Putin replaces Shoigu as Russia’s Defence Minister as he starts his fifth term

Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 12 replaced Sergei Shoigu as Defence Minister in a Cabinet shakeup that comes as he begins his fifth term in office.

In line with Russian law, the entire Russian Cabinet resigned on Tuesday following Mr. Putin’s glittering inauguration in the Kremlin, and most members have been widely expected to keep their jobs, while Mr. Shoigu’s fate had appeared uncertain.

Mr. Putin signed a decree on Sunday appointing Mr. Shoigu as secretary of Russia’s Security Council, the Kremlin said. The appointment was announced shortly after Mr. Putin proposed Andrei Belousov to become the country’s Defence Minister in place of Mr. Shoigu.

The announcement of Mr. Shoigu’s new role came as 13 people were reported dead and 20 more wounded in Russia’s border city of Belgorod, where a 10-story apartment building partially collapsed after what Russian officials said was Ukrainian shelling. Ukraine has not commented on the incident.

Mr. Belousov’s candidacy will need to be approved by Russia’s Upper House in parliament, the Federation Council. It reported on Sunday that Mr. Putin introduced proposals for other Cabinet positions as well but Mr. Shoigu is the only Minister on that list who is being replaced. Several other new candidates for Federal Ministers were proposed on Saturday by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, reappointed by Mr. Putin on Friday.

Mr. Shoigu’s deputy, Timur Ivanov, was arrested last month on bribery charges and was ordered to remain in custody pending an official investigation. The arrest of Mr. Ivanov was widely interpreted as an attack on Mr. Shoigu and a possible precursor of his dismissal, despite his close personal ties with Mr. Putin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Sunday that Mr. Putin had decided to give the Defence Minister role to a civilian because the Ministry should be “open to innovation and cutting-edge ideas.” He also said the increasing defence Budget “must fit into the country’s wider economy,” and Mr. Belousov, who until recently served as the first Deputy Prime Minister, is the right fit for the job.

Mr. Belousov, 65, held leading positions in the finances and economic department of the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Economic Development. In 2013, he was appointed an adviser to Mr. Putin and seven years later, in January 2020, he became first deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Peskov assured that the reshuffle will not affect “the military aspect,” which “has always been the prerogative of the Chief of General Staff,” and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who currently serves in this position, will continue his work.

Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said in an online commentary that Mr. Shoigu’s new appointment to Russia’s Security Council showed that the Russian leader viewed the institution as “a reservoir” for his “‘former’ key figures — people who he cannot in any way let go, but does not have a place for.”

Figures such as former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have also been appointed to the security council. Mr. Medvedev has served as the body’s deputy chairman since 2020.

Mr. Shoigu was appointed to the Security Council instead of Nikolai Patrushev, Mr. Putin’s long-term ally. Mr. Peskov said Sunday that Mr. Patrushev is taking on another role, and promised to reveal details in the coming days.

Mr. Shoigu has been widely seen as a key figure in Mr. Putin’s decision to send Russian troops into Ukraine. Russia had expected the operation to quickly overwhelm Ukraine’s much smaller and less-equipped army and for Ukrainians to broadly welcome Russian troops.

Instead, the conflict galvanised Ukraine to mount an intense defence, dealing the Russian army humiliating blows, including the retreat from an attempt to take the capital, Kyiv, and a counteroffensive that drove Moscow’s forces out of the Kharkiv region.

Before he was named Defence Minister in 2012, Mr. Shoigu spent more than 20 years directing markedly different work: In 1991, he was appointed head of the Russian Rescue Corps disaster-response agency, which eventually became the Ministry of Emergency Situations. He became highly visible in the post. The job also allowed him to be named a general even though he had no military service behind him as the rescue corps absorbed the militarised Civil Defence Troops.

Mr. Shoigu does not wield the same kind of power as Mr. Patrushev, who has long been the country’s top security official. But the position he will take — the same position that Patrushev worked to transform from a minor bureaucratic role to a place of sizable influence — will still carry some authority, according to Mark Galeotti, head of the Mayak Intelligence consultancy.

High-level security materials intended for the President’s eyes will still pass through the Security Council Secretariat, even with changes at the top. “You can’t just institutionally turn around a bureaucracy and how it works overnight,” he said.

Thousands of civilians have fled Russia’s renewed ground offensive in Ukraine’s northeast that has targeted towns and villages with a barrage of artillery and mortar shelling, officials said Sunday.

The intense battles have forced at least one Ukrainian unit to withdraw in the Kharkiv region, capitulating more land to Russian forces across less defended settlements in the so-called contested gray zone along the Russian border.

By Sunday afternoon, the town of Vovchansk, among the largest in the northeast with a prewar population of 17,000, emerged as a focal point in the battle.

Volodymyr Tymoshko, the head of the Kharkiv regional police, said that Russian forces were on the outskirts of the town and approaching from three directions.

An AP team, positioned in a nearby village, saw plumes of smoke rising from the town as Russian forces hurled shells. Evacuation teams worked nonstop throughout the day to take residents, most of whom were older, out of harm’s way.

At least 4,000 civilians have fled the Kharkiv region since Friday, when Moscow’s forces launched the operation, Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said in a social media statement. Heavy fighting raged Sunday along the northeast front line, where Russian forces attacked 27 settlements in the past 24 hours, he said.

Analysts say the Russian push is designed to exploit ammunition shortages before promised Western supplies can reach the front line.

Ukrainian soldiers said the Kremlin is using the usual Russian tactic of launching a disproportionate amount of fire and infantry assaults to exhaust Ukrainian troops and firepower. By intensifying battles in what was previously a static patch of the front line, Russian forces threaten to pin down Ukrainian forces in the northeast, while carrying out intense battles farther south where Moscow is also gaining ground.

It comes after Russia stepped up attacks in March targeting energy infrastructure and settlements, which analysts predicted were a concerted effort to shape conditions for an offensive.

The Russian Defence Ministry said Sunday that its forces had captured four villages on the border along Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, in addition to five villages reported to have been seized on Saturday. These areas were likely poorly fortified because of the dynamic fighting and constant heavy shelling, easing a Russian advance.

Ukraine’s leadership hasn’t confirmed Moscow’s gains. But Tymoshko, the head of the Kharkiv regional police, said that Strilecha, Pylna and Borsivika were under Russian occupation, and it was from their direction they were bringing in infantry to stage attacks in other embattled villages of Hlyboke and Lukiantsi.

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History in the making in Russia as Putin set to begin another term in office

Just a few months short of a quarter-century as Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin will put his hand on a copy of the constitution and begin another six-year term as president on May 7.

Since becoming acting president on the last day of 1999, Mr. Putin has shaped Russia into a monolith — crushing political opposition, running independent-minded journalists out of the country and promoting “traditional values” that pushed many in society into the margins.

His influence is so dominant that other officials could only stand submissively on the sidelines as he launched a war in Ukraine despite expectations the invasion would bring international opprobrium and harsh economic sanctions, as well as cost Russia dearly in the blood of its soldiers.

With that level of power, what Mr. Putin will do with his next term is a daunting question at home and abroad.

The war in Ukraine, where Russia is making incremental though consistent battlefield gains, is the top concern, and he is showing no indication of changing course.

“The war in Ukraine is central to his current political project, and I don’t see anything to suggest that that will change. And that affects everything else,” Brian Taylor, a Syracuse University professor and author of The Code of Putinism, said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It affects who’s in what positions, it affects what resources are available and it affects the economy, affects the level of repression internally,” he said.

Russia’s war in Ukraine

In an address in February, Mr. Putin vowed to fulfil Moscow’s goals in Ukraine, and do whatever it takes to “defend our sovereignty and security of our citizens.” He claimed the Russian military has “gained a huge combat experience” and is “firmly holding the initiative and waging offensives in a number of sectors.”

That will come at huge expense, which could drain money available for the extensive domestic projects and reforms in education, welfare and poverty-fighting that Putin used much of the two-hour address to detail.

Mr. Taylor suggested such projects were included in the address as much for show as for indicating real intent to put them into action. Mr. Putin “thinks of himself in the grand historical terms of Russian lands, bringing Ukraine back to where it belongs, those sorts of ideas. And I think those trump any kind of more socioeconomic-type programs,” he said.

If the war were to end in less than total defeat for either side, with Russia retaining some of the territory it has already captured, European countries fear that Mr. Putin could be encouraged toward further military adventurism in the Baltics or in Poland.

“It’s possible that Putin does have vast ambitions and will try to follow a costly success in Ukraine with a new attack somewhere else,” Stephen Walt, Harvard international relations professor, wrote in the journal Foreign Policy. “But it is also entirely possible that his ambitions do not extend beyond what Russia has won — at enormous cost and that he has no need or desire to gamble for more.” But, he added, “Russia will be in no shape to launch new wars of aggression when the war in Ukraine is finally over.”

Such a rational concern might not prevail, others say. Maksim Samorukov, of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said that “driven by Putin’s whims and delusions, Moscow is likely to commit self-defeating blunders.”

In a commentary in Foreign Affairs, Mr. Samorukov suggested that Putin’s age could affect his judgment. “At 71 … his awareness of his own mortality surely impinges on his decision-making. A growing sense of his limited time undoubtedly contributed to his fateful decision to invade Ukraine.”

New power dynamics

Overall, Mr. Putin may be heading into his new term with a weaker grip on power than he appears to have.

Russia’s “vulnerabilities are hidden in plain sight. Now more than ever, the Kremlin makes decisions in a personalized and arbitrary way that lacks even basic controls,” Mr. Samorukov wrote. “The Russian political elite have grown more pliant in implementing Putin’s orders and more obsequious to his paranoid worldview,” he wrote. The regime “is at permanent risk of crumbling overnight, as its Soviet predecessor did three decades ago.”

Mr. Putin is sure to continue his animosity toward the West, which he said in his February address “would like to do to Russia the same thing they did in many other regions of the world, including Ukraine: to bring discord into our home, to weaken it from within.”

Putin’s resistance to the West manifests not only anger at its support for Ukraine, but in what he sees as the undermining of Russia’s moral fiber.

Role of church, opposition

Russia last year banned the notional LGBTQ+ “movement” by declaring it to be extremist in what officials said was a fight for traditional values like those espoused by the Russian Orthodox Church in the face of Western influence. Courts also banned gender transitioning.

“I would expect the role of the Russian Orthodox Church to continue to be quite visible,” Mr. Taylor said. He also noted the burst of social media outrage that followed a party hosted by TV presenter Anastasia Ivleeva where guests were invited to show up “almost naked.” “Other actors in the system understand that that stuff resonates with Putin. … There were people interested in exploiting things like that,” he said.

Although the opposition and independent media have almost vanished under Putin’s repressive measures, there’s still potential for further moves to control Russia’s information space, including moving forward with its efforts to establish a “sovereign internet.”

The inauguration comes two days before Victory Day, Russia’s most important secular holiday, commemorating the Soviet Red Army’s capture of Berlin in World War II and the immense hardships of the war, in which the USSR lost some 20 million people.

The defeat of Nazi Germany is integral to modern Russia’s identity and to Mr. Putin’s justification of the war in Ukraine as a comparable struggle.

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Putin says ‘radical Islamists’ behind Moscow concert hall attack

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that the gunmen who carried out the concert hall attack that killed over 130 people in a Moscow suburb last week were “radical Islamists.” 

Speaking in a meeting with government officials, Putin said the killings were carried out by extremists “whose ideology the Islamic world has been fighting for centuries.”

Putin, who said over the weekend the four attackers were arrested while trying to escape to Ukraine, didn’t mention the affiliate of the Islamic State group that claimed responsibility for the attack. He again refrained from mentioning IS in his remarks Monday.

He also stopped short of saying who ordered the attack but said it was necessary to find out “why the terrorists after committing their crime tried to flee to Ukraine and who was waiting for them there.”

After the IS affiliate claimed responsibility, U.S. intelligence backed up their claims. French President Emmanuel Macron said France has intelligence pointing to “an IS entity” as responsible for the Moscow attack.

Earlier Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to assign blame, urging reporters to wait for the results of the investigation in Russia. He also refused to comment on reports that the U.S. warned authorities in Moscow on March 7 about a possible terrorist attack, saying any such intelligence is confidential.

As Putin spoke, calls mounted in Russia to harshly punish those behind the attack.

Four men were charged by a Moscow court Sunday night with carrying out a terrorist attack. At their court appearance, they showed signs of being severely beaten. Civil liberties groups cited this as sign that Russia’s poor record on human rights under Putin was bound to worsen.

Russia’s Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said the investigation is still ongoing but vowed that “the perpetrators will be punished, they do not deserve mercy.”

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, urged authorities to “kill them all.”

The attack Friday night on Crocus City Hall on the western outskirts of Moscow left 137 people dead and over 180 injured, proving to be the deadliest in Russia in years. A total of 97 people remained hospitalized, officials said.

As they mowed down concertgoers with gunfire, the attackers set fire to the vast concert hall, and the resulting blaze caused the roof to collapse.

The search operation will continue until at least Tuesday afternoon, officials said. A Russian Orthodox priest conducted a service at the site Monday, blessing a makeshift memorial with incense. 

The four suspects were identified in the Russian media as Tajik nationals. At least two of the suspects admitted culpability, court officials said, although their conditions raised questions about whether their statements were coerced.

The men were identified as Dalerdzhon Mirzoyev, 32; Saidakrami Rachabalizoda, 30; Shamsidin Fariduni, 25; and Mukhammadsobir Faizov, 19. The charges carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. 

Russia’s Federal Security Service said seven other suspects have been detained. Three of them appeared in court Monday, with no signs of injuries, and they were placed in pre-trial detention on terrorism charges. The fate of others remained unclear.

Russian media had reported the four were tortured during interrogation. Mirzoyev, Rachabalizoda and Fariduni showed signs of heavy bruising, including swollen faces. Mirzoyev had a plastic bag still hanging over his neck; Rachabalizoda had a heavily bandaged ear. Russian media reported Saturday that one suspect had his ear cut off during interrogation. The Associated Press couldn’t verify the report or videos purporting to show this.

Faizov, wearing a hospital gown, appeared in court in a wheelchair, accompanied by medical personnel, and sat with his eyes closed throughout. He appeared to have multiple cuts.

Peskov refused to comment on the suspects’ treatment.

Medvedev, Russia’s president in 2008-12, had especially harsh comments about them.

“They have been caught. Kudos to all who were chasing them. Should they be killed? They should. And it will happen,” he wrote on his Telegram page. “But it is more important to kill everyone involved. Everyone. Those who paid, those who sympathized, those who helped. Kill them all.”

Margarita Simonyan, head of the state-funded television channel RT, shared photos of the four men’s bruised and swollen faces on X, formerly Twitter.

She said that even the death penalty — currently banned in Russia — would be “too easy” a punishment.

Instead, she said they should face “lifelong hard labor somewhere underground, living there too, without the opportunity to ever see light, on bread and water, with a ban on conversations and with a not very humane escort.”

Russian human rights advocates condemned the violence against the men. 

Team Against Torture, a prominent group that advocates against police brutality, said in a statement that the culprits must face stern punishment, but “savagery should not be the answer to savagery.” 

It said the value of any testimony obtained by torture was “critically low,” and “if the government allows for torture of terrorism suspects, it may allow unlawful violence toward other citizens, too.”

Net Freedoms, another Russian group that focuses on freedom of speech cases, said Medvedev’s remarks, as well as Putin’s recent call on security services to “punish traitors without a statute of limitation no matter where they are,” made against the backdrop of “demonstrative torture of the detained … effectively authorize extrajudicial killings and give instructions to security forces on how to treat enemies.”

“We’re seeing the possible beginning of the new Great Terror,” Net Freedoms said, referring to mass repressions by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The group foresees more police brutality against suspects in terrorist-related cases and a spike in violent crimes against migrants.

Abuse of suspects by law enforcement and security services isn’t new, said Sergei Davidis of the Memorial human rights group.

“We know about torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war, we know about mass torture of those charged with terrorism, high treason and other crimes, especially those investigated by the Federal Security Service. Here, it was for the first time made public,” Davidis said.

Parading beaten suspects could reflect a desire by authorities to show a muscular response to try to defuse any criticism of their inability to prevent the attack, he said. 

It was a major embarrassment for Putin and came less than a week after he cemented his grip on Russia for another six years in a vote that followed the harshest crackdown on dissent since Soviet times.

Many on Russian social media questioned how authorities and their vast security apparatus that actively surveils, pressures and prosecutes critics failed to prevent the attack despite the U.S. warning.

Citing the treatment of the suspects, Davidis told AP that “we can suppose it was deliberately made public in order to show the severity of response of the state.”

“People are not satisfied with this situation when such a huge number of law enforcement officers didn’t manage to prevent such an attack, and they demonstrate the severe reaction in order to stop these accusations against them,” he said.

The fact that the security forces did not conceal their methods was “a bad sign,” he said.

IS, which fought Russian forces that intervened in the Syrian civil war, has long targeted the country. In a statement posted by the group’s Aamaq news agency, the IS Afghanistan affiliate said it carried out an attack in Krasnogorsk, the suburb of Moscow where the concert hall is located.

In October 2015, a bomb planted by IS downed a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, killing all 224 people aboard, most of them Russian vacationers returning from Egypt.

The group, which operates mainly in Syria and Iraq but also in Afghanistan and Africa, has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Russia’s volatile Caucasus and other regions in past years. It recruited fighters from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union.


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‘Shpilkin method’: Statistical tool gauges voter fraud in Putin landslide

As many as half of all the votes reported for Vladimir Putin in Russia’s presidential election last week were fraudulent, according to Russian independent media reports using a statistical method devised by analyst Sergey Shpilkin to estimate the extent of voter manipulation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed a landslide victory on Sunday that will keep him in power until at least 2030, following a three-day presidential election that Western critics dismissed as neither free nor fair.

The criticism is shared by Russia’s remaining independent media outlets, which have published their estimates of the extent of voter manipulation during the March 15-17 election that saw Putin clinch a fifth term in office with a record 87% of ballots cast.

Massive fraud

“Around 22 million ballots officially in favour of Vladimir Putin were falsified,” said the Russian investigative journalism website Meduza, which interviewed Russian electoral analyst Ivan Shukshin.

Important Stories, another investigative news website, gave a similar number, estimating that 21.9 million false votes were cast for the incumbent president.

The opposition media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe came up with an even bigger number, claiming that 31.6 million ballots were falsified in Putin’s favour.

That figure “corresponds to almost 50 percent of all the votes cast in the president’s favour, according to the Central Election Commission [Putin received 64.7 million votes]”, said Jeff Hawn, a Russia expert at the London School of Economics.

All three estimates suggest that “fraud on a scale unprecedented in Russian electoral history” was committed, added Matthew Wyman, a specialist in Russian politics at Keele University in the UK.

The three news outlets all used the same algorithmic method to estimate the extent of voter fraud. It is named after Russian statistician Sergey Shpilkin, who developed it a decade ago.

Shpilkin’s work analysing Russian elections has won him several prestigious independent awards in Russia, including the PolitProsvet prize for electoral research awarded in 2012 by the Liberal Mission Foundation.

However, he has also made some powerful enemies by denouncing electoral fraud. In February 2023, Shpilkin was added to Russia’s list of “foreign agents”.

Shady turnout figures

The Shpilkin method “offers a simple way of quantitatively assessing electoral fraud in Russia, whereas most other approaches focus on detecting whether or not fraud has been committed”, said Dmitry Kogan, an Estonia-based statistician who has worked with Shpilkin and others to develop tools for analysing election results. 

This approach – used by Meduza, Important Stories and Novaya Gazeta – is based “on the turnout at each polling station”, said Kogan.

The aim is to identify polling stations where turnout does not appear to be abnormally high, and then use them as benchmarks to get an idea of the actual vote distribution between the various candidates.

In theory, the share of votes in favour of each candidate does not change – or does so only marginally –according to turnout rate.

In other words, the Shpilkin method has been able to determine that in Russia, candidate A always has an average X percent of the vote and candidate B around Y percent, whether there are 100, 200 or more voters in an “honest” polling station.

In polling stations with high voter turnout, “we realised that this proportional change in vote distribution completely disappears, and that Vladimir Putin is the main beneficiary of the additional votes cast”, said Alexander Shen, a mathematician and statistician at the French National Centre for Scientific Research’s Laboratory of Computer Science, Robotics and Microelectronics in Montpellier. .

To quantify the fraud, Putin’s score is compared with what the result would have been if the distribution of votes had been the same as at an “honest” polling station. The resulting discrepancy with his official score gives an idea of the extent to which the results were manipulated in his favour.

The Shpilkin method makes it possible to put a figure on the “ballot box stuffing and accounting tricks to add votes for Vladimir Putin”, said Shen.

Limitations of the Shpilkin method

However, “this procedure would be useless if the authorities used more subtle methods to rig the results”, Kogan cautioned. 

For instance, if the “fraudsters” took votes away from one of the candidates and attributed them to Putin, the Shpilkin method would no longer work, he explained.

“The fact that the authorities seem to be continuously using the most basic methods shows that it doesn’t bother them that people are aware of the manipulation,” Kogan added.

Another problem with the Shpilkin method is that it requires “at least a few polling stations where you can be reasonably sure that no fraud has occurred”, said Kogan, for whom that condition was not easy to be sure about in last week’s presidential election.

“I’m not sure we can really reconstruct a realistic distribution of votes between the candidates, because I don’t know if there is enough usable data,” added Shen.

Does this negate the validity of the estimates put forward by independent Russian media?

Kogan said he stopped trying to quantify electoral fraud in Russia in 2021. He explained: “At the time, I estimated that nearly 20 million votes in the Duma [lower house] election had been falsified. Then I said to myself, ‘what’s the point in going to all this trouble if the ballots were completely rigged?’”

Nevertheless, he said it is important to have estimates based on the Shpilkin method because even if it is difficult to get a precise idea, “the order of magnitude is probably right”. 

These rough estimates are also “an important political weapon”, said Wyman, stressing the need to “undermine the narrative of the Russian authorities, who claim that the high turnout and the vote in favour of Putin demonstrate that the country is united”.

It is also an important message to the international community, added Hawn.

“The stereotype is that Russians naturally vote for authoritarian figures,” he said. “By showing how inflated the figures are, this is a way of proving that the reality is far more nuanced.”

This article has been translated from the original in French

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Russia says it has captured frontline village of Orlivka in eastern Ukraine

Russia said on Tuesday that its forces had taken control of the eastern Ukrainian village of Orlivka, situated about four kilometres (2.5 miles) west of the town of Avdiivka, which Moscow’s forces captured last month after one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Earlier, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said the United States “will not let Ukraine fail” as he attended a meeting of Kyiv’s Western allies in Germany.

  • Russian spy chief says French military in Ukraine would be priority target for Russia

Sergei Naryshkin, chief of Russia‘s foreign intelligence service, said on Tuesday that any French military sent to Ukraine to help fight Russia would be a priority target for Russian troops, the TASS news agency reported.

“It (a French contingent) will become a priority and legitimate target for attacks by the Russian Armed Forces. This means that the fate of all Frenchmen who have ever come to the territory of the Russian world with a sword would await it,” Naryshkin said.

French President Emmanuel Macron in late February opened the door to European nations sending troops to Ukraine.

  • German defence minister announces €500 million aid for Ukraine

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius announced on Tuesday a €500 million ($542 billion) aid package for Ukraine which includes 10,000 rounds of ammunition and said the United States was still a reliable partner.

“We have once again put together an aid package worth almost half a billion euros,” Pistorius told reporters on the sidelines of talks with the United States and other allies at Ramstein Air Base.

He also said he had nothing to add to Germany’s position that there would be no boots on the ground in Ukraine.

  • Washington will not let Ukraine fail, US defence chief vows

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin promised on Tuesday that the United States will not let Ukraine fail in fighting off Russia, even as further aid remains stalled in Congress and Kyiv’s forces face shortages of munitions.

The Republican-led House of Representatives has been blocking $60 billion in assistance for Ukraine and the United States has warned that a recent $300 million package would only last a few weeks.

The “United States will not let Ukraine fail”, Austin said at the opening of a meeting in Germany of Ukraine’s international supporters, at which he is seeking to secure further assistance for Kyiv.

“We remain determined to provide Ukraine with the resources that it needs to resist the Kremlin‘s aggression,” he said.

Washington announced $300 million in assistance for Ukraine last week, but Austin said it was only possible due to savings on recent purchases.

“We were only able to support this much-needed package by identifying some unanticipated contract savings”, Austin said.

  • French army says it is prepared for ‘toughest’ engagements

French land forces are ready to respond to any threat as they prepare for even “the toughest engagements”, their commander said in remarks published on Tuesday.

The statement from ground army chief of staff General Pierre Schill comes after President Emmanuel Macron said he would not rule out dispatching ground troops to help Ukraine fight Russia.

The French army “is ready”, Schill wrote in an op-ed piece in the French daily Le Monde.

“However the international situation may evolve, French people can be certain that their soldiers stand ready to respond,” he said.

Schill said a display of French military capabilities would help to “deter any attack on France“.

“To protect itself from any attack and to defend its interests, the French army is preparing for even the toughest engagements,” he said.

  • Russia says it has captured frontline village in eastern Ukraine

Russia said on Tuesday that its forces had taken control of Orlivka, a frontline village situated about four kilometres (2.5 miles) west of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has made a number of gains in recent months, pressing its advantage on the battlefield as Kyiv struggles with shortages of ammunition and troops.

“On the Avdiivka front, units of the ‘Centre’ grouping of troops liberated the village of Orlivka,” the defence ministry said.

The reported capture comes a little over a month after Russian forces seized the nearby town of Avdiivka following one of the bloodiest battles in the conflict.

  • Putin tells FSB security agency to punish ‘scum’ pro-Ukraine Russian fighters

President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday called on the FSB security service to identify and punish pro-Ukrainian Russian fighters who have taken part in an increasing number of deadly attacks on border regions.

“About these traitors… we must not forget who they are, we must identify them by name. We will punish them without statute of limitations, wherever they are,” Putin said, calling Russians fighting against their country “scum”.

  • Russian region bordering Ukraine to evacuate 9,000 children amid attacks

Russia‘s Belgorod region bordering Ukraine plans to evacuate 9,000 children following an uptick in deadly Ukrainian shelling, the region’s governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said Tuesday.

Kyiv’s attacks on the territory have killed 16 people since last week, with shelling intensifying in the run up to elections poised to keep President Vladimir Putin in power until 2030, authorities say.

“We are evacuating a large number of villages, and now we are planning to evacuate about 9,000 children because of the shelling by the Ukrainian armed forces,” Gladkov told a meeting of ruling party members.

“I am proud that the residents of the region did not succumb to the difficult situation and that many more people came to the polling stations than ever before,” he said.

  • Russia appoints acting head of navy to replace incumbent

The new head of Russia’s Navy was formally presented in his new role for the first time on Tuesday at a pomp-filled ceremony, the state RIA news agency reported, confirming the appointment of Admiral Alexander Moiseev as acting head of the Navy.

His appointment follows a series of sustained Ukrainian attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is traditionally based in Crimea, which Moscow took from Kyiv in 2014.

Moiseev replaces Nikolai Yevmenov, the previous head of the Navy.

RIA showed video of a ceremony at the port of Kronstadt near St Petersburg where it said Moiseev was presented as acting head of the Navy.

He served on nuclear submarines for more than 29 years and has been decorated as a Hero of Russia, the country’s top military award.

He was appointed acting commander and then commander of the Black Sea Fleet in 2018 and then appointed commander of the Northern Fleet in 2019 before taking up his current role.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP & Reuters)

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Vladimir Putin | Reign of the patriarch

There was no surprise. When Russia’s election authorities announced results of the presidential election, Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for nearly a quarter century, was elected for another term. He won 87% of votes, extending his reign for six more years, while his closest rival, Nikolay Kharitonov of the Communist Party of Russian Federation, won 4.31% vote. There was no meaningful challenge to Mr. Putin in the election. Candidates who were critical of his policies, including the Ukraine war, were barred from contesting. State-controlled media hardly allowed any voices of dissent. And Mr. Putin’s approval rating has stayed high, according to Levada Centre, an independent Russian NGO, and he faces no visible or credible challenge to his authority among Russia’s elites.

If he completes his term, Mr. Putin, now 71, would surpass Joseph Stalin as the longest serving leader of modern Russia and the longest serving Russian leader since Catherine the Great, the 18th century Empress, who captured Crimea from the Ottomans and annexed it in 1783.

ALSO READ | It’s ‘Ra-Ra-Ras-Putin’ in the Russian election 

In many ways, Mr. Putin’s rise to power is intertwined with Russia’s own comeback from the forced retreat of the 1990s, which many Russians call the “decade of humiliation”. He has witnessed the peak years of the Cold War, the collapse of the state, which he called a “catastrophe” and the years of chaos. If in the late 1990s, he was seen as the man who could fix Russia’s problems, now he is the face of the state that’s at war in Ukraine “with the collective West” and has built a water-tight authoritarian system at home that allows no dissent.

Rise to power

Born in 1952 in Stalin’s Russia, Mr. Putin graduated in 1975 from Leningrad State University (now Saint Petersburg State University). He served 15 years as a foreign intelligence officer for the KGB (Committee for State Security), of which six years were in Dresden, East Germany. In 1990, a year before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In the new Russia, he started his political career in St. Petersburg, the former capital of the Tsars. In 1994, he became the first Deputy Mayor of the city. Two years later, Mr. Putin moved to Moscow where he joined the Kremlin as an administrator. He captured the world’s attention in 1998 when President Boris Yeltsin appointed him as director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor of the KGB. He never had to turn back.

Russia was in a bad shape. Its economy was in shambles. It was not in a position to challenge NATO, which had revived talks of expanding to Eastern Europe. In Chechnya, a separatist war was raging. Yeltsin, the vodka-drinking, aloof leader who was struggling to deal with the many challenges his big but weak country was facing, started looking at Mr. Putin, the young spymaster, as his successor. In 1999, he appointed Mr. Putin as Prime Minister. When Mr. Yeltsin stepped down, Mr. Putin became acting President. And in 2000, he began his first term after the presidential elections.

Great power rivalry

During the early years of Mr. Putin’s presidency, Russia’s ties with the West were relatively cordial. Russia was taken into the G7 industrialised economies in 1997. Mr. Putin supported the U.S.’s war on terror after the September 11 terrorist attack. In 2001, President George W. Bush said Mr. Putin was “very straightforward and trustworthy”. “We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” Mr. Bush said. But the larger factors of great power rivalry would soon take over the post-Soviet tendencies of bonhomie. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Russia took a strong position against it. This was also a period when Russia, under Mr. Putin’s leadership, was rebuilding its economy and military might. A year after the Iraq invasion, NATO expanded further to the east, this time taking the three Baltic countries — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all sharing borders with Russia — and four others in Eastern Europe into its fold.

Watch | Two years of Russia-Ukraine war: How Russia and the world are changing

Mr. Putin’s later remarks would show how he looked at the U.S.-led global order. In a February 2007 speech given at the Munich Security Conference (a speech which is still seen by many as Mr. Putin’s foreign policy blueprint), the Russian leader slammed what he called the U.S.’s “monopolistic dominance” over the global order. “One single centre of power. One single centre of force. One single centre of decision making. This is the world of one master, one sovereign…. Primarily the United States has overstepped its national borders, and in every area,” he said.

Having silently accepted NATO’s expansion in the past, a more confident and militaristic Russia appeared to have drawn a red line on Georgia and Ukraine, both Black Sea basin countries that share borders with Russia. In 2008, the year Georgia and Ukraine were offered membership by NATO at its Bucharest summit, Mr. Putin sent troops to Georgia in the name of defending the two breakaway republics — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — which practically ended Tbilisi’s NATO dream. In 2014, immediately after the elected Ukrainian government of President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by West-backed protests, Russia annexed Crimea, the peninsula that hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Mr. Putin also offered military and financial aid to separatists in the Russian-speaking territories of Eastern Ukraine, which rose against the post-Yanukovych regime in Kyiv.

The conflict that began in 2014 snowballed into a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine on February 24, 2022, when Mr. Putin ordered his “special military operation”. The war placed Russia on course with prolonged conflict with the West. But Mr. Putin looked at it differently. “He has three advisers,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an oligarch after the war began, according to an FT report. “Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.”

Tight grip

Domestically, Mr. Putin has tightened his control on the Russian state over the years. He stepped down as President in 2008 as he was constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term but became Prime Minister under President Dmitry Medvedev. Four years later, Mr. Putin returned as President. This time, he got the Constitution amended that allowed him to stand in Presidential elections again. Alexei Navalny, his most vocal opposition leader who survived an assassination attempt in August 2020, died in a prison in February. Boris Nemtsov, another opposition politician, was shot dead in Moscow in February 2015. The Kremlin-tolerated opposition parties, including the Communist Party, do not pose any organisational or ideological challenge to Mr. Putin’s hold on power.

EDITORIAL | Death of dissent: On Putin’s Russia today

In the state he rebuilt, Orthodox Christianity holds a prominent place. He is fighting not just a military conflict with the West, but also a culture war between “civilisations”. He is the new patriarch of “mother Russia”, not just the President of a modern republic. This mix of populism, civilisational nationalism, cultural roots and militarism kept him popular in Russia. According to Levada Centre, Mr. Putin’s approval rating stayed at 86% in February 2024, while 12% disapproved of his performance. Levada’s polls show that Mr. Putin’s popularity has never dipped below 59% since he became President. He has mastered a complex model, with regular elections, that allowed him to retain total dominance on Russian politics, while keeping dissent and political opposition under check, something which British historian Perry Anderson calls ‘a managed democracy’. At the same time, he constantly pushed to expand Russian influence abroad, challenging the West.

This model of dominance at home and counterbalance abroad faces a tough test when Mr. Putin is assuming another term. The Ukraine war is grinding on in its third year with no end in sight. Russia, which suffered some setbacks in the early stage of the war, seems to have captured battlefield momentum, for now. But the country is also paying a big price. It lost tens of thousands of soldiers. It is struggling to offset the impact of the sanctions the West has imposed. Its ties with Europe, which Mr. Putin rebuilt painstakingly in his early years of power, lies in tatters, forcing the country to pivot to Asia. NATO further expanded towards Russia’s border after the war began, with Sweden and Finland being the latest members.

At home, there are signs that his regime is ageing, which were evident in the rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of private military company Wagner, or silent protests in Russia, including on the election day. But Mr. Putin seems confident and unfazed. In his victory speech on Sunday, Mr. Putin declared that he will stay the course. “We have many tasks ahead. But when we are consolidated — no matter who wants to intimidate us, suppress us — nobody has ever succeeded in history, they have not succeeded now, and they will not succeed ever in the future,” said the Russian leader to cheering supporters, who chanted “Putin, Putin… Russia, Russia”.

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Navalny widow joins protest against Putin in Berlin on final day of voting

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, took part in a noon protest against President Vladimir Putin on Sunday in Berlin on the final day of the country’s elections. Thousands of people also turned up at polling stations across Russia to take part in what the anti-Kremlin opposition said was a peaceful but symbolic political protest against Putin’s re-election. 

Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh posted pictures on X of Navalnaya standing in line in Berlin where Russians queued up to vote. Activists said that some people chanted “Yulia, Yulia”, and clapped.

Queues of people were also seen forming outside polling stations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg at noon, when Russia‘s opposition called for people to collectively spoil their ballots or vote against Putin.

Others had vowed to scrawl the name of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died last month in an Arctic prison, on their ballot paper.

More than 74 people have been detained in thirteen Russian cities in connection to the presidential election taking place, the OVD-Info protest-monitoring group said.

The three-day vote had already been marred by a surge in fatal Ukrainian bombardmentincursions into Russian territory by pro-Kyiv sabotage groups and vandalism at polling stations.

Ukrainian drones attacked at least eight Russian regions overnight and on Sunday morning, with some reaching as far as the Moscow region, the defence ministry said.

Three airports serving the capital briefly suspended operations following the barrage, while a drone attack in the south sparked a fire at an oil refinery.

In the Russian-controlled part of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region, where voting is also taking place, “kamikaze drones” set a polling station ablaze, according to Moscow-installed authorities.

The defence ministry said it had “intercepted and destroyed 35 unmanned aerial vehicles” across the country.

The turnout at Russia’s presidential election hit 67.54% on Sunday, surpassing 2018 levels several hours before the end of polling, according to the TASS news agency. The 2018 turnout was 67.5%.

Last ‘legal’ protest

There were repeated acts of protest in the first days of polling, with a spate of arrests of Russians accused of pouring dye into ballot boxes or arson attacks.

Read more‘Noon against Putin’: Navalny’s last wish and an act of Russian opposition

Before his death in an Arctic prison last month, opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged Russians to collectively vote at noon in a protest the opposition dubbed “Midday Against Putin”.

AFP reporters saw an increase in people queuing outside polling stations at midday (09:00 GMT) in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

“This is the last kind of protest action through which you can legally express yourself. It’s safe,” 29-year-old IT worker Alexander told AFP.

He voted around noon at a polling station in Maryino, a district of Moscow where Navalny used to cast his ballot.

“If I didn’t do it, I’d feel like a coward,” he said.

Elena, 52, who also voted around noon, doubted the demonstration would have much of an impact. 

“Honestly, I don’t think it will show anything,” she told AFP.

Any public dissent in Russia has been harshly punished since the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and there have been repeated warnings from the authorities against election protests.

‘Difficult period’

The 71-year-old Putin, a former KGB agent, has been in power since the last day of 1999 and is set to extend his grip over the country until at least 2030.

If he completes another Kremlin term, he will have stayed in power longer than any Russian leader since Catherine the Great in the 18th century.

He is running without any real opponents, having barred two candidates who opposed the conflict in Ukraine.

Read moreRussia’s presidential election: Three Putin challengers but little suspense

The Kremlin has cast the election as an opportunity for Russians to show they are behind the assault on Ukraine, where voting is also being staged in Russian-held areas.

In a pre-election address on Thursday, Putin said Russia was going through a “difficult period”.

“We need to continue to be united and self-confident,” he said, describing the election as a way for Russians to demonstrate their “patriotic feelings”.

The voting will wrap up in Kaliningrad, Russia’s western-most time zone, at 18:00 GMT and an exit poll is expected to be announced shortly after that.

A concert on Red Square is being staged on Monday to mark 10 years since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula – an event that is also expected to serve as a victory celebration for Putin.

‘No validity’

Ukraine has repeatedly denounced the elections as illegitimate and a “farce”, and urged Western allies not to recognise the result.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, as well as more than 50 member states, have slammed Moscow for holding the vote in parts of Ukraine.

Guterres said the “attempted illegal annexation” of those regions has “no validity” under international law.

Ahead of the election, Russian state media have played up recent gains on the front and portrayed the conflict as a fight for survival against attacks from the West.

Moscow has also sought to press its advantage on the front line as divisions over Western military support for Ukraine have led to ammunition shortages, although Kyiv says it has managed to stop the Russian advance for now. 

In Ukraine, a Russian missile strike on the Black Sea port city of Odesa on Friday killed 21 people including rescue workers responding to an initial hit – an attack President Volodymyr Zelensky described as “vile”.

In Russia’s border city of Belgorod, Ukrainian shelling killed a 16-year-old girl and wounded her father, the region’s governor said Sunday.

The governor has ordered the closure of shopping centres and schools in Belgorod and the surrounding area for two days because of the strikes.


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Russians vote in presidential election amid sporadic acts of protest

Russia began three days of voting Friday in a presidential election that is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule for six more years after he stifled dissent.

At least half a dozen cases of vandalism at polling stations were reported, including a firebombing and several people pouring green liquid into ballot boxes — an apparent nod to the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who in 2017 was attacked by an assailant splashing green disinfectant in his face.

Voting is taking place through Sunday at polling stations across the vast country’s 11 time zones, in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine and online. Putin cast his ballot online, according to the Kremlin.

The election comes against the backdrop of a ruthless crackdown that has crippled independent media and prominent rights groups and given Putin full control of the political system.

Read moreFive things to know about Russia’s upcoming presidential election

It also comes as Moscow’s war in Ukraine enters its third year. Russia has the advantage on the battlefield, where it is making small, if slow, gains. A Russian missile strike on the port city of Odesa killed at least 14 people on Friday, local officials said.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has made Moscow look vulnerable behind the front line with long-range drone attacks deep inside Russia and high-tech drone assaults that put its Black Sea fleet on the defensive.

Border clashes

Russian regions bordering Ukraine reported a spike in shelling and repeated attacks this week by Ukrainian forces, which Putin described Friday as an attempt to frighten residents and derail the vote.

“Those enemy strikes haven’t been and won’t be left unpunished,” he vowed at a meeting of his Security Council.

“I’m sure that our people, the people of Russia, will respond to that with even greater cohesion,” Putin said. “Whom did they decide to scare? The Russian people? It has never happened and it will never happen.”

Read more‘Noon against Putin’: A small gesture and a powerful symbol of Russia’s opposition


By the time polls closed Friday night at Russia’s westernmost region of Kaliningrad, more than a third of the country’s eligible voters had cast ballots in person and online, according to the Central Election Commission. Online voting, which began Friday morning, is available around the clock in Moscow and 28 other regions until 8 p.m. local time Sunday.

Officials said voting proceeded in an orderly fashion, but in St. Petersburg, a woman threw a Molotov cocktail on the roof of a school that houses a polling station, local news media reported. The deputy head of the Russian Central Election Commission said people poured green liquid into ballot boxes in five places, including Moscow.

News sites also reported on the Telegram messaging channel that a woman in Moscow set fire to a voting booth. Such acts are incredibly risky since interfering with elections is punishable by up to five years in prison.

The election holds little suspense since Putin, 71, is running for his fifth term virtually unchallenged. His political opponents are either in jail or in exile; Navalny, the fiercest of them, died in an Arctic penal colony last month. The three other candidates on the ballot are low-profile politicians from token opposition parties that support the Kremlin’s line.

‘No opposition. No freedom. No choice’

Observers have little to no expectation the election will be free and fair.

European Council President Charles Michel mordantly commented Friday on the vote’s preordained nature. “Would like to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his landslide victory in the elections starting today. No opposition. No freedom. No choice,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Beyond the few options for voters, the possibilities for independent monitoring are very limited.

No significant international observers were present. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitors were not invited, and only registered candidates or state-backed advisory bodies can assign observers to polling stations, decreasing the likelihood of independent watchdogs. With balloting over three days in nearly 100,000 polling stations, any true oversight is difficult anyway.

“The elections in Russia as a whole are a sham. The Kremlin controls who’s on the ballot. The Kremlin controls how they can campaign. To say nothing of being able to control every aspect of the voting and the vote-counting process,” said Sam Greene, director for Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

Ukraine and the West have also condemned Russia for holding the vote in Ukrainian regions that Moscow’s forces have seized and occupied.

In many ways, Ukraine is at the heart of this election, political analysts and opposition figures say. They say Putin wants to use his all-but-assured electoral victory as evidence that the war and his handling of it enjoys widespread support. The opposition, meanwhile, hopes to use the vote to demonstrate its discontent with both the war and the Kremlin.

Two anti-war politicians were banned from the ballot after attracting genuine — albeit not overwhelming — support, depriving the voters of any choice on the “main issue of Russia’s political agenda,” said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, a former Putin speechwriter.

‘Most vapid’ campaign since 2000

Russia’s scattered opposition has urged those unhappy with Putin or the war to show up at the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, in protest. The strategy was endorsed by Navalny not long before his death.

“We need to use election day to show that we exist and there are many of us, we are actual, living, real people and we are against Putin. … What to do next is up to you. You can vote for any candidate except Putin. You could ruin your ballot,” his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said.

How well this strategy will work remains unclear.

Golos, Russia’s renowned independent election observer group, said in a report this week that authorities were “doing everything so that the people don’t notice the very fact of the election happening.”

The watchdog described the campaign ahead of the vote as “practically unnoticeable” and “the most vapid” since 2000, when Golos was founded and started monitoring elections in Russia.

Putin’s campaigning was cloaked in presidential activities, and other candidates were “demonstrably passive,” the report said.

State media dedicated less airtime to the election than in 2018, when Putin was last elected, according to Golos. Instead of promoting the vote to ensure a desired turnout, authorities appear to be betting on pressuring voters they can control — for instance, Russians who work in state-run companies or institutions — to show up at the polls, the group said.

The watchdog itself has been swept up in the crackdown: Its co-chair, Grigory Melkonyants, is in jail awaiting trial on charges widely seen as an attempt to pressure the group ahead of the election.

“The current elections will not be able to reflect the real mood of the people,” Golos said in the report. “The distance between citizens and decision-making about the fate of the country has become greater than ever.”


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Russia’s presidential election: Three Putin challengers but little suspense

President Vladimir Putin faces just three rivals in Russia’s March 15-17 presidential election after anti-war candidates were barred from running. But Leonid Slutsky, Nikolai Kharitonov and Vladislav Davankov do not pose much of a challenge for the Russian leader, who is all but guaranteed to secure another six-year term. 

The first polls in Russia’s March 15-17 presidential election opened in the country’s easternmost Kamchatka Peninsula region at 8am local time Friday, with the vast voting exercise spanning 11 time zones set to finish in the westernmost Kaliningrad enclave at 8pm on Sunday.

The election holds little suspense. Incumbent Vladimir Putin – who has been in power either as president or prime minister for nearly a quarter-century – is set to secure another six-year term. 

But a longtime autocrat requires a veneer of legitimacy, even in Russia. Voters will thus have a choice between the almost guaranteed victor and three pre-approved candidates.   

Ultranationalist Leonid Slutsky of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladislav Davankov of the relatively liberal New People’s Party and veteran candidate Nikolai Kharitonov of the Communist Party are the supporting characters in 2024’s electoral choreography. In a possible sign of Russia’s shrinking tolerance for political challenges, that’s four fewer candidates than qualified for the 2018 presidential election. 

Competition and criticism was severely curtailed in the lead-up to the 2024 vote, with authorities blocking a number of opposition hopefuls and critics using a variety of means, including labelling them as “foreign agents”.   

“Between the ‘foreign agent’ labels, the fines, imprisonments and the incredible hardening of the regime, the number of candidates is limited. However, they represent real political forces. The nationalist right carries political weight in Russia, as do the Communists, whose score could be in the region of 10 percent,” noted Jean de Gliniasty, former French ambassador to Russia and current senior research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

Read more‘Noon against Putin’: Navalny widow realises his last wish for the Russian opposition

‘I don’t dream of beating Putin’

But while some of the candidates represent established political parties, they do not pose much of a challenge to Putin, nor have they put up much of a fight on the campaign trail.

Shortly after registering his candidacy in December 2023, Slutsky – the candidate from the ultranationalist LDPR founded by the late right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – appeared certain of defeat.

“I don’t dream of beating Putin. What’s the point?” Slutsky told reporters. The 56-year-old Russian politician who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian lower house, the State Duma, then predicted “a huge victory” for Putin.

At 75, Kharitonov is the oldest candidate on the ballot. A veteran Communist Party politician who has been a State Duma deputy since 1993, Kharitonov ran for president in 2004, coming in second to Putin with 13.7 percent of the vote.

This time, Kharitonov ran a low-key campaign, focused on Soviet-era issues, including criticising capitalism, promoting industrial nationalisation and an increase in the Russian birth rate.

Davankov, 39, is the youngest of the opposition candidates. The former businessman-turned-politician promotes greater freedom for businesses and a stronger role for regional authorities. 

The deputy chairman of the State Duma, where his party holds 15 of the 450 seats, Davankov has tried to position himself as a candidate opposed to the Kremlin’s excessive curbs on personal freedoms. He favours peace talks with Ukraine, following the Kremlin’s official line, while reiterating that it should be “on our terms and with no rollback”, meaning Russia should not cede territory it has occupied.

Read moreFive things to know about Russia’s upcoming presidential election

“Each candidate presents juxtaposed ideologies and domestic policies, but collectively these contribute to Putin’s goal of tightening his grip on Russia during his next presidential term,” noted Callum Fraser of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in a column, “Putin’s Grand Plan for Russia’s 2024 Elections“.

According to Putin’s critics, these three quasi-opponents, integrated into the Russian political system, perform an important function: to channel the discontent of various strata of society and provide a pluralist veneer for the vote, while the real opposition has been wiped out by years of repression.

“Throughout history, Russian power has always been extremely careful to respect formal rules. Even a very authoritarian regime faces public opinion and cares about it. This election remains a test of Putin’s legitimacy and popularity. Even if this test appears to be a formality, it has value for those in power,” explained de Gliniasty.

No political space for anti-war candidates

But not all positions on the political spectrum are represented on the ballot this year. In the lead-up to the presidential election, criticism of the Ukraine invasion was effectively suppressed with the arrests of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. Hefty fines were also slapped on anyone voicing opposition to the war, according to international rights groups.

Two independent presidential hopeful running on anti-war platforms, Yekaterina Duntsova and Boris Nadezhdin, were barred from running by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC).

While the CEC barred Duntsova in December, Nadezhdin’s candidacy attracted attention, with thousands lining up in cities across Russia in January to give their signatures supporting the anti-war candidate.

That did not work in Nadezhdin’s favour.

“The question obviously arose of leaving out a voice that could have played a symbolic role and brought in, dare I say it, left-leaning, liberal voters. Boris Nadezhdin could have stood for election if he had achieved a modest score, but faced with the enthusiasm generated by his candidacy, the Kremlin preferred to send him packing,” explained de Gliniasty.

A ‘noon vote’ campaign for Navalny supporters

Despite the sweeping crackdowns, some of Putin’s opponents have vowed to express their opposition at the polls. On March 5, Alexei Navalny’s widow Yulia Navalnaya called the election a “masquerade” and urged Russians to cast protest votes.

“You can vote for any candidate except Putin. You can spoil your ballot paper, you can write ‘Navalny’ in big letters,” she urged.

In an action called “Noon against Putin”, Navalny supporters plan to go to their local polling station on Sunday exactly at midday, stand in line for a voting slip, and then vote in a way that expresses their protest.

Such social mobilisation comes with serious risks. Some Navalny supporters received letters last week warning them that prosecutors had reason to believe they will be participating in an illegal event that “bore signs of extremist activity”, an accusation Russia often levies at enemies of the Kremlin. 

The ‘non-war’ across the border

Although the outcome of the vote is certain, the authorities have gone through great lengths to encourage Russians to go to the polls, dialing up the patriotism and presenting the vote as an essential step towards “victory” in Ukraine.

Over the past few weeks, Putin did several media appearances with the heroes of the “special military operation”, as the Ukraine war is still called in Russia.

But the campaign did not feature any debate on the conflict in Russia’s neighbouring state.

“One might have expected the subject of war to be central to the election campaign,” said Anna Colin-Lebedev, a specialist in post-Soviet societies at Paris-Nanterre University. “However, the debates – which did not excite the Russian public – were mainly devoted to other subjects such as education, culture, the economy, agriculture, demographics [and] housing” in what she called a “framed”, pre-approved narrative.

More than two years after Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is attempting a tricky balancing act on the subject, according to experts.

“The authorities are caught in a contradiction,” noted de Gliniasty. “They want to talk as little as possible about the war in Ukraine, as if to say that everything is fine, that everything is normal and that it’s just a special operation. But at the same time, it wants this election to serve to legitimise the invasion.” 

Read more‘I know Putin can eliminate me’: Russian opponent speaks out as election gets underway

The turnout barometer

Given the stakes, the authorities are deeply invested in keeping up appearances by holding elections under the guise of a functioning democracy.

“These elections are very important for the Kremlin,” Nikolai Petrov of London-based Chatham House told the AFP. “It is needed to demonstrate that Russians overwhelmingly support Putin” during the military offensive.

Turnout then becomes a critical issue, as it does in most authoritarian countries holding questionable elections.

Some managers at state companies have ordered employees to vote – even asking them to submit photographs of their ballot papers, reported Reuters, quoting six sources who did not want to be named. Cash machines also remind Russians to vote. And in Russian-occupied Ukraine, residents have complained of pro-Russian collaborators with ballot boxes going from house to house looking for voters accompanied by armed soldiers. 

Then there’s the question of vote-rigging.

“Parliamentary elections may be rigged in Russia, but presidential elections are not,” de Gliniasty said. “There are cameras and observers in polling stations. There’s no need for rigging because everything has been cleaned up beforehand so the result will be perfectly acceptable.” 

But given the context of the Ukraine war and the hardening stance of the Russian regime, “we cannot predict what will happen in these elections”, admitted the former French ambassador.

Putin won nearly 77 percent of the vote in 2018, 14 points more than in 2012. At the country’s helm for almost a quarter-century, the indisputable master of the Kremlin has yet to name a successor. Putin signed into law a constitutional amendment in 2021 that altered term limits and will allow him to remain in power until 2036.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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Anti-Putin Russian groups stage new cross-border raids into Russia

Pro-Ukrainian forces are conducting incursions into Russian territory, temporarily seizing a village in the border region of Kursk, reminiscent of similar operations in the spring of 2023 but occurring in a very different military and political context.

Ukraine-based Russian militias are again on the attack, staging cross-border raids this week into Russian territory. Pro-Ukrainian forces even claimed on Tuesday, March 12, to have taken full control of a Russian village. The Freedom of Russia Legion, mainly composed of anti-Putin Russian fighters, posted a video showing Russian soldiers deserting Tetkino, a municipality in the Kursk region, on the Russian side of the border. 

Forces from other pro-Ukrainian groups – the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Siberian Battalion – also announced incursions into the Kursk and Belgorod regions. These attacks were carried out with the support of “tanks, armoured vehicles, and drones“, according to analysts from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group. 

Moscow initially denied the attackers had entered areas inside Russia before stating later that the enemy fighters did not advance very far into Russia and were all driven back. “Thanks to the sacrifice of Russian soldiers, all attacks by Ukrainian terrorists have been repelled,” affirmed the Russian ministry of defence. 

The situation on the ground appears to be somewhat less clear than suggested by Russian authorities. “Currently, there are still battles around Tetkino and pro-Ukrainian forces still seem capable of controlling part of this locality,” says Sim Tack, chief military analyst at Force Analysis, a conflict monitoring company. 

Russia’s national guard said on Thursday it was fighting off attacks from pro-Ukrainian groups in the Kursk region, as clashes continued at the border. 

The Russian defence ministry claimed its troops killed 195 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed five tanks and four armoured infantry vehicles, two days after saying it killed 234 Ukrainian troops in another border assault. 

In a joint statement, three pro-Kyiv militia groups called on Russian authorities to evacuate civilians from the regions of Belgorod and Kursk, saying that “civilians should not suffer from the war”. 

The current incursions are “very similar to what happened in the spring and summer of 2023”, notes Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Russia-Ukraine war at the University of Glasgow. In that incursion, pro-Kyiv Russian troops had crossed the border – a little further south, in the Belgorod region – and temporarily seized a village before retreating under pressure from Russian artillery. 

At the time unprecedented, last year’s incursions served to put pressure on Russia by highlighting that its national territory was poorly protected. The dynamics of the war were then in Ukraine’s favour, given its army had managed to fend off Russian offensives. The 2023 raids had begun just before the start of Kyiv’s counteroffensive and gave the impression that Ukraine could strike anywhere. 

The situation today is very different. The counteroffensive has fizzled out and Ukraine is now more on the back foot. As Aliyev notes: “Moscow has built a defensive line – similar to the one it set up in Ukraine – about twenty kilometres inside Russian territory.” This line of  trenches extends from the north of the Kursk region to the south of the Belgorod region. 

Before last year, “Russia didn’t have any defensive positions there”, Aliyev adds, meaning incursions could be made deeper into Russian territory. 

Pro-Ukrainian forces chose to attack Tetkino for its vulnerable position.  

“The village captured is not behind the defensive line. It’s a buffer zone, what Russia calls a security zone,” Aliyev says. “On the other side of the border the region is mostly under control of Ukrainians, so it’s not difficult for pro-Ukraine forces to cross the border and occupy that village” 

An attempt to influence the Russian election? 

If taking a border village like Tetkino was a relatively easy objective for the Freedom of Russia Legion and other armed groups of anti-Putin Russians, it remains to be seen how long they’ll be able to stay there. “If they’ve taken armoured vehicles, it’s also in anticipation of a rapid retreat, so they suspect they won’t be able to occupy Tetkino” for long, notes Tack.    

But why expend resources on a raid into Russia instead of strengthening defences on the front line in the Donbas, where Ukraine’s forces are under great duress? Officially, the Freedom of Russia Legion claimed it wanted to “influence the presidential election” to be held March 15-17, according to the Moscow Times 

The pro-Kyiv Russians aim to show their compatriots that there is an alternative to Putin. “It is a way for them to try to prove to the Russians that they have the means to ‘liberate Russia from Putin’,” explains Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna. 

The Ukrainian military leadership also stated that the Russian militia groups had acted on their own without informing Kyiv. According to Tack, this is unlikely “because to be able to move troops and tanks in this region, at least tacit approval from the Ukrainian army is needed. But this helps strengthen the narrative of an operation carried out by Russians to overthrow Vladimir Putin“. 

But the ambitions of the anti-Putin forces are obviously unattainable, Tack says. “These fighters do not have the means to go very far,” he notes, adding that they did not even attempt to break through the new Russian defensive lines. 

Few Russians will even hear about the capture of Tetkino, says Aliyev. “The problem is that most Russian don’t follow independent media or Western mass media. And they will be fed with the Russian propaganda about a Ukrainian failed ‘terrorist’ attempt” against Russia.” 

Kyiv’s ‘diversion capabilities’ 

In this regard, the cross-border raids could even be counterproductive. Coming just days before the Russian presidential election, “these incursions will likely cement the attractiveness of Putin as president”, says Fasola. “The rhetoric of a ‘besieged Russia’ is key to Putin’s platform and these attacks on Russian territory basically prove he’s right, in the eyes of the larger Russian public.” 

But these operations are not useless in the eyes of the Ukrainian high command. “These anti-Putin Russian forces are part of the diversion capabilities at Kyiv’s disposal,” notes Tack. “Each of their operations serves to push Moscow to allocate resources capable of intervening quickly to defend the entry points into Russian territory.”  

The raids are part of “a broader strategy at work in recent weeks”, says Tack. There were attacks against Russian warships in the Black Sea at the end of February, followed by the strike using dozens of drones against the Lukoil oil refinery in Kirichi, near Saint Petersburg. These diversions are intended to demonstrate Ukraine’s disruptive capability, even when pushed into an essentially defensive role on the front line. 

This article has been translated from the original in French.  

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