‘We’re flying blind now’ Kremlin infighting and the war in Ukraine will determine if Putin cancels Russia’s elections in September, sources tell Meduza
On May 17, lawmakers in the State Duma discussed the possibility of cancelling both gubernatorial and regional and municipal elections scheduled for September 11, 2022. The stated reason is the need to support the president unanimously during Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev learned that Vladimir Putin has yet to reach a final decision about postponing the elections, but the Federal Security Service and National Security Council are lobbying hard to convince him that it’s crucial.
Under the circumstances of the special military operation, do we need to hold elections on [September 11]? We should all be unified now, but what will happen in elections? We’ll have to fight against each other. All of us here in this chamber support the president and the special military operation, but we’ll need to talk about our differences in elections,” Just Russia party chairman Sergey Mironov said in a speech to the State Duma on May 17.
After these remarks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured journalists that the president hasn’t made any decision to cancel elections this fall, but four sources with knowledge of the Putin administration’s domestic policy planning told Meduza that Mironov’s comments were no accident; they represent an ongoing debate within the government about how to handle Russia’s electorate during the war.
Unless the authorities make changes, Russia is due to hold elections in various regions for gubernatorial positions and seats in regional and municipal councils (including in Moscow) on September 11, 2022. As Meduza reported in early March, however, Kremlin officials began discussing a postponement to these elections in the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, worrying that international sanctions and rapidly falling living standards would energize protest sentiment across the country.
In mid-March, sources also told the newspaper Kommersant that the Putin administration was considering a cancelation of this year’s elections, though this story attributed the initiative to Russia’s governors themselves, who allegedly feared losing public support during the war. In late April, RBC reported that President Putin might soon propose a cancelation or postponement of the September elections.
But that hasn’t happened, yet.
Meduza has learned that the chief opponent of canceling Russia’s elections is the Kremlin’s State Council logistics bureau, led by Alexander Kharichev (a close associate of Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s domestic policy czar and first deputy chief of staff).
“Elections mean money, but they’re more than financial flows into the hands of officials; elections are payments to actual political strategy teams working on the ground. Regional elections keep these strategists in business. You need to keep these groups around ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. If you cancel or postpone the regional elections, these strategists are effectively out of work,” explained a source with knowledge of the Putin administration’s domestic policymaking.
Another source cited other reasons to stay the course:
“Canceling the elections now would acknowledge that Russia is facing real difficulties, that the sanctions are severe, and that the ‘[special] operation’ might not go according to plan. They’re not saying any of this yet [officially], so what would the reason be for canceling the elections? Also, there’s no need to fear the voting results because election commissions can now produce any result desired. [Real] competitors to Putin’s candidates simply won’t be nominated in these conditions.”
The Kremlin’s domestic policy team is up against opposition from Russia’s so-called “security bloc” led by the Federal Security Service and the National Security Council. Members of this more hawkish community are reportedly urging the president to cancel September’s elections due to fears that the war in Ukraine could seriously diminish the administration’s popularity by the fall. “The security bloc is selling this [to Putin] as a pressure point that’s vulnerable to foreign influence,” one person told Meduza.
Sources say these more hawkish actors recently seized the initiative. “[Domestic policy czar Sergey] Kiriyenko is in direct contact with Putin and he’s constantly speaking to him, but Kiriyenko has another priority now: the Donbas. The elections are trivial [by comparison],” explained a source close to the Kremlin. In late April, RBC reported that Kiriyenko became the Putin administration’s new “curator” of the self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas. According to Meduza’s own sources, the Kremlin’s previous supervisor in the region, Dmitry Kozak, has fallen out of favor with Putin. (Others argue that Moscow has merely redesignated the Donbas as a domestic matter, shifting the region outside Kozak’s wheelhouse but not necessarily throwing him into disgrace.)
Uncertainty surrounding the September elections has also “frozen” plans to stage referendums in the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics (and in Ukraine’s Kherson region, which invading troops now control almost entirely) to join the Russian Federation. As Meduza reported previously, the Kremlin initially hoped to stage these plebiscites in April, but setbacks in the war forced delays, first until May and then until September 11.
President Putin’s press secretary declined to answer Meduza’s questions about a possible cancelation of Russia’s fall elections.
The individuals with knowledge of the Kremlin’s policymaking who spoke to Meduza emphasized that no one yet knows what decision Putin will reach. “Everything depends now on whether elections are held, how long they might be postponed, and what the circumstances are at the front,” explained one source. “We’re flying blind right now. The situation is changing constantly.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock