Does Russia’s Election Matter for US and Its Allies?

As Vladimir Putin sailed into his fifth term as president in Moscow, Harvard's Russia Matters Project surveyed some leading Western experts on Russia to assess the election results' impact on the West.

This article is adapted from an original published by Russia Matters on March 15.

Russia’s presidential election got underway on March 15. Given the inevitability of Putin’s victory in what one Kremlin-connected observer has described as a “well-designed simulation,” one might wonder what impact the election has on the U.S. and its allies. Russia Matters put this question to some leading Western experts on Russia and rounded up additional assessments from Western think tanks. 

Of those surveyed by RM, Nikolas K. Gvosdev of the Foreign Policy Research Institute insisted the Russian election does matter to the U.S. and its allies because it is the “starting bell for what may well end up being Vladimir Putin’s most consequential term in office.” Davis Center alumna Angela Stent, now with the Brookings Institution, said the election mattered to the West for two reasons: first, for its "clues about the domestic situation inside Russia" and, second, for what happens afterward and its impact on the war in Ukraine. In a similar vein, Thomas Graham of the Council on Foreign Relations believes the vote may “offer clues to the challenges the Kremlin faces.” 

Entries are arranged in reverse alphabetical order.

Angela Stent

Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Brookings Institution 

The Russian presidential election matters to the United States and its allies for two reasons: what happens during the voting period and what follows after it is over.

The outcome is not in question. Vladimir Putin will win, probably by a landslide, and he will claim increased legitimacy as a successful war leader on March 18. But the course of voting over three days may offer some clues about the domestic situation inside Russia. What percentage of the population voted? Did a significant percentage of people under 30 vote? How many votes did the other candidates receive, particularly Vladislav Davankov, age 40, from the New People’s Party, who claims to represent a more forward-looking generation? And how successful was the call by Navalny supporters and other opposition groups for people to show up at polling stations at noon on March 17 and either vote against Putin or spoil their ballots? The answers to these questions — if official figures can be believed — will provide some clues about how the Russian public really feels about its leadership.

The second reason why the election matters is what comes after Putin’s victory. Will there be a new mobilization? Will there be a new Russian offensive against Ukraine in the spring or summer? If Russia does better on the battlefield, this could have major implications for Europe’s ability to continue supporting Ukraine, especially as tensions among major European partners on this issue grow, as do questions about future U.S. support.

Putin’s fifth term as president is likely to resemble his fourth term, but with more repression domestically and greater aggression in Ukraine — and both will present new challenges to the West.

Ben Noble and Nikolai Petrov 

Russia and Eurasia Program, Chatham House 

We should still pay attention to the election, regardless of its certain outcome... Paying attention to elections in non-democracies does not imply that these votes are legitimate — or that we are somehow falling for them as honest expressions of democracy. … Even rigged elections tell us a lot about the nature of a particular political regime. (Chatham House, 12.01.23)

Nikolas K. Gvosdev

Director, National Security Program, FPRI; Professor of National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College

Yes, the March 2024 Russian presidential election matters to the U.S. and its allies, not because its outcome is in any doubt, but because this stage-managed constitutional formality serves as the starting bell for what may well end up being Vladimir Putin’s most consequential term in office.

The death of Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison [last month] was the most dramatic incident of an otherwise non-existent presidential campaign. A figure many in the West hoped might somehow, some day, triumph against overwhelming odds to lead Russia (given how other former political prisoners in South Africa and South Korea traipsed a path from the prison cell to the presidential palace) has been removed for good, and [Putin spokesman] Dmitry Peskov made clear that the Kremlin “will no longer tolerate criticism of our democracy.” Putin’s task is now to imprint his worldview indelibly into the minds of the Russian political establishment — so that his “children” (in an ideological, if not a biological sense) will inherit the leadership.

Twenty-four years ago, Putin talked about forging a strategic partnership with the United States and pursuing closer political and economic integration with Europe. The last two years have … terminated beyond recall both of these options. All the proposals that dominated the agenda of three decades worth of U.S.-Russia strategic dialogues are now fit for the recycling bin. Putin is determined to midwife a second international system to operate alongside the U.S.-led “liberal rules-based order” — and to contain and roll back Western influence in the world, an outcome, as he told Tucker Carlson, that “is inevitable.” And if there is going to be a new dividing line between blocs in the world, he wants that border between Russia and the West pushed as far back from the Russian core as possible.

Putin has sought electoral “anointing” as a war leader for his next term. Ukraine is the central front of this struggle, but one he expects will last in various cold and hot formats for years to come. For a U.S. administration that hoped Putin’s Ukraine adventure would be wrapped up by now with a decisive setback to Moscow’s interests, the election is a reminder that Putin expects that there will be many more rounds in the geopolitical boxing ring. The U.S. and its allies have been put on notice.

Thomas Graham

Distinguished Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

The presidential elections per se do not matter to the United States and its allies. Afterward, they will still be dealing with Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president. If past elections are any indication, these elections will not cause him to change course, although changes might eventually occur for other reasons (e.g., shifting fortunes on the battlefield in Ukraine, emerging domestic socio-economic challenges). 

This does not, however, mean that the West should not pay attention to the elections. They will offer clues to the challenges the Kremlin faces, for example, in consolidating control over the Ukrainian territory it has illegally annexed. To what extent do the local authorities have to falsify the results to be able to report the large turnout and healthy vote for Putin that the Kremlin expects? Will pro-Ukrainian forces be able to disrupt the elections or suppress turnout? Either eventuality would suggest significant dissatisfaction with the Kremlin.   

In addition, the vote totals for the other three candidates will reveal something about attitudes toward the war against Ukraine. Vladislav Davankov of the New People Party, reputed to be the most “liberal” of the three, has called for peace and negotiations with Ukraine and normalizing relations with the West. His vote could serve as a proxy for anti-war sentiment. Public opinion surveys suggest it is not widespread: Davankov polls in the low single digits.

Inevitably, the non-systemic [i.e., genuine] Russian opposition and some Western pundits will appeal to Western leaders to denounce the elections as illegitimate. While none of them — with the possible exception of Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán — will welcome Putin’s victory, questioning his legitimacy serves no purpose. Like it or not, the West will have no choice but to deal with him as the ruler of Russia. 

Sabine Fischer

Senior Fellow, Eastern Europe and Eurasia Research Division, SWP (Germany)

Vladimir Putin has been subject to West­ern sanctions since 2022, and has very little direct contact with Western leaders. Ger­many and the EU should take a clear stance on the authoritarian and illegitimate char­acter of the plebiscite in mid-March 2024, to send a strong message to Russians at home and abroad who are critical of the regime and the war. And the EU should add further individuals involved in organizing the “election” to its sanctions list. But that will not change the relationship with the Russian president in the short term nor do anything to alter domestic political circum­stances in Russia. It would appear more important to respond to the democratic and anti-war initiatives witnessed in the run-up to the election. That would mean doing everything to support Russia’s democratic opposition, its independent civil society, and independent media — both within the country (to the extent that is possible) and in exile — and ensuring that they continue to reach dissenters in Russia. But political change in Russia remains extremely unlikely, as long as Putin can continue to per­suade the elites (and to some extent the population) that his war in Ukraine is winnable. (SWP, 03.06.24)

Michel Duclos

Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow — Geopolitics and Diplomacy, Institut Montaigne (France)

Ensuring Putin secures over 75% of votes in the carefully orchestrated 2024 elections will be critical for maintaining perceptions of popularity and regime legitimacy amid challenges. Opposition is ruthlessly suppressed, enabling electoral victories to be engineered on demand. Externally, Putin is betting on declining Western unity over Ukraine sanctions, potential ascension of Russia-friendly populists like Trump, and U.S.-China confrontations to improve Moscow's relative leverage. … Continued Putin rule after 2024 will likely bring heightened totalitarian control and repression inside Russia, while the economy faces stagnation and isolation. … Western governments should never publicly advocate for regime change in Moscow. They would be wise, however, to prepare contingency plans tailored to a variety of potential shifts in Russia’s power dynamics. (Institut Montaigne, 07.27.23)

Maria Domańska

Senior Fellow, Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) (Poland)

After the presidential “election,” the Kremlin may take unpopular decisions, including another wave of military mobilization, a further increase in the tax burden, and cuts in budget spending for purposes other than defense and security (while maintaining social transfers for selected groups of hardliners among Putin’s voters). ... Without a political transition in Russia, which is in the strategic interest of the West, there will be no lasting peace in Europe. (New Eastern Europe, 03.12.24)

Bob Deen, Niels Drost, and Milou Carstens

Clingendael Institute (Netherlands)

The West needs to prepare policy options for continuity, change, and instability scenarios. ... Key recommendations [for the West] are: sustain credibility of deterrence; develop conditions for re-engagement; make contingency plans for instability, including managing nuclear assets and recognizing new entities. (Clingendael Report, October 2023

Opinions expressed herein are solely those of the respondents. 

Russia Matters Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Russia Matters is a project launched in 2016 by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.