Monday, April 15, 2024

Putin Faces Protests, Ukraine Strikes on Final Day of Rigged Russian Presidential Election

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MOSCOW – Protests erupted across Russia on Sunday as voters headed to the polls for the final day of Vladimir Putin’s heavily choreographed presidential election, a three-day affair marred by Ukrainian cross-border strikes and acts of defiance by the Russian opposition.

From the capital Moscow to far-flung regions, critics of Mr. Putin’s authoritarian rule heeded calls to disrupt the Kremlin-orchestrated vote and voice their dismay over the leader’s assault on Ukraine through tactics like swarming polling stations en masse and spoiling ballots.

The protests unfolded against a backdrop of violence, with Ukrainian drones and saboteurs again striking deep inside Russian territory in recent days. Early Sunday, a drone attack caused a fire at an oil refinery in the Krasnodar region, killing one person, according to Russian officials. And on Saturday, two civilians died in drone strikes in the city of Belgorod near the Ukrainian border.

The Russian defense ministry reported fending off a total of 35 Ukrainian drone incursions on Sunday morning, including four aimed at the Moscow region, revealing the conflict’s increasingly perilous proximity to the Russian heartland. Kyiv’s forces also struck in the Kaluga, Yaroslavl, Kursk and Rostov regions among others, Russian authorities said.

Ahead of the election’s final day, opposition figures aligned with jailed protest leader Alexei Navalny, who died in custody last month, called for a massive but peaceful show of dissent at noon local time on Sunday. They urged Russians to flood polling stations simultaneously, potentially overwhelming election officials, and to mark their ballots with Mr. Navalny’s name or votes for candidates other than Mr. Putin.

“I hoped the demonstration would show the authorities that there are people in this country against the conflict…against the regime,” said one Moscow man in his 20s who planned to join the protest, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

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For Russians daring to speak out, the consequences have grown dramatically since Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, ordered the invasion of Ukraine over a year ago. His ruthless crackdown on dissent, including the imprisonment or exiling of leading opposition figures, makes open defiance to the Kremlin an act of profound risk.

But with scant remaining avenues for peaceful protest, Sunday’s decentralized demonstrations across Russia’s 11 time zones aimed to revive the spirit of national opposition to Mr. Putin’s 23-year rule.

“There are people in Russia who want change, people who want the war to end. We must show it,” said Ms. Navalnaya, the widow of Mr. Navalny, in a video appeal before the vote.

Even before polls opened last Friday, acts of civil disobedience rippled across Russia – presaging the disruptions on the final day. Videos shared on social media showed people pouring brightly colored dyes into ballot boxes and setting fire to polling stations, desperate attempts to undermine the election’s credibility.

For Mr. Putin and his allies, the vote represents an attempt to offer a mirage of democratic legitimacy for the ruinous war in Ukraine, now entering its second year. The 70-year-old Russian leader, who has steadily dismantled democratic institutions during his tenure, is running virtually unopposed after authorities barred his few remaining credible critics from taking part.

The Kremlin has shamelessly cast the sham vote as a rallying cry of patriotic unity behind Russia’s military campaign, which has devolved into a grinding attritional conflict. State media has played up recent Russian advances on the battlefield while portraying the assault as an existential struggle against encroaching Western encroachment.

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Yet on the ground, evidence abounded of Russians seething over Mr. Putin’s devastating war of choice and its steep human toll.

Early during the three-day voting period, one man tried to set fire to a polling station in the Siberian region of Khakassia while shouting “If you kill people, then you’re a monster,” according to local media reports. In Moscow, scattered protesters picketed voting sites holding signs condemning the “feudal regime.”

Ukrainian officials, who like most nations have refused to recognize the illegitimate ballot, have cheered on the acts of Russian dissent.

“The Russian people know the truth and more and more Russians are showing their soul and conscience by resisting,” Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, said in his nightly video address on Saturday.

Mr. Zelenskyy on Friday denounced a Russian missile strike that killed at least 21 people, including rescue workers, in Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa as a “vile” attack. The bombardment came as Moscow has sought to press its recent battlefield momentum amid strain over Western military aid shipments to Ukraine’s forces.

In Russia itself, dissatisfaction over the enormous financial costs and casualties of the Ukraine campaign simmered beneath the surface during the tightly-controlled election. But with most vocal critics behind bars or in exile, outright calls for protest carried immense personal risk.

In an ominous sign of the Kremlin’s hard line, a court last week upheld a nine-year prison sentence against a single father convicted of “discrediting” the army, one of countless such rulings under expansive new censorship laws.

Still, in a measure of the challenge confronting Mr. Putin, even some quarters of the pro-Kremlin elite have begun criticizing his leadership, preferring to blame army brass for the military’s failures rather than the president himself.

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The president’s fiercest critics already envision a grim path ahead for ordinary Russians regardless of the election’s official outcome, a fait accompli of Mr. Putin extending his stranglehold over the world’s largest nation.

“A forever war, more repression, Putin for life?” read one recent analysis by The Guardian previewing Russia’s bleak outlook. “This is the harrowing choice facing Russian voters.”

Balloting on Sunday will conclude in Russia’s westernmost Kaliningrad exclave, with preliminary results expected soon after. A concert in Moscow’s Red Square has been slated for Monday to serve as both a victory party for Mr. Putin and a celebration of 10 years since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

The United Nations and dozens of its member states have decried Russia’s attempts to legitimize that illegal seizure of Ukrainian land through sham referendums and votes like this election which extend Mr. Putin’s rule.

Yet with its might harnessed squarely behind him, the authoritarian leader seems almost sure to claim an overwhelming mandate for a new six-year term keeping him in power potentially until 2030. That would make him modern Russia’s longest-ruling leader since the 18th century reign of Catherine the Great.

For the dwindling Russian opposition seeking reform and an end to the Ukraine war through electoral means, the writing appears on the wall.

“There’s no other Russia for us,” the jailed opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza told supporters in a note from prison following his conviction on charges of disobeying censors. “One way or another, we’ll have to live in it.”

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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