Putin wins and his enormous consensus is more real than one might think

«I would just like to understand why it can sometimes happen that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations are subjected to a single tyrant who has only the power that they attribute to him, who can harm them only to the extent in which they are willing to tolerate him, and that he could not do anything to them if they did not prefer to suffer everything from him rather than contradict him. It is surprising – but so frequent that one is more sorry than surprised – to see a million men miserably enslaved, their heads bowed under the yoke, not because they are forced by force majeure, but because they are fascinated, not to say bewitched, by the mere name of that one, whom they should neither fear, because he is alone, nor love because he is inhuman and cruel towards them all. Yet this is the weakness of men: forced to obey, forced to stall, they cannot always be the strongest.”

It wasn't Alexey Navalny, the ghost who hovered over the Russian elections won by a landslide by President Vladimir Putin, who said it. When the Russians went to vote, Navalny had already died in a Siberian prison – where he had been locked up for years because he was a dissident – coincidentally a few days before Putin obtained his fifth consecutive mandate.

Instead, it was Étienne De La Boétie who wrote these words in the 16th century, a time in which the French philosopher, writer, politician and jurist published Voluntary servitude, a rhetorical dissertation on the arbitrariness of all power. And of course, we can only speak of an arbitrary interpretation regarding the profound reasons that lead Russian elections to always be the same: a plebiscite which, however absurd it may seem in Europe, confirms the symbiotic relationship between Russian citizens and their leader , who is vying to be the longest ever in power, together with Joseph Stalin: after Lenin's death, Stalin held the position of general secretary of the CPSU from 1922 until his death in 1953. Putin could surpass him end of this mandate.

A relationship, the one with the Russian people, which takes the form of a real “Stockholm syndrome”, that is, that particular psychological state which, paradoxically, causes the victims of kidnapping or repeated abuse to nurture positive feelings towards their tormentor, which can oscillate from solidarity to real love. And this is exactly what happened to the citizens of Russia: however illogical it may seem to outside observers, they firmly believe in Putin and will support him even in the hardest moments. And this is because his carefully constructed political image is based on the idea that he is “an unbreakable god of war, whom no opponent can resist”, as Aleksandar Đokić, Serbian political scientist and analyst, wrote on Novaya Gazeta. This is the secret of his success and it is also the essential core of his political character, which he modulates depending on whether he is facing young voters, front-line troops or foreign heads of state.

It may seem strange, but the large-scale invasion of Ukraine contributed not only to consolidating his iron grip on power, but also to establishing him as the strong man who is not afraid of difficult choices. And consequently he is highly respected precisely because he has the “courage” to go against everyone in opposition to Europe and NATO. Even if Putin's political image in Russia has begun to deteriorate since the beginning of the war against Kiev, due to poor results, this does not mean that citizens have ever been uncertain or on the verge of abandoning him. It is true that he is still very far from achieving a decisive victory against Ukraine. Just as it is true that the rapid economic growth that made it so popular in the early years has now run its course.

But the war itself was Putin's best opportunity to bring a totalitarian government back to Russia, securing his final grip on power, while waiting for Ukraine to finally collapse under the pressure. «In that case Putin, the wartime dictator, even if battered, will have prevailed once again» says Đokić. And he is right: with the beginning of the conflict, the president had thrown off his mask and any semblance of political freedom or dissent had begun to progressively disappear, replaced by an iron fist which, in the eyes of the Russians, was justified as necessary to deal with an emergency.

Also because in the meantime Kiev had become not only a worm, but also a danger for Putin: proud and proud, pro-European and Atlanticist, it represented a threat to the stability of the Moscow regime and, if left uncontrolled, could have infected with the his example and with the seeds of democracy the Russian Federation. Precisely for this reason, invading it was the great opportunity to strengthen personal dominion. The idea was «a new“ great war ”that would go down in the history of Russia, mark Putin's legacy and consolidate his power. However, the victory did not arrive. Despite this, the regime has found a new way to prolong its stay in power: a perpetual war of lower intensity.”

In a sense, it is now enough for Putin to keep this war alive, avoiding provoking civil unrest, in the belief that Ukraine will eventually collapse under the pressure of incessant bombing and that Europe will get tired of supporting it because it is bleeding out. economically. In that case, Vladimir Putin will have prevailed once again, and above all he will have transformed a half-defeat into a great victory in the eyes of the Russian people. Therefore, on the one hand the president takes advantage of the fact that Kiev cannot win because time and numbers are not on his side; on the other hand, it is certain that neither Washington nor Brussels will provide sufficient aid to defeat Moscow also for fear that this could be followed by a chaotic disintegration of Russia, or worse, a total war between West and East that no one really wants.

This is why the plebiscite for Putin was also a referendum on war: the elections overwhelmingly won by the leader now give the president of the Russian Federation a free hand on war strategies, and the certainty of being able to continue his campaign in Ukraine as he sees fit. The electoral result provides him not only with greater rhetorical ammunition, but also the incentive to persist as much and more than before on the battlefield, corroborated by the fall of the eastern Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Avdiivka which, although poor results, offer him a opportunity to puff out your chest. Also helping Putin is the West's babbling about the continuation of war supplies, particularly in the US Congress, where a crucial aid package to Kyiv is incredibly still blocked.

In a pre-election interview, Putin himself had brought up this very topic: «Negotiating now just because they are running out of ammunition is somehow ridiculous on our part» he said, confident like his generals that Ukraine is now incapable to resist for a long time. This is why, as soon as he was re-elected, he promised to strengthen the Russian armed forces and ordered that priority be given to what he himself continues to define as Russia's “special military operation” in Ukraine, carefully avoiding the word “war”. Putin thus had an easy time stating that his electoral victory demonstrates how “the Russians are united and will not be intimidated” and it is therefore essential to complete the operation.

Now so sure of himself, for the first time Putin also pronounced Alexey Navalny's name in public: it hadn't happened for years. But now that practice can really be put to rest, just as the “Southern Against Putin” protests, organized by the late dissident's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, which took place in polling stations in various Russian cities and abroad, can be put behind us. , albeit with very little result (of course, in a free country things would have gone differently, but that's how it is). Putin actually mocked Navalny, telling journalists that he had “accepted a swap deal to free Navalny” just before his death. “It's a sad thing, but it happens” he dismissed the matter with a tone somewhere between mafia and amused.

So now internal repression can continue with impunity and, at least in the short term, the Russian leader will continue to build his image as the new tsar, an autocrat who, after having saved the country from tragedy, guarantees stability and well-being to the people in exchange for their renunciation to civil liberties. This pact with the devil is fine with the Russians, just as a dictator who tickles their poorly concealed desire to reacquire by force Russia's presumed right to take back a European empire that was stolen from it is fine.

But even this self-conviction has its dark sides. First of all, because the terrain chosen to cement his glory, that is, war, is always unpredictable. And, regardless of Putin's enormous efforts and great ability to turn things in his favor, in the long term the issues facing Russia – demographic decline, the cost of war and sanctions, and the intrinsic fragility of one-man rule man – remain and will not disappear before Putin runs for a sixth term. In the meantime, the Russians will have experienced first-hand whether Vladimir Putin's power policy was sensible or whether Kiev will instead be the tomb of his empire.