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‘Sticking to his principles’ Kremlin insiders on Putin’s next moves as he embarks on his fifth presidential term

Source: Meduza
Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / imago images / Scanpix / LETA

Weeks after Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine entered its third year, Vladimir Putin secured his fifth presidential term. Rumors that the elections would be followed by a new wave of mobilization were only heightened when less than a week after the presidential vote, terrorists launched a deadly attack on a concert venue outside Moscow. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev spoke to Kremlin insiders and a high-ranking politician to find out what those close to the Russian president expect the next stretch of his reign to actually bring.

Russia’s “political elites” don’t anticipate any “unpredictable, far-reaching, or fundamental” changes in the country during Vladimir Putin’s fifth presidential term, according to two Kremlin insiders, a source in the Russian government, and a high-ranking member of United Russia who spoke to Meduza.

Meduza’s sources agree that the Russian government will intensify repression against dissenters and that Putin’s primary focus will remain the war in Ukraine. “This isn’t something new, though, just an escalation of what already exists,” said a source close to Putin’s administration. “In terms of events and changes, Putin’s new term began in February 2022, not now.”

According to this source, “the onset of the war set a course for increased pressure and escalation [with the West].” “This is a state at war that lives by the words, ‘Everything for victory,’” he explained. “Or rather, that’s how the president would like it. There’s no room for dissenters, gays, and the like. The war takes precedence over everything.”

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In this regard, Meduza’s sources say that the terrorist attack at Crocus City Hall is unlikely to bring about significant changes. “At first, I was in shock from the terrorist attack, and then from the potential consequences. For example, a serious escalation, possibly even resorting to using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” said one Kremlin insider. “Currently, the top leadership isn’t articulating clear decisions, just reassuring citizens. There’s already an established formula: avoid making sudden moves if possible.”

Another source close to Putin’s administration believes that new developments in Russia’s political landscape will only be possible after the end of the invasion, or “at the very least, some kind of ceasefire.” “It’s pointless to expect any changes while the war is still ongoing,” he said.

While all of Meduza’s sources are confident that Putin intends to continue the war, their opinions on his objectives vary. One source believes that following Ukraine’s failed counteroffensive, Putin perceives Ukraine as weak and is “ready to go all the way to victory, even to Kyiv, no matter the cost.” “He’ll call for mobilization, if necessary,” the source said. “He’ll shift the economy even further onto a war footing. He’s sticking to his principles.”

evidence of fraud

Putin 2024 Meduza breaks down the evidence pointing to the most fraudulent elections in modern Russian history

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Putin 2024 Meduza breaks down the evidence pointing to the most fraudulent elections in modern Russian history

In contrast, another source close to the administration believes Putin has “more realistic goals”: namely, capturing Kharkiv and then gradually concluding the “special military operation.” Putin has openly stated that a “buffer zone” needs to be created around Russia’s Belgorod to stop attacks on the region, which directly borders Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.

Sources among Russia’s “elites” told Meduza that high-ranking military officials are confident in their ability to take Kharkiv but feel that it could be “difficult” to advance further into Ukrainian territory. “Taking Kharkiv would also be a symbolic victory,” explained one source. “It’s a city of over a million, with a large Russian-speaking population.”

While they don’t know if a decision to launch a large-scale offensive on Kharkiv has already been made, Meduza’s sources agree that it’s a “very likely scenario” that could theoretically necessitate a new wave of mobilization. (On March 22, the independent outlet Verstka reported on Russian plans for a potential offensive on Kharkiv.) However, according to Meduza’s sources, the recent terrorist attack won’t influence the decision-making process when it comes to mobilization. “Everything [for mobilization] has been in place for a long time,” said one. “It’s just a question of the situation at the front.”

Since the outset of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s Kharkiv region has been partially occupied by Russian troops. In the fall of 2022, Ukraine launched a counteroffensive and reclaimed control over most of the cities and villages in the region. The Russian army was never able to capture Kharkiv, but it continues to bombard the city with missiles and drones.

A demonstration against Russian aggression held in Kharkiv less than a month before the start of the full-scale war. February 5, 2022.
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA
Seventy-year-old Lyubov Vlasenko and her 74-year-old husband, Hennadiy Serhiyev, take refuge in a Kharkiv bomb shelter in May 2022. Before this, they spent two months living under Russian occupation in an area of the Kharkiv region that was later liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Carol Guzy / ZUMA Press Wire / Scanpix / LETA

According to Kremlin insiders, amidst these circumstances, all political competition within Russia will be “completely suppressed,” even at the regional level. One source predicts that United Russia will increasingly dominate the electoral landscape, with the remaining votes roughly split among other parties. Reflecting on Putin’s improbably high percentage in the last vote, he remarked that “maybe it’s parliament members’ turn now.”

A political consultant who works with the president’s administration and regional authorities believes that a one-party system is emerging in Russia: “There isn’t much divergence in the parties’ agendas; the main thing is they all support [Putin].” He said that while the different parties will likely formally remain, they’ll function more as government departments with various responsibilities.

However, he pointed out that Putin’s official 87 percent “election victory” was achieved through voter coercion and fraud, a reality which, in his view, could undermine the legitimacy of the Russian political system:

Now there’s a toolkit at your disposal that allows you to do anything. It’s already clear that [officials and United Russia] don’t give a damn about anything except pleasing the boss. This affects self-perception; there’s a prevailing sense that anything’s permissible.

But there’s another consequence: any form of protest expression within the system becomes impossible. Essentially, it doesn’t fit into the system. Sometimes this ends badly, sometimes not. But nobody is thinking about the risks right now; they’re celebrating victory.

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Reporting by Andrey Pertsev

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