Putin scores a resounding win, but what’s next for Russia?

The polls are now closed across Russia, but the outcome was never in doubt: Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured a fifth term in office through a dubious national plebiscite.

But Russia’s three-day presidential vote was never about democratic procedure. For the Kremlin, a resounding first-round win will give the incumbent a fresh stamp of legitimacy and sends a clear message: Putin’s war on Ukraine has the full backing of his people. In an address to the Russian people on the eve of the election, Putin urged voters to cast ballots as a show of national unity.

“I am convinced that you understand what a difficult period our country is going through now, what difficult challenges we face in almost all spheres,” he said. “And in order to continue to respond to them with dignity and successfully overcome difficulties, we continue to need to be united and self-confident.” The people of Russia, Putin added, “are one big family!”

That’s a message Putin repeated after polls closed. In an appearance with a crowd of youthful campaign activists wearing shirts with a logo reading “Putin Russia Victory,” the Russian president said Russians “are all one team, all [the] Russian citizens that came to the polls to vote.” But Putin also alluded vaguely to “a lot of tasks ahead of us” following his re-election.

In the run-up to the vote, Putin had been coy about what those tasks might be exactly if he secured a fifth presidential term.

In a generally anodyne interview with government propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, Putin evaded speculation about whether, for instance, a government shake-up might be expected after the election.

Asked if the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin might survive post-election, Putin merely said, “We need to talk about this after the elections, after the votes are counted. It seems to me that now this is simply incorrect. But on the whole, the government is working … quite satisfactorily.” So far, so yawn. But a bigger question now looms for Russia: What really comes next?

Will there be a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Kremlin ship of state? And what are the actual tasks at hand for a re-elected Putin?

Among Russia-watchers, some speculation has centered on a few big-picture issues. For starters, if the presidential vote is indeed a referendum on Russia’s war, does the election give Putin a free hand to continue in Ukraine as he sees fit?

On that count, Putin does seem to have room for maneuver. The Russian president is projecting confidence about developments on the battlefield, particularly after the fall of the eastern Ukrainian towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka. And with Western dithering about continued aid to Ukraine – particularly in the US Congress, where a crucial aid package to Kyiv remains held up – the election result gives him more rhetorical ammunition.

In his pre-election interview with Kiselyov, Putin trotted out that just that talking point.

“To negotiate now just because they are running out of ammunition is somehow ridiculous on our part,” he said, projecting confidence about Ukraine being on the back foot.

But Russia’s incremental advances in eastern Ukraine have come at horrific human cost. Speculation persists that Putin and his generals may need to launch a fresh round of post-election mobilization to feed troops into the meat grinder.

Following initial Russian setbacks in the attempt to encircle Ukraine from three sides and capture Kyiv, Putin announced a partial mobilization in September 2022. But Russia remains locked in a war of attrition along a 1,000-kilometer front. Some observers believe Putin would have to wait until after the election to take the potentially unpopular step of another big call-up.

And regardless of how Putin addresses his country’s manpower problem, there is another likely item on the agenda. The crackdown on Russia’s domestic opposition – what’s left of it – can continue unabated.

In remarks following the closing of polls across Russia, Putin made an unusual move: He mentioned the unmentionable, the name of late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny.

Putin has long made a habit of not mentioning Navalny, who died last month in a Russian prison north of the Arctic Circle. But in response to a question about Navalny’s death and the exclusion of opposition voices during the election campaign, Putin broke protocol to call Navalny’s death a “sad event,” but dismissed a question about the fairness of the elections by changing the subject, a favorite Putin information tactic.

“As for Mr. Navalny, yes he passed away – it is always a sad event,” Putin said. “And there were other cases when people in prisons passed away. Didn’t this happen in the United States? It did, and not once.”

That might suggest Putin thinks he is on safe ground. But whataboutism is not necessarily a sign of confidence.

Predicting Putin’s post-election course of action is a tricky business. The Russian leader has for the short term sanction-proofed his economy; his ammunition factories are outproducing the US and its European allies and the political landscape has been cleared of all competition.

But war is always unpredictable. And whatever Putin’s efforts to spin things in his favor, Russia’s longer-term problems – demographic decline, the cost of war and sanctions, and the inherent brittleness of one-man rule – are not likely to disappear before Putin stands for a sixth term in office.