A report Monday from Reuters tells us what all knew: Vladimir Putin will seek a fifth term in Russia's March 2024 presidential elections. But he needs a high turnout and overwhelming support to seal the legitimacy of his war in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin will be "elected" next March for the fifth time and continue his ongoing reign as master of the Kremlin. In spite of certain victory, the Russian president urgently needs a triumph in the war, however large or small, and he will look to ramp up his war machine at full speed after the elections.
According to Putin and the Russian media, the Russian army is constantly achieving "successes". General Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, briefs his compatriots every day about dozens of destroyed enemy tanks (including Leopards), and hundreds of "liquidated neo-Nazis". At one point last month, he reported shooting down seven tanks at once, and a day later he claimed that Russia had destroyed "all four" Ukrainian fighter jets. He did not support these grand claims with any evidence.
Personally, I’ve noticed that the worse Russia's troops fare, the greater it claims the enemy is suffering. When Ukrainian ATACMS missiles hit the airports in Berdyansk and near Luhansk, neither Konashenkov nor the Kremlin TV spoke of this attack.
In spite of the resonance of Putin’s propaganda machine, embellished and largely fictitious battle advantages are not enough for boosting morale ahead of the elections. What Putin now needs is tangible success, preferably in a specific city.
The battle for Avdiivka
Maybe that's why the Russian command, at the expense of so many victims (Ukrainians claim up to 6,000 dead), has thrown their best units to storm Avdiivka, a town where only 35,000 people lived before the war. Today, maybe 1,500 people remain here amid the ruins. However, the town may be an important prize for propaganda purposes since it is located on the outskirts of Donetsk and still within the range of the Ukrainian artillery based there.
Conquering Avdiivka would be a great backdrop upon which Putin can start his "election" campaign.
When Putin started the war over 600 days ago, he promised to drive the Ukrainian armed forces out of cities like Donetsk, thus ensuring the safety of their "Russian-speaking"inhabitants. However, this was one of many promises he did not keep.
Conquering Avdiivka, even at the cost of huge losses, would be a great backdrop upon which Putin can start his "election" campaign.
Too young for Putin
The vote itself, which is better understood not as an election but as a leader's popularity plebiscite, should be held on March 17 next year. The campaign will begin with the official date announcement by the upper house of parliament, which will convene between the Dec. 8 and 18.
Reuters reported on Monday that Putin has decided that he will run, and preparations for his campaign are already underway. This time, candidates no younger than 50 years will be admitted to the race (even though the Russian constitution sets the threshold at 35 years). The point is to ensure that the 71-year-old leader, now commonly called "the old man," does not look unfavorable compared to his competitors: As polls show, age is today one of the main disadvantages that his compatriots attribute to Putin.
Unlike in 2022, this time Mr. Kremlin will not avoid holding his big annual press conference , during which he will summarize the past year's developments. And he must come armed with news from the front that is good enough to increase his popularity.
He is not afraid of any rivals, of course, because no serious rival exists. However, what he and his allies may be wary of is low turnout and a lower-than-expected margin of victory. According to the media, the Kremlin assumes that no less than 70% of eligible voters will come to the polls, and that 90% of them will vote for Putin.
Ensuring such a turnout is a very ambitious task, but it makes sense for Russian leadership. With such numbers, Putin will be able to claim that he and his war are supported by the vast majority of Russians.
Unexploded shell in a residential neighborhood of Avdiivka, Ukraine.
Preparing for spring
Of course, in Russia, a non-democratic state, voting results are falsified. But even here, the extent of falsification is limited, and citizens must be persuaded to participate in the polls enthusiastically so that the president doesn't lose face. Success in battlegrounds like Avdiivka and Kupyansk, two other territories the Russians are fighting for although not as fiercely, will be vital to mobilize the public in sufficiently large numbers.
Putin, "elected" for a fifth six-year term, will be able to plot greater success after March. By then, Russia's weapons factories will have produced tanks and other combat vehicles. The army will also have accumulated a stock of ammunition, and it expects to have taken delivery of missiles and equipment from North Korea or Iran as well.
Putin's power will grow significantly in the spring, and Ukraine must be prepared and properly equipped.
Putin will also be able to carry out a wide mobilization of reservists if needed, without worrying about the negative reaction of the electorate.
For now, Putin has promised that there will be no mobilization — just like he had assured that he would not increase the retirement age before the 2018 elections. After the elections, he increased the retirement age for men from 60 to 65, and for women from 55 to 60. His popularity had dropped significantly then, but he had no fear of consequences.
Kyiv’s Western partners should take into account that Putin's power will grow significantly in the spring, and Ukraine must be prepared and properly equipped for this.