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Fear and loathing fuel Putin’s campaign trail

The dictator in the Kremlin may not be popular, yet he rules unopposed. But once again he is going to the polls – why?

Image: The New European/Getty

When Russia “goes to the polls” next March, keep your eyes peeled for Vladimir Putin’s double. He’s a smidge smaller than the real thing, sports elevator shoes, wears cheaper suits and his chin is flabbier. But the key tell is that the real Putin is morbidly afraid of other people’s germs and goes nowhere near anyone whose health “Team Kremlin” cannot monitor. Remember the long table between real Putin and President Macron of France just before the big war? The double hobnobs with crowds, kisses, bystanders, and recently did a meet and greet at Russia’s space control HQ. What a story the double will have to tell – if he makes it.

Putin will win the election, of course. That is a conclusion so foregone as to redefine the word “predictable”. However, it is illuminating to try to figure out Putin’s true standing with the Russian people; striking that the little one in the Kremlin feels the need for a democratic fig leaf to adorn his dictator’s member and entertaining to consider how, exactly, Putin’s “political technologists” will fix it.

But fix it they will.

In 2020, the last time Russia voted – sorry, the last time the Kremlin fiddled the ballot – Putin got just over half of the possible votes cast with the Commies getting close to a third. As in every single election since the first one, all of Putin’s serious opponents are out of the way. They are either dead – General Alexander Lebed, helicopter crash; Boris Nemtsov, shot; Yevgeny Prigozhin, plane crash – or sexually kompromatted: Mikhail Kasyanov. Or in exile: Garry Kasparov. Or in jail: Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza and, most recently banged up, Russian fascist Igor Girkin.

Next March I’ll put a soggy fiver on Putin’s poll numbers going up to the high 60s, or even the early 70s, to reflect what his goons reckon he wants to see – fervent popular backing for the war against Ukraine. Every election, every polling number in Russia under Putin is a lie. But there are shades of truth to be found in the inky darkness of Russian un-democracy. Polls with closed questions – “Will you vote Putin?” – routinely get big numbers and have little value. But polls with open questions suggested, before the big war, that a third of posh folk inside the Moscow ring road backed Putin with him getting around 40% in the sticks. Young voters hate him. The numbers suggest that four out of five people under 30 don’t like the little fascist.

Still, your Russian granny will have beaten it into you since you were a kid, “tell the Kremlin what you really think and you may die.” I suspect that even these numbers were a lie, that a big majority of ordinary Russians don’t like him.

In all this Russian polling data, a few hard facts gleam in the muck. Yevgeny Prigozhin was a crook, a cook and a killer. His Russian was revoltingly crude and yet it had some animal truth to it. “War,” he told his millions of followers, “comes at you hard, like a cock up your arse.” The old zek had the balls to stage a mutiny against Putin. What was so fascinating is that his sorry crew of cutthroats in the Wagner Army were able to move across from occupied Ukraine to take Rostov, Russia’s eleventh most populated city, without a shout and then get within one hundred and something miles of Moscow and hardly anyone tried to stop him. My working hypothesis is that few in Russia could be bothered risking their lives to save Putin. When the Kremlin got some airmen up to bomb the Prigozhin convoy, they were shot out of the sky. But just before things got really interesting, Prigozhin backed off. The word in Kyiv is that the KGB/FSB got to his grandchildren. The suggestion was made: “you want to see your grandkids again, you stop, now”. 

Still, the bald success of the Prigozhin mutiny – until the Kremlin applied murderous pressure – tells you that Putin’s election victories, his proclaimed polling numbers and the crowds who cheer his double, are a fairy story. He’s not popular, not at all. That said, it is fair to point out what happened to Prigozhin two months after he and Putin made up and carried on as if nowt serious had happened.

Ay, there’s the rub – you fuck with Putin, you die. Take Prigozhin. Everyone in Russia knows that. So that is why the big war against Ukraine is still being fought – and fought hard – although the number of Russian dead or severely injured is now perhaps 300,000, 20 times more than the 15,000 dead the Soviets lost in Afghanistan. No one with a chance of palming a phial of poison into Putin’s bedside glass of water dares take him out. Or so it seems.

Owen Matthews is a Russia expert and the author of Overreach, about the background to the war. Chatting on a podcast with my pal, the former diplomat Arthur Snell, Owen set out three conditions for the overthrow of a tsar, ancient and modern. First, the Russian government should no longer be functioning; second, the Russian economy should have failed; and third, there should be an alternative tsar, alive and kicking. Unfortunately: the Russian government is, more or less, still in business; the Russian economy may have taken a serious hit from sanctions but is now in a much better state and has circumvented the western oil price cap; and all the alternative tsars are either dead or kicking their heels in the slammer.

So we are back to the Roman poet Accius on tyranny: “Let them hate so long as they fear.” That is my appreciation of where Putin’s stock sits with the people of Russia.

But it is still striking that Putin, a pitiless psychopath with no empathy for the suffering of others, needs so much democratic cover. Why does he bother to get his goons to rig the polls? Weird, yes, but that’s how he operates. Putin’s thesis at university was on the legal problems posed by globalisation. Hit him with a stick and he starts talking legal-cum-historical gobbledegook. I know because, for my then employer, BBC Panorama, I doorstepped the little one in the museum of mammothology in Yakutsk in 2014 about the shooting down of MH17. Putin replied with a long – very long – and very boring argument that the fault lay with the Ukrainians for failing to negotiate with their Russian-speakers in the Donbas. A few hours later a goon came and punched me in the stomach. The punch was unpleasant and I was winded but, at least, I understood the message: the Kremlin didn’t like my question. Putin’s tedious nonsense to my face was harder to decode. My take from our brief encounter is that Putin is a fussy and fastidious maître d’ of mass murder. He likes the appearance of propriety while someone else does the killing: a prissy functionary, a dark lord of mega-death, both at the same time. Himmler was the same.

For far too long the leaders of the western world indulged the little one in admiring his democratic codpiece. Trump is Putin’s creature and will do what he is told. But it was deeply disappointing to see Bush the Second, Obama, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May and Johnson let Putin get away with murder. They sat down with him. It was only on Johnson’s watch when the big war against Ukraine started that it became bleeding obvious that Putin was a war criminal. I first wrote that in the Observer in March 2000. Our leaders didn’t want to know. Why? Because they liked the smell of Russian gold, because they didn’t want to tell their voters that they had to spend serious money on defence, because, some at least, rather enjoyed the parties thrown by Baron Siberia, Evgeny Lebedev, at his palazzos in London and Italy while his dad smiled on. His dad, Alexander, was a KGB spy in London for four years from 1988 onwards. There’s the clue, right there folks. You work it out.

Had the west stood up to Putin after the poisoning of Litvinenko, the shooting down of MH17, the Salisbury poisonings, then things might have been different. But for now Putin looks pretty solid. Ukraine’s counter-offensive has not worked. It’s not a final stalemate but it is true that the engine of Ukrainian advance is stalling. There is one ray of hope, that Ukrainian marines have managed to secure a bit of the peninsula south of Kherson on the far bank of the mighty Dnipro river. But the big picture is one of brave Ukraine and a timid and divided west that has promised much but delivered not enough. The Ukrainians say they have destroyed 2,000 Russian tanks since February last year, the start of the big war. Britain has sent 14 Challenger Two tanks, Europe around 60 Leopard tanks and the Americans, so far, no Abrams tanks at all. That is not going to wipe the leer off Putin’s face.

The master of the Kremlin seems to be doing very well. He is tutoring Chairman Xi, teaching him to lock up China’s Khodorkovskys. Putin is getting on with Kim Jong Un, and is pally with the ayatollahs. Please note that Hamas launched their massacre on Putin’s birthday.

John Sweeney’s Killer in the Kremlin is published by Penguin.

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