv’s forces on one side and pro-Russian Ukrainians and Russian proxies on the other.

Tens of thousands of soldiers have been killed and many more wounded on both sides, thousands of Ukrainian civilians are dead and Ukraine’s economy and infrastructure have suffered damage worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The West, which says Putin is a threat well beyond the former Soviet Union, has supplied Ukraine with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of aid, weapons and top-level intelligence. 

Western leaders accuse Putin of waging a brutal imperial-style war aimed at restoring Russia’s global clout.

Putin casts the war as part of an existential battle with a declining and decadent West which he says humiliated Russia after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 by encroaching on what Putin considers to be Moscow’s sphere of influence, including Ukraine.

Russians voting
Russians are voting in a presidential election likely to extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule. (AP PHOTO)

That appeals to many Russians who are suspicious about the West’s politics and intentions, if not its consumer goods. 

Top Kremlin officials, some sporting sweatshirts bearing the words “Putin’s Team”, speak openly of war with NATO.

Putin’s approval rating is currently 86 per cent, up from 71 per cent before the invasion of Ukraine, according to Levada Centre, a respected Russian pollster. 

Putin’s rating also jumped during the 2008 war with Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Russian television and a sophisticated social media operation project Putin as a robust patriot and deride Western leaders such as Biden as weak, foolish and deceitful.

“For many Russians, who are partly inspired by propaganda but most importantly by their own inner convictions, Russia is in an age-old struggle with the West – and what is currently happening is an episode in this struggle,” Alexei Levinson, head of sociocultural research at Levada, told Reuters.

Putin is leaving little to chance. 

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, authorities have cracked down on any sign of dissent. 

Hundreds of people have been arrested for expressing their opposition and protests are banned.

State media dominates Russia’s airwaves and is staunchly loyal to Putin. 

The task of the three rival candidates – none of whom have approval ratings of more than six per cent – is to lose. 

The leaders of Russia’s fragmented opposition are either abroad, in prison, silent, or dead.

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, died on February 16 in the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony, the prison service said. 

His widow, Yulia, has called on Russians to turn up at polling stations at noon on Sunday to show their opposition.