Russia and Ukraine: elections in an era of war

Just over a month remains until the presidential elections in Russia, which will be held from 15 to 17 March 2024. Ukraine could also elect a president on 31 March, but current head of state Volodymyr Zelensky said back in November 2023 that “now is not the right time for elections” and through the approval of the Verkhovna Rada extended martial law in Ukraine for the next 90 days – until 14 February 2024. According to Ukrainian laws, elections are not possible during the period of martial law in the country, but all previous domestic political events in Ukraine indicates that after the current period of martial law expires, the next one will begin, which will allow Volodymyr Zelensky to legally stay on as president for an indefinite term.

The fact that elections could take place almost simultaneously in two warring states, where both incumbent leaders use war as a tool for maintaining influence, partly allows us to compare the internal political situation in Ukraine and Russia on the eve of the presidential elections and to assess the resources available to the authorities and its unresponsiveness to external pressure.

The war that began with Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory on 22 February 2022 rallied the people of Ukraine around Vladimir Zelensky. All early contradictions and discontents were forgotten or relegated to the background overnight. However, after almost 2 years of fighting, the loss by Kiev of one fifth of its territory and the obvious failure of the counter-offensive operation in the summer of 2023, the domestic political situation in Ukraine is far from stable.

The situation has worsened with the merging of political and military circles in Ukraine trying to exert pressure on each other, which has further divided the power holders and negatively affected strategic decision-making on the battlefield. As The Washington Times pointed out, Vladimir Zelensky’s office has already decided to remove the current commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny from his post and appoint a new, more controllable person, but they are not doing so because they cannot find a worthy replacement: Kirill Budanov, the head of military intelligence, and Aleksandr Syrskyy, the commander of the Ground Forces, as reported, gave up the commander-in-chief post without giving any reasons. However, given the adoption of the scandalous bill on strengthening mobilisation, it can be assumed that this is what does not make the decision any easier. Some sources link the confrontation between Volodymyr Zelensky and Valery Zaluzhny with the fact that in a country where the entire foreign and domestic political agenda is connected in one way or another with war, the commander-in-chief has more political weight and love of the people and in case of elections he can outplay Mr. Zelensky. On the other hand, there is widespread support for Vladimir Zelensky by Washington, who appears to be the largest U.S. investment project in Ukraine. The loss of Zelensky by Joe Biden’s administration is unacceptable, it will show the failure of American bets and strategy in general, and will seriously hit the positions of Joe Biden and the Democrats in the U.S. presidential election.

The degradation of the Ukrainian political system is only worsening against the backdrop of Kiev’s huge financial outlays to wage war with Russia. More than 350 billion dollars of aid from the international community has already been spent, one could say, without tangible results, and Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent statements about the need to receive aid to ensure social payments, in our opinion, only weakens the incumbent president’s position in the electoral space. Thus, the only possibility for Volodymyr Zelensky to hold on to the presidency in the current conditions is, however regrettable, usurpation of power.

Against this background, the pre-election situation in Russia looks much more optimistic. Despite the miscalculations and stiffness of the Russian military command and the forced revision of the war strategy with the loss of previously captured territories, unpopular attempts at mobilisation and Ukraine’s clear superiority in military trends (the use of attack drones, satellite constellations, modern digital communications, unmanned boats), the Russian authorities were able to organise an effective defence in the entrenched areas and prevent Kiev from developing the offensive of last year. At the same time, most Russian regions are not feeling the effects of the war, both economic and socio-psychological. There is no so-called fatigue of society and the state from the fighting. The more than 18,000 sanctions imposed against the Russian economy have also not made ordinary residents of the country come out to rallies against Vladimir Putin’s war. Surprisingly, the Russian economy demonstrates its ability not only to provide for servicemen and their families, but also to increase production, including military equipment. According to independent polls, Vladimir Putin’s current rating in a warring country isolated from the world community is over 85%. The Russian authorities have created conditions for constructive dialogue between the authorities and society, and the war, called “a fight for Russia’s survival” by Putin, has united even opposition-minded politicians with the ruling political elites. Any manifestation of anti-war or pro-Western sentiments in contemporary Russian society is regarded as deviation. These factors make the position of the current government in the country more stable than ever.

Vladimir Putin is not afraid of elections, he craves them. Zelensky’s “No Time for Elections” is a time of opportunity for Putin.