On March 18, Russia will hold a presidential election.
It will not be a cliffhanger.
Rather, Vladimir Putin will be reelected to his fourth presidential term (with a break after his first two terms during which he served as prime minister, because of term limits). If he finishes his next term in 2024, Putin would be his nation’s longest-lasting leader since Josef Stalin.
Stalin didn’t bother to feign democracy. Putin does, but it’s just campaign Kabuki, especially since the most legitimate opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, is ineligible to run because of a conviction that he and most Western experts believe was the result of trumped-up charges.
“The existence of Russian democracy is a misnomer; Russia hasn’t had free and fair elections during Putin’s tenure,” Mark D. Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told an editorial writer.
So instead of running, Navalny is urging Russians to sit this election out. But even calls for a boycott are too much for Putin’s paranoid rule, so Navalny was brusquely arrested (not for the first time) before reaching his fellow protesters in Moscow on Sunday. Authorities (thugs, really) moved in similar fashion in other Russian cities, harassing anyone opposing Putin’s Potemkin democracy.
This internal suppression shouldn’t surprise, since Russia has externally meddled in multiple elections in Europe and, according to a consensus assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, in the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States.
It won’t end there, according to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who told the BBC that regarding Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections, “I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that.”
In July, Congress rightly responded to Russia’s attack by voting to impose sanctions on large purchasers of Russian military materiel. Unique for these deeply divisive times, the vote was overwhelming: 98-2 in the Senate and 419-3 in the House.
And yet on Monday the Trump administration announced that at this time it didn’t plan on imposing any new sanctions.
The administration did comply with a requirement that it produce a list of “senior political figures and oligarchs” in Russia. Critics pointed out that it mostly mirrored a Forbes list of Russian billionaires, suggesting a lack of seriousness; just a slate, without any action taken. Still, in his own act of disgraceful gall, Putin called it “an unfriendly move.”
So is attacking democracies, including the ostensible one in Russia.
The West must respond vigorously to Moscow meddling in elections abroad and smothering democracy at home.
Ideally, such a response would be led by the putative leader of the free world. But President Donald Trump only mentioned Russia once in his State of the Union address, and only by grouping it with China as a “rival.”
If Trump continues to flinch, lawmakers should show resolve to uniformly implement punitive measures against Russian aggression.