Russian election hands Putin mandate for more of the same

Higher turnout and vote share will strengthen his resolve on Syria, US and UK

epa06613458 Presidential candidate, Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) reacts as he meets with his supporters at his campaign headquarters in Moscow, Russia, 18 March 2018. Russians are electing the President of Russia in the 18 March elections, with eight candidates contesting for the presidential seat, including the incumbent president Vladimir Putin, who leads with over 72 per cent of the vote and projected to win his fourth term in the Kremlin.  EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY
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Though his victory was never in doubt, higher turnout in this week's Russian election hands President Vladimir Putin a clear six-year mandate to maintain his recent international bellicosity. With chief opposition leader Alexei Navalny barred from standing, Mr Putin swept to victory on Sunday with 76 per cent of the vote, miles ahead of his nearest rival who scraped 12 per cent. Turnout and Mr Putin's share of the vote eclipsed the previous election in 2012. With cameras in polling stations, there were suggestions of ballot manipulation, but it will matter little to a general population that idolises Mr Putin, giving little scrutiny to his domestic agenda. He is judged, rather, on what he does internationally. And in recent months, that has been belligerence, which has sent relations with the West tumbling to a post-Cold War low.

It was echoed in the revelry of Mr Putin’s staunch allies, for whom the victory was a vindication of his anti-western stance. With the US side-lined globally by a disordered protectionist administration and an understaffed State Department, a power vacuum has emerged. As such Russia’s role in the dreadful Syrian conflict is amplified. Having supported the regime of Bashar Al Assad since the outset, the Russian military has participated in the flattening of Eastern Ghouta, where more than 1,000 people have died in recent weeks. The Russians are determined to hold onto their important naval base at Tartus and their air base in Latakia. Mr Putin’s landslide victory takes a strategic revamp off the table.

Beyond Syria, Moscow is embroiled in a worsening dispute with Britain over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the English town of Salisbury. Meanwhile, amid allegations of election meddling, the US Congress is considering punitive sanctions on Russia. Mr Putin used his recent state-of-the-nation address to unveil new nuclear weapons capable, he said, of evading a US missile shield. His alliance with Iran is disconcerting to countries in this region and beyond. Unlike his British and American counterparts, Mr Putin possesses plenty of time. And his elevated vote-share will likely strengthen his resolve as he pursues Russian interests in Syria and levels relations with Western powers.