Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen thinks that the proximity—in time and politics—of the Russian presidential election on March 18 and the allegation that Putin tried to kill a former Russian intelligence officer in the UK shortly before warrant a dual commentary. He makes a number of points about both.
Regarding the presidential election:
§ US political and media elites are characterizing Putin’s enormous electoral victory (he received about 77 percent of the votes, with final results yet to come) as a “fraud” and “sham” that “does not matter.” Both assertions are untrue. They are made mostly by professed authorities whose opinions about Russia are based not on actual knowledge but on their political and ideological biases. Russia’s presidential and parliamentary elections are, of course, far from fully free and fair. The Kremlin has overwhelming “administrative resources,” including funds, control of the main national television networks and many newspapers, and influence over who is, and is not, on the ballot. But the March 18 election was not greatly constricted or fraudulent. Putin’s rivals, including outspoken anti-Putin ones, were permitted to debate on national television (though without Putin himself), and to conduct their campaigns throughout the country relatively freely with whatever resources they had, including in the significantly freer print media and on the nearly uncontrolled Internet (social media, etc.). That is, voters knew the candidates and what they represented. According to many on-site observers, there was also relatively little fraud. A frequent complaint that Putin’s campaign helped “get out the vote” by busing its voters to polling places is no doubt true, but also not uncommon in the United States.
§ In short, there is no reason to doubt the magnitude or authentic nature of Putin’s victory. The Kremlin hoped for a 70 percent turnout of eligible voters with a 70 percent vote for Putin. The turnout was somewhat less, 67 percent (as opposed to just under 58 percent in the 2016 American presidential election), while Putin’s victory margin, 77 percent, exceeded the Kremlin’s goal. As for its authenticity and reason, we have the reporting even of a Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, which almost daily competes with The Washington Post as the most unrelentingly major anti-Putin newspaper. He wrote: “Russian voters gave…Putin their resounding approval” and a “popular mandate” for his next six-year term. “There is no question that Mr. Putin is wildly popular among Russians.” He concluded: “There was no need for extensive rigging…because of Mr. Putin’s genuine popularity.”