In the dense forest 60 kilometres west of Moscow, a gigantic new drawcard has just opened at Patriot Park – the sprawling “military Disneyland” where visitors play with fake weapons and members of Russia’s youth army have fun storming a mini replica of the Reichstag.
The Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces rose from park’s grounds in less than 600 days and features stairs rumoured to be crafted from melted-down Nazi tanks, plus a main gold dome measuring 19.45 metres wide in a symbolic nod to end of the Great Patriotic War in 1945. Its opening was scheduled for May – the 75th anniversary of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany – but only went ahead a fortnight ago after a coronavirus-induced delay.
The lavishly decorated monument carries huge importance for President Vladimir Putin, who has skilfully tapped Russian Orthodox Christian values and pride in Russia’s World War II feats to bolster his own rule over the country. A beaming Putin toured the cathedral on June 22, three days before Russians were asked to endorse a series of alterations to the country’s constitution. The week-long referendum was Putin’s final move in a six-month political chess game containing enough subterfuge to impress even the best Soviet-era military strategist.
The most substantial amendment was the removal of a rule banning presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms – a shift which gives the former KGB agent the option of staying in the Kremlin for a further 12 years after his current term expires in 2024.
“Putin has been exploring options for what happens next for many months now and has not been convinced that he can be confident of Russia’s future and possibly his own future with anything other than the option of him sticking around,” says Olga Oliker, the director of the Europe and Central Asia Program at the International Crisis Group.
“He will say until the last moment, ‘oh I might run or I might not’, but I think just as we all expected the referendum vote to come out with a resounding yes, we all pretty much expect Putin to run again unless something unexpected occurs.”
Putin came to office a relative unknown following the resignation of Boris Yeltsin in 1999 but consolidated his power, revived the economy and served as president until 2008, when the two-term limit kicked in. He spent four years in the less influential position of prime minister before returning to the Kremlin in 2012, and being re-elected in 2018. The longest-serving leader since Joseph Stalin, Putin looms large as a disruptive and unpredictable force in Europe, the Middle East and United States. US President Donald Trump might leave the stage in November but the dark cloud of the 67-year-old Putin could now feasibly hover over the international arena until 2036.
In a cunning tactic, removing the presidential term limit was wrapped up in more than 200 other constitutional changes, including a vow to protect the “historic truths” of the Great Patriotic War. With voters only permitted to approve or reject the package as a whole, taking a stand against an extended Putin reign would have required voting against recognising Russia’s proudest military achievement.
However the referendum came at a difficult time for Putin and the state wasn’t taking any chances. Election monitoring outfit Golos fielded thousands of allegations of intimidation and fraud, casting real doubt over the veracity of what authorities claim was a 78 per cent vote in favour of the changes. The Central Election Commission actually announced the “yes” vote had prevailed well before some polling stations had even closed in Moscow and other western regions.
“The sham vote, masquerading as a referendum, has swept away all remnants of Putin’s legitimacy and Russia’s democracy,” said Jim Risch, the chairman of the US Senate’s powerful foreign relations committee. “The Russian people deserve better.”
Oliker points out the vote was purely symbolic because parliament had approved the changes in March and Putin had already signed them into law.
“I’m not sure what would have happened if the referendum went the other way. Things could have been quite awkward,” she says. “Yes, there seem to be irregularities. Yes, we can ask questions about the numbers, but odds are most Russians probably did vote yes.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday hailed the outcome as a “triumphant referendum on confidence in President Putin”.
Other numbers tell a different story. Putin’s popularity has nosedived since the coronavirus pandemic exploded across the continent in April. Russia’s formal death toll stands at nearly 10,000, a rate of about 65 fatalities for every million citizens. That is far lower than Britain, France, Italy and other western European nations but higher than any of Russia’s neighbours. Russia also has more cases on a per capita basis than most other countries on the continent. The Russian state has also distributed a much smaller level of aid as a percentage of GDP compared to other major powers, hitting an already sluggish economy.
Dissent popped up in early May when news leaked of plans to memorialise Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in one of the mosaics at the glistening new Patriot Park cathedral. The idea – which did not appear to originate from the Kremlin – triggered a backlash and the widely ridiculed design was promptly dropped. The affair proved Putin’s presence has limits.
That same month, independent polling firm the Levada Centre reported Putin’s approval rating had fallen to 59 per cent – a strong figure compared to many western leaders but a 20-year low for the Russian leader. Some 35 per cent of all Russians disapproved of their President’s performance as of June. In previous surveys that figure has been as low as 10 per cent.
“We are seeing significant economic hardship in Russia and the problem with that hardship is that it has been going on now for a long time,” says Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London.
“The country has now had six years of declining real disposable incomes and that has really cut into people’s wealth and welfare, even before the pandemic and lockdown came along.
“There is a growing number of people who not only recognise the country isn’t well governed but who also recognise as long as Putin’s in power it’s not likely to be well governed. The problem is do they see an alternative that would be better? And of course the Kremlin puts a lot of effort into making sure people don’t see that alternative.”
Oliker believes Russians view Putin similar to the way the world now views America: grateful for what was achieved militarily and economically in the past, but increasingly ambivalent and rattled by more recent actions.
“But then you look around and there isn’t an obvious replacement,” she says. “If not Putin, who? If not American leadership, what?
“With Putin, Russia is in a period of economic stagnation and a lot of Russians have seen their standard of living decline but what else is there? There is a preference for order over the unknown, and I do think that has a lot to do with the acceptance, rather than popularity, of Putin.”
The President is hugely assisted by a suppressed and disunited opposition, and a tendency to pursue his and Russia’s internal enemies to their death. Attacks from western leaders also never seem to harm his position domestically.
After a recent lull, Putin’s Russia has been back in the news for the wrong reasons. Moscow was this week hit with claims that one of its military intelligence units offered bounties to Taliban-backed militants to kill US and British troops in Afghanistan. A trial over the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine – which killed 38 Australian citizens and residents – has also put new pressure on the federation given its suspected involvement in supplying the missile launcher and then covering it up. And world leaders are also split on how to treat Putin after Trump sensationally offered to invite the pariah President to a G7 meeting in September.
“There is a school of thought in Europe and the United States that the problem with Russia is Vladimir Putin and if somebody else came to power we would all just get along and everything would be good,” Oliker says. “But I think that is a terrible misreading of Russian history. Putin’s view of the world is not that dissimilar to Yeltsin’s, and not that different from various people who have ruled Russia and the Soviet Union before it.
“There’s also probably a realisation that he is the reality, that world leaders will have to continue to deal with Putin and his team for a long time to come. There’s an acceptance they are stuck with him but that doesn’t mean they have to like him.”
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.