Explainer: Why Would Russia’s Spy Agency Claim Election Meddling Ahead of a Vote Putin Is Bound to Win? Features
Explainer: Why Would Russia’s Spy Agency Claim Election Meddling Ahead of a Vote Putin Is Bound to Win?

Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) on Monday accused the US of orchestrating a covert campaign to interfere with the upcoming Russian presidential election, set to take place on Mar. 15-17.

The spy agency claims the administration of US President Joe Biden has ordered a group of American NGOs to stifle voter turnout in a bid to cast doubt on incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity as he pursues another six years at the helm of a country he has already led—in one capacity or another—for nearly a quarter-century.

But the SVR is not attempting to argue there is a risk these efforts could affect the outcome of the vote, unlike many claims of foreign election meddling around the globe, and the reason is clear: Putin will win. Having spent upwards of two decades building and often brutally reinforcing his power vertical, his claim to the Kremlin is practically unchallengeable.

With that in mind, in the days leading up to Putin’s reelection, why are his spies scrambling to accuse Western NGOs of meddling? And what does this tell us about Putin’s confidence in his popularity as his war on Ukraine bleeds into its third year, and as the people of Russia endure increased censorship and crushing crackdowns at home, isolation abroad, and the grief of hundreds of thousands of casualties?

In this explainer, we will unpack the SVR’s claims and place them in the context of Russian domestic and geopolitical affairs.

What’s happening, according to the SVR?

In a statement, the SVR said it had received intelligence about both illicit advocacy efforts and planned cyber-attacks:

The administration of Joe Biden has tasked American NGOs with reducing voter turnout for the Mar. 15-17 presidential elections. Calls emanating from Washington and disseminated via opposition internet resources are urging Russian citizens to ignore the elections. With the participation of leading American IT specialists, cyber-attacks are being planned against remote electronic voting systems, which would make it impossible to account for the votes of a significant proportion of Russian voters.

The SVR went on to claim the strategy lacked intricacy. In a move apparently motivated by preemptive whataboutism, the agency then provided examples of Western leaders who were not elected by a majority of voters.

What’s unique about this election meddling claim?

Around the world, claims of foreign election meddling have become widespread.

In the past few years alone, Russia has been accused of interfering with elections in the US, UK, France and Belarus, and of having moved to shake global faith in democratic institutions more broadly. Meanwhile, the US has faced accusations of interfering in elections and other internal affairs in Brazil, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba and beyond. And this list is far from comprehensive.

In historical and current geopolitical contexts, these accusations are only logical. Our shared history is rife with examples of efforts by one country to interfere with the internal affairs of another. Today, the geopolitical stakes at play in an increasingly divided world, paired with the symbiotic advancements of technology and disinformation tactics, make both covert interference and overt influence easier than ever.

In many cases, such interference claims have centered on the outcomes of elections. The narrative has typically been of an adversary meddling with the target country’s democratic processes to hoist into power a candidate, party, or process that aligns with—or is relatively innocuous to—the accused country’s foreign policy goals.

But the SVR is not accusing the US of attempting to champion a candidate other than Putin; rather, the agency claims, the effort is to reduce voter turnout.

Russia’s foreign intelligence agency knows just as well as its Western counterparts that barring a true black swan event, Putin will win the election. The Biden Administration’s supposed goal then, as interpreted by the SVR, appears to be to minimize the show of popular support for Putin.

Why is Putin’s victory assured?

Since his second presidential election in 2004, Putin has won every vote he has participated in by a landslide. Below is an overview of Putin’s election rates, with links to the relevant reports issued by international observers representing the Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR):

YearTurnoutVotes for PutinVotes for Runner UpSource
200068.7%52.94%29.2% – Communist Party leader Gennady ZyuganovOSCE/ODIHR
200463.39%71.31%13.69% – Communist Party candidate Nikolay KharitonovOSCE/ODIHR, citing Russian Central Election Commission (CEC)
201264%63.6%17.18% – Communist Party leader Gennady ZyuganovOSCE/ODIHR, citing Russian CEC
201867.47%76.69%11.77% – Communist Party candidate Pavel GrudininOSCE/ODIHR, citing Russian CEC

Underlying these figures are a number of factors that have enabled Putin to remain in power since 2000.

The crushing of Russia’s genuine opposition

Genuine opposition activists with any degree of name recognition in Russia have consistently found their political ambitions derailed, whether through death under ostensibly mysterious circumstances (e.g. influential opposition activists Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov), political detention (e.g. influential opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza and head of the country’s only independent election monitor Grigory Melkonyants), or exile from the formal ballots due to unconvincing criminal charges or administrative quagmires.

A vanishing systemic opposition

In past elections, members of Russia’s systemic opposition have served as a veneer, lending Putin the appearance of competition. These are candidates who present themselves as presidential hopefuls but who generally eschew meaningful campaigning efforts, knowing all the while that Putin will remain in the Kremlin. But this year, the Kremlin’s favored systemic opposition candidates have removed themselves from the running.

In a recent article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, analyst Andrey Partsev noted that two key members of the systemic opposition had already bowed out, creating unanticipated credibility problems for the Kremlin: Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party’s octogenarian leader and Putin’s runner-up in the 2000 and 2012 elections, and Alexei Nechaev, leader of the New People Party—a relatively new mainstay of the systemic opposition.

“It’s no secret that the Kremlin wanted Zyuganov and Nechaev on the ballot. Firstly, they are senior politicians known to the public. Secondly, their participation would have made it easier for the Kremlin’s political managers to deliver the big Putin win they were seeking,” Pertsev wrote, arguing the Kremlin will be driven to beat the abovementioned 2018 turnout and victory figures.

“The absence of Zyuganov and Nechaev is yet more evidence of the deep crisis faced by the Kremlin’s system of ‘managed democracy,’ which has been in place since the early 2000s. Among the reasons for the crisis is Putin’s hunger for electoral records, and his love of plebiscite-style elections that reassure him he retains the love of the people,” he added.

Legislative maneuvering to keep Putin on top

Between 2008 and 2012, Putin served as Russia’s prime minister, having effectively handed the presidency to chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev. Since stepping away from the Kremlin initially, Putin has overseen policy shifts that increased presidential term lengths to six years and authorized a term limit “reset” of sorts, laying the groundwork for him to remain in power until 2036.

If his victory is guaranteed, why would the Kremlin worry about voter turnout?

Given the lack of meaningful democratic institutions in place, Putin relies on the appearance of popular support to legitimize his rule.

But after 24 years of rule secured by violence, repression and legislative charades, few are under any illusion that their votes count. A study released in January by independent Moscow-based pollster the Levada Center revealed nearly one-third of respondents either did not plan to vote or did not know if they would vote. This figure roughly matched those of respondents who “definitely” planned to vote (33 percent), and respondents who were “likely” to vote (33 percent).

Of the respondents who said they would “definitely not” vote or that they “didn’t know” whether they would vote, 25 percent attributed their lack of motivation to their absence of trust in the system and the resulting feeling that voting is pointless. Another 24 percent agreed with the statement: “Everything is already decided for us.”

It is important to note in this context that Levada Center polls are conducted across Russia via conversations with random strangers, generally by telephone. In a country where dissent is suppressed and where it has become a criminal offense to express opposition to the war in Ukraine, fear of reprisals commonly result in self-censorship, casting a particularly harsh light on these findings.

And against the backdrop of this apathy, Russians continue to struggle with the consequences of the actions of an increasingly out-of-touch leadership.

Russian casualties continue to mount as a consequence of Putin’s war on Ukraine. In February, the Economist reported that the available data suggests more than one percent of Russian men aged between 20 and 50 have been killed or severely wounded in Ukraine since the full-scale war began in February 2022.

Though more buoyant than expected by many analysts, Russia’s economy continues to bear the brunt of warfare and the resulting waves of punitive international sanctions. A Levada poll conducted in December revealed that nearly half (42 percent) of respondents struggled to afford food, compared with 32 percent in April 2023. The study also found deteriorating financial conditions and decreased preparedness for large purchases.

It is in this context that Moscow falls back on a tried and true strategy: When things are falling apart at home, blame the West.