Spilnota Detector Media

Oleksii Pivtorak

Detector Media analyst

Lesia Bidochko

Deputy Head of Detector Media Research Center

Pavlo Rud

Detector Media analyst

Oleksandr Siedin

Detector Media analyst

Kostiantyn Zadyraka

Detector Media analyst

Andriy Pylypenko

Detector Media analyst

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Predetermined results, voting at gunpoint, no observers at frontline polling stations, special rules at polling stations set up in military units, arbitrary boundaries of electoral districts, and makeshift polling stations  —  all in the name of "Russian sovereign democracy." The propaganda claims that 85% of the residents of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine (TOT) will vote for Putin because they finally have the opportunity to "vote with their hearts." But at the same time, half of Russians do not keep an eye on the elections. A "ballot box" is delivered to the homes of every "voter" during the early voting, even to residents of the post-apocalyptic Avdiivka, which was seized by the invaders a few weeks prior to the Russian "elections."

Vladimir Putin's tenure as Russia's leader spans 25 years, beginning with Operation Successor. This transition occurred when Boris Yeltsin, due to health concerns, stepped down, making then-Prime Minister Putin the acting president in late 1999 and setting the stage for early elections. Apart from a four-year pause during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency from 2008 to 2012 — during which Russian media dubbed Medvedev a "placeholder" and Putin served as prime minister — Putin's leadership has been continuous. His duration in power has surpassed that of other post-Soviet autocrats like Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who governed for 16 years, and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, with a 26-year tenure. Putin's latest presidential term positions him among the ranks of long-serving autocrats such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who maintained power for nearly 40 years, and Muammar Gaddafi, who led Libya on a "unique path" for over four decades.

Putin characterizes himself as a "legalist," asserting a strict adherence to the law, which he claims guides his reluctance to breach the constitutional limitation against serving more than two consecutive presidential terms. To navigate around this restriction, the Russian Constitution was amended in 2020, effectively resetting his previous terms. This maneuver, often mocked and memed as "zeroing out," theoretically enables Putin to remain in power until 2036. The phrase "strictly within the law" has echoed through Putin's long tenure, becoming a frequently repeated element of his public discourse.

These constitutional changes were ratified through a referendum that also included the annexed Crimea, reporting an alleged 77% turnout over a week-long voting period from June 25 to July 1. This process was criticized internationally, notably by Ukraine at the United Nations through its representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya. Despite these controversies, Putin maintains his legalistic facade by often invoking the Russian Constitutional Court, the Federation Council, or the "free expression of the will of the people" in referenda, such as the one justifying Crimea's annexation in 2014.

Vladimir Putin's dynamic with political opposition is nuanced. Throughout his tenure, with each election, Putin has permitted the presence of specific candidates who, rather than directly opposing him, serve to gather and redirect protest votes. In 2012, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov was presented as the "candidate for a new generation," and in 2018, Ksenia Sobchak, known as the "candidate against all," aimed to attract the Russian liberal opposition's votes. Despite allowing these figures to run, Putin has not shied away from employing physical violence against outspoken critics or political challengers. Notably, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015, and Alexei Navalny died in a penal colony in 2024.

In the 2024 elections, only four candidates will run alongside Putin, none of whom are even rhetorically oppositional or outside the system. Boris Nadezhdin, a guest on propaganda broadcasts intent on not giving up the territories of Ukraine seized during the war and promoted as "opposition to Putin," was not even allowed to run in the elections. Liberal Democratic Party leader Leonid Slutsky, Communist Party member Nikolai Kharitonov, and New People representative Vladislav Davankov are all sitting MPs and are nominated by their parties, while Vladimir Putin is running as an "independent" (although United Russia unanimously supported him).

Despite recognizing the elections' farcical nature, the Russian opposition aims to provide the illusion of "mass participation," thereby bolstering the narrative of Putin's unwavering popularity. The "Noon Against Putin" campaign, endorsed by Navalny's team, encourages people to gather at polling stations at 12:00 PM on Sunday, March 17, to protest and gauge the willingness to oppose the government silently. The effectiveness of this protest, whether it motivates voting or other actions like spoiling the ballot, remains to be seen.

Putin's political narrative, echoing Soviet rhetoric and strategy, focuses on territorial expansion via a “small victorious war.” His rise to power was significantly boosted by his role in subduing the North Caucasus and quashing Ichkeria's independence aspirations through two wars. The annexation of Crimea ten years later, framed as "reuniting Crimea with its homeland," further exemplified this approach. In the ongoing war with Ukraine, Putin's electoral promise was to secure the administrative borders of temporarily occupied and formally annexed regions (Donetsk and Luhansk, according to the Defence Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine). However, by the election's commencement, Russian troops had managed to push the Ukrainian army back only from Avdiivka after months of fighting and losses.

Throughout his many years in power, Putin has profoundly altered the very nature of interactions like elections and referendums between the Russian populace and its government. For the "deep" Russian citizenry, elections now evoke mere slogans about the candidates, while referendums have been transformed into occasions that exalt the dictator, serving as pretexts for festivities in the empire's capital.

Information Context of Putin's Candidacy

1.   The Return of the Public Putin after Moscow Seized the Initiative on the Frontline

Following the unsuccessful “blitzkrieg” in Ukraine, Putin became notably less visible in the media landscape, mostly opting out of events that traditionally allowed for direct public interaction. This withdrawal marked a departure from previously steadfast practices under his administration: the annual Federal Assembly address was skipped in 2022, and there was a two-year hiatus from holding the customary press conferences and "direct line" Q&A sessions.

However, with the declaration of his candidacy on December 8, 2023, Putin reemerged into the public eye. By December 14, he had revived the practice of engaging with the media and public through a hybrid of the direct line and press conference format. On February 8, he broke his silence with international media by granting an interview to Tucker Carlson, marking his first discussion with a foreign journalist since the onset of the full-scale military actions in Ukraine, sparking widespread international reaction. Then, on February 29, Putin resumed his annual Federal Assembly address, extending invitations to members of both Russian parliamentary chambers, government and regional officials, and the press.

This resurgence in public and media engagement reflects not only an attempt to showcase his leadership in the lead-up to the election beyond the confines of edited federal channel broadcasts but also a response to the shifting dynamics at the front lines. As 2024 began, both Putin and his Defense Minister, Shoigu, publicly claimed successes in halting the Ukrainian counteroffensive and securing strategic advantages across the contact line. This represented a significant shift from the characterization of the Russian army's operations in 2023 as "active defense," as noted by ISW researchers. Russian propaganda reached a crescendo with the claim of capturing Avdiivka in February.

In the lead-up to the election, Ukraine countered Moscow's assertive claims with extensive drone operations deep within Russian territory and increased military activity along the Russian-Ukrainian border. These efforts were spearheaded by groups like the Freedom of Russia Legion, Russian Volunteer Corps, and Sibir Battalion, all of which stand in opposition to Putin's regime.

2.           The "United" West Speaks in Three Voices

On the eve of the elections, Putin also benefits from the conflicting rhetoric of Ukraine's Western allies. In the first two years of the war, there was a unified public stance among Western countries on the necessity to assist Ukraine, with limitations to prevent the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian war into a global conflict involving NATO countries. "NATO has two fundamental tasks in response to Russia’s aggression. Providing support to Ukraine and preventing the war from escalating," clarified NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the spring of 2022.

The desire to appease the aggressor was, at that time, only voiced by a few leaders of small European countries, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and, from the fall of 2023, Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who ultimately refrained from blocking aid to Ukraine under pressure from other allies. Orban's stance was echoed by representatives of minor opposition parties in other partner countries of Ukraine. Thus, the sabotage of assistance to Ukraine remained a noticeable but marginal position in the West. However, the fact that part of the Republican Party in the USA, along with its future presidential candidate Donald Trump, managed to block a key package of military and financial aid to Ukraine brought the proposition of appeasing Putin out of the margins.

Amid such circumstances, whether for the sake of balance, due to pessimism about the dynamics of the front line, or a sharper realization of the pan-European threat from the regime in Moscow, a third camp emerged in the West, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, who began to contemplate crossing the previously inviolable red lines drawn by Western leaders before the full-scale invasion. Macron's suggestion of possibly sending a NATO member countries' military mission to Ukraine in some form was supported by official representatives of Estonia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Poland and was simultaneously firmly rejected by representatives of most other alliance countries, including Ukraine's partners  —  the United Kingdom.

While the West shows informational desynchronization in search of a new strategy, Putin declares confidence and readiness to continue the aggressive war for years, with nods to peace negotiations on terms that Russia does not leave the occupied territories. Moscow uses the "Good Cop/Bad Cop" tactic to undermine Western unity in supporting Ukraine.

Hopes and Disappointments of the "Opposition"

The Russian anti-war "opposition" generated a series of news hooks during the election campaign. Independent Russian sociologists from the Chronicles project report that around 10% of the population in Russia is willing to openly express anti-war sentiments despite the current risks of criminal prosecution for doing so. This figure has remained unchanged since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Additionally, through secondary indirect indicators, sociologists note another approximately 10% of Russian citizens refuse to declare their position openly. The rest of the population either supports the war or is ready to follow through with Putin's government decisions complacently.

The population group opposed to the Kremlin is willing to express its sentiments under conditions of minimized risks. Despite the absurdity and controlled nature of elections in an autocracy, they still provide a narrow opportunity for the articulation of opposition views.

During the campaign, the potential nomination of anti-war candidates independent of the Kremlin became a focal point and declaration of visibility for Russian "oppositionists." Initially, journalist Yekaterina Duntsova’s participation in the elections was announced, but she was not even allowed to start collecting signatures. There was also an attempt by Boris Nadezhdin, a former State Duma deputy and a guest on Russian federal television, where he played the role of a "puppet liberal" balancing the "discussion." The signature collection for his nomination was supported by a diverse Russian opposition, from representatives of Alexei Navalny's team and ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to musician Yuri Shevchuk. "Oppositionists" emphasized that Nadezhdin's personality was not as important as the opportunity to symbolically declare disagreement with the Kremlin's policies by supporting him. Nadezhdin himself never expressed a willingness to oppose the Kremlin and thereby put himself at risk. So, after his signatures were predictably declared invalid, he only managed to appeal to Kremlin-controlled courts. The final blow to the hopes of the Russian "opposition" for a return to the legal field was the death of Russia's most popular opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, in a penal colony.

3.           Mobilization of Conservative Voters

In another trend in the lead-up to the elections, the Kremlin sought to mobilize support for Putin among the conservative electorate and simultaneously subdued any media personalities that differed. The so-called "naked party" of Russian showbiz stars like Filip Kirkorov, Lolita Milyavskaya, Dima Bilan, Anastasia Ivleeva, and Ksenia Sobchak, the latter having been a controlled opponent against Putin in the 2018 elections garnered significant attention. To maintain their touring opportunities and media presence, these celebrities were compelled to publicly apologize for their nightlife and participate in propaganda visits to the annexed territories of Ukraine. Amidst the scandal and public condemnation of the stars' "indecent behavior," Kremlin-controlled media crafted an image of Putin as Russia's sole untainted public figure.

Regional "Elections" in September 2023 as Preparation for the Presidential Elections

These are the first presidential "elections" Russia has conducted in the occupied territories of Ukraine amidst warfare, following the experience of regional "elections" in September 2023. At that time, Putin's United Russia party won in the occupied territories of Kherson region (74.86%), in occupied Zaporizhzhia, the ruling political party reported receiving 83.01% of the vote, in Moscow-occupied Luhansk region, the United Russia party allegedly gained 74.42%, and 78.03% in Donetsk region, according to Russian service Deutsche Welle, citing local occupation "election commissions." Experts noted that these electoral campaigns were orchestrated not by electoral committees or political administrators but by security forces. The EU condemned these pseudo-elections as "a blatant violation of international law and Ukraine's sovereignty," while the US assured that Washington would never recognize Russia's claims to any sovereign territory of Ukraine and would sanction those supporting this "sham elections." The Russian voter rights organization "Golos," labeled as an undesirable organization and "foreign agent," stated that it did not monitor the voting and dismissed it as a "farce."

"This is not a subject for serious analysis because, under conditions of what is essentially occupation and martial law, serious discussion of results can only concern how modest or immodest were those Kremlin curators who reported 70–80% support for Russia," political analyst Nikolai Petrov told Deutsche Welle's Russian service. Local residents reported that "local collaborators and Russian soldiers with automatic rifles and ballot boxes walked the streets, set up ballot boxes in the centers of some villages, and videotaped people who approached them. It was all for show." The "voting" took place in city and village central squares and in cars dubbed "mobile voting points." Additionally, Moscow introduced an electoral innovation allowing voting at "extraterritorial polling stations," creating "polling stations" outside of "electoral districts" in the occupied territories.

Elections in Frontline Territories: Anything Goes in Potemkin Villages

It goes without saying that in frontline territories where combat of varying intensity is ongoing, the situation is extremely unstable, making "voting" neither safe nor compliant with standards. In preparation for the presidential "elections," the Russian State Duma developed a series of new electoral norms for territories under martial law, which facilitated the falsification of "elections." For instance, coverage of "elections" in such areas will proceed under special conditions and with the permission of the unit commander. In other words, finding out how the "elections" are conducted, who votes, the extent of turnout, whether voting secrecy is maintained, whether campaigning on the "election" day is conducted – not only is it impossible to find out, but even attempting to do so is punishable. Photographing and video recording at polling stations set up in military units is allowed only with the commander's consent (effectively, to avoid documenting evidence of violations at the station).

Additionally, the State Duma changed the voting period, extending it over several weeks. For example, in certain frontline districts of the occupied Donetsk region, early voting began on February 25, three weeks before the "election" day. A similar practice was applied in the occupied Kherson region.

Local occupation administrations were allowed to determine the timing of "early elections independently." Alongside the standard (for Russia) early voting, an additional round of "pre-early voting" was introduced for Russian military personnel and frontline districts, which constitute the majority of the temporarily occupied territories. Thus, the invaders permitted "elections" to be conducted virtually anywhere, by anyone, and under any circumstances, without observation and external control. This does not prevent propagandists from reporting on the "successful" conduct of "elections." It is claimed that Russian soldiers will be able to vote at "safe" polling stations set up in the rear, and "mobile electoral commissions" will be organized to conduct voting at the frontline. Published videos purportedly confirming these claims show the voting process at such stations – the electoral commission consists of two officers, with observers evidently absent.

The nature of voting among the civilian population of the temporarily occupied territories can also be judged even from the news reports filmed and published by the invaders as evidence of "free" voting by "motivated" citizens. For instance, in Donetsk, after March 10, "mobile" voting points were set up, consisting of a table with a ballot box on the street, a couple of employees of the occupation administration, and an armed man in uniform. Passersby are encouraged to participate in the voting. Meanwhile, there is door-to-door canvassing of "voters." Armed individuals are among the people approaching voters at their doors. Another video from the Zaporizhzhia region shows pensioners ticking ballots during house-to-house visits under the watchful supervision of all present members of the "election committee." The preservation of voting secrecy and the absence of pressure on voters are "negatively demonstrated" even by such propagandist videos.

The requirement to produce ballots following a uniform standard is also disregarded. "So that those living in frontline areas and performing combat missions can participate in the voting in the presidential elections just like all other citizens of our country," explained Dmitry Vyatkin, deputy head of the United Russia faction.

For example, in Avdiivka, Donetsk region, which the Russians captured after prolonged fighting in February 2024 (a few weeks before the Russian elections), the invaders also announced the holding of "elections." Local occupation authorities claim that the people of Avdiivka are now newly minted Russians and will have "absolutely all conditions for their quality expression of will". During the full-scale invasion, Avdiivka's population decreased more than 40 times: around 30,000 people lived there before 2022, while after the withdrawal of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, about 700 residents remained, as reported by the National Police of Donetsk region. After street fights, Avdiivka turned into a ghost town where civilians could not meet basic needs  —  access to fresh water, food, and utilities (heating, electricity, gas). It is not difficult to imagine what voting will be like under such conditions (not to mention the forced procedure of obtaining a Russian passport, updating electoral lists, pre-election campaigning, the right to stand for election, etc.). But for the Russians, the reality is not important  —  it is extremely necessary for them that a staged vote formally takes place, to be later reported in the reports of the Central Election Commission.

Besides the fact that there are no voter lists in the occupied territories, there is no observation, the contours of electoral districts are not defined, and residents were allowed to vote with a Ukrainian passport. Allegedly, due to the destruction of the Kakhovka HPP, residents lost not only their homes but also documents, including already-issued Russian passports. "This is a completely justified and correct decision for this specific period until the situation stabilizes," said Ella Pamfilova, head of the Russian Central Election Commission. Before the elections, the invaders released several propaganda commercials in which actors playing Ukrainian prisoners take part in the elections either with a Ukrainian passport or without any at all. Besides the main propaganda message, these commercials are indicative in the context of the legal nihilism that accompanies the so-called "elections" in the temporarily occupied territories since the occupying authority makes efforts to involve anyone in the "elections" without the necessary documents and verification of the "voter's" identity.

For participation in the pseudo-elections of the President of Russia in the temporarily occupied territories, the Russians are buying votes, reports the Center for National Resistance (CNS). The invaders go around the homes of pensioners and offer "humanitarian aid" in the amount of 5,000 rubles but under the condition of filling out a ballot. As the CNS reports, funds are distributed even in the absence of a Russian passport. In addition, the organization reported that the number of security forces has increased in the temporarily occupied territories, with the deployment of police units and reinforced Rosgvardia detachments being observed.

International Observation as a Farce

On October 12, 2022, the UN General Assembly passed resolution ES-11/4, denouncing Moscow's annexation of parts of four Ukrainian regions under Russian military control  —  Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Kherson regions  —  as a violation of the UN Charter. The global community widely views these areas as occupied, rendering any elections conducted therein as illegitimate. Furthermore, under Ukrainian law, conducting elections during martial law is prohibited, making it impossible for any international observer to deem such elections legitimate, transparent, or fair.

Despite this, Russian officials anticipate the arrival of observers from 95 countries. However, "representatives from countries on Russia’s list of unfriendly countries were not invited to observe. Currently, there are 49 countries on this government list," according to reports from state propagandists. This list includes the United States, Canada, EU nations, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Montenegro, Switzerland, Albania, Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, North Macedonia, South Korea, Australia, Micronesia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Leonid Pasechnik, the leader of pro-Russian terrorists in the occupied Luhansk region, emphasized the importance of ensuring the safety of these foreign guests. The collaborationist Saldo also mentioned that the occupied Kherson region expects an "international observers" delegation. According to local state media, foreign "observers" from countries like Iraq, the Maldives, Paraguay, and Lebanon have already arrived in Crimea. Three members of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) plan to observe the presidential "elections" in Russia at the country's invitation, though it remains uncertain if they will visit polling stations in the occupied territories.

The inclusion of foreign observers is typically a hallmark of democratic elections, contributing to the legitimacy of the electoral process. However, in this instance as well, Russia's approach appears more an imitation of democratic practices than a genuine establishment of them. Past elections have shown that the so-called observers often include marginal figures such as "journalists" from Russia's state-run Sputnik news agency, members of the LPR/DPR Friendship Society, African communists, or individuals who are otherwise not recognized on the internet outside of Russian media coverage, all participating in the guise of observing electoral integrity in this autocratic setup.

Russian Propaganda's Election Claims in the TOT

"Russia is holding elections, while Ukraine is not". One of the pervasive pre-election assertions of Russian propaganda was to contrast Russia and Ukraine, suggesting that Putin is conducting elections while Zelenskyy cancels them in fear of defeat and claiming a lack of democracy in Ukraine altogether. Propaganda uses this argument as a counter to accusations of numerous violations during the so-called "early elections" in the temporarily occupied territories (TOT) and the undemocratic nature of these "elections", "You say our elections are bad, but you don't have them at all!" "Zelenskyy is not holding elections, hoping to save his own skin," another propaganda resource claimed.

"85% of TOT residents support Putin." Several weeks prior to the elections, the invaders spread manipulative information about an alleged 85% support for the incumbent Russian president by residents of the TOT. According to analysts at the Center for Countering Disinformation at the National Security and Defense Council, the Kremlin "tries to paint the maximum figures of Putin's support in the TOT, on the level of the Chechen 93% during the 2018 elections and 99.8% in 2012." In their design, such "absolute support" should signify that Moscow fully controls the illegally seized territories, whose annexation was justified, as the local population massively supports Putin. As reported by the Russian publication Meduza, now based in Lithuania, electoral centers in territories controlled by Russian authorities received "directive numbers," meaning the turnout at the "elections" should be 70-80%, and the same percentage of votes should go to the "main candidate."

Meanwhile, according to the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia, half of the Russians surveyed (it is unclear if the survey was conducted in the TOT) almost or completely ignore the elections, while the older generation reports actively following the pre-election process twice as often (39%) compared to the youth and middle-aged people. However, propagandists make no attempt to explain the paradox of ambivalent attitudes toward the elections and the supposedly overwhelming desire of Russians to participate in the voting. It is also important to note that under military occupation and active hostilities conditions, representative electoral surveys (as well as the elections as a whole) cannot be conducted, so any numbers provided by the invaders before or after the "elections" cannot be considered relevant.

"Finally, there is an opportunity to vote for Putin!” Spreading the notion of universal support for Putin among TOT residents, propagandists disseminated "touching" stories of people who participated in early voting and shared their "joy" of finally having the opportunity to vote "from the heart." One of the anonymous propaganda Telegram channels, writing about life in the occupied Kherson region for its 310,000-strong audience, posted a story about a supposed former resident of the city of Rivne, now living on the left bank of the Kherson region, who is terribly happy, "With tears in my eyes, I cast my vote — for the one I want to vote for! Not out of compulsion, but simply wanting to vote for this person, and no more words are needed."

"Crimean Tatars don't want to vote? We must force them to."  Channels of Crimean occupation authorities have been sharing posts urging residents to come to the "elections" or vote online. These posts sparked discussions on various aspects of the impending election, in particular, commentators noted that Crimean Tatars are supposedly preparing to boycott the "elections" en masse. On March 10, 2024, the self-proclaimed "Crimean mufti" Emirali Ablaev, in a broadcast of the propagandist Crimean Tatar media Milliet, called for participation in the election, "Many elections have taken place since the year 1987... They were boycotted, people did not vote. But, despite whether a Crimean Tatar participated or not, elections were held, the President was elected. After some time, he came to Crimea. And what did ours do? Still sat down with him at the table." Effectively, the "mufti" acknowledged that Crimean Tatars try not to participate in this political farce.

"Ukraine is shelling polling stations and trying to disrupt the elections." The so-called head of the "election commission" of the occupied Kherson region, Marina Zakharova, reported this. On the first day of early voting, Ukraine allegedly committed an act of terrorism, resulting in damaged facilities designated as polling stations in the Nova Kakhovka district. Propagandists wrote about a similar "act of terrorism" in the Hola Prystan district in the occupied part of the Kherson region. Such manipulative statements aim to demonstrate that Ukraine supposedly "insidiously attacks" civilians even during "voting." The goal of this rhetoric is to portray the residents of the TOT as victims of Ukrainian recklessness and to justify subsequent attacks against the peaceful Ukrainian population. In reality, closer to the "elections," Russia itself increased the intensity of shelling on the [Ukraine-controlled] right bank of the Kherson region to create the appearance of its presence without the actual presence of Russian troops on the right bank of the Dnipro.

"They have 'elections' coming up, they announced a major campaign in the south of Ukraine, they continued to persuade everyone that this region is still waiting for the 'Russian world'," said Nataliya Humeniuk, head of the Joint Coordination Press Center of the Southern Defense Forces of Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin's Image in the 2024 Russian Presidential "Elections"

Russian propaganda tries to show Putin as strong, competent and good in all possible aspects of life. The dictator is presented as a "leader of the nation," "a man close to the people," "a strong army commander-in-chief and a father to soldiers," "a gatherer of Russian lands," "a strong businessman," "a conservative and defender of traditional values," and so on. The propaganda tries to present Putin in a favorable light by comparing him to US President Joseph Biden: the latter is allegedly too old and suffers from dementia, while Putin is in good shape, thinks clearly, knows history well, etc.

"Leader of the Nation." Vladimir Putin's 2024 presidential campaign is significantly different from election campaigns in democratic countries. The Russian dictator actually positions himself not as a politician but as a "leader of the nation" who is "above politics." An article on one of the propaganda websites dedicated to Putin's "message" to the Federal Assembly on February 29, 2024, describes this as follows:

"And, of course, Putin's speech was least of all a 'campaign event', a speech to the 'electorate'. This is not his style at all, and today, holding 'campaign events' would be obviously offensive to the Russian people."

The propaganda machine presents Putin's continued hold on power as a matter of existential importance for the Russian state, while the same article declares election programs and policies to be "secondary." "After all, Russia is not just having 'another presidential election'. Today, the reality is different, and the real alternative is not to elect this or that person to the highest state office but to continue the struggle to preserve the thousand-year-old Russian civilization and our national cultural tradition. In fact, to be or not to be — this is the choice that the country and the Russian people are facing today as an independent actor of world history." By "another reality," the propaganda refers to the war of aggression that Russia, under Putin's rule, unleashed against Ukraine in 2014.

The propagandists also proclaim the concept that "Putin is the leader of the nation" and contrast Russia with the West, "First of all, an existential choice has to be made, and the Russian president has said it: 'We choose life'. We choose in spite of those who 'deliberately destroy moral norms, family institutions, and push entire nations to extinction and degeneration'. This choice in the world means a struggle and requires a determination to be  — to be ourselves, to determine our own destiny. And this choice, this determination inherent in Vladimir Putin, makes him not just a president, but the leader of the nation."

The style of campaigning by Putin's staff also contributes to this image. Among the news on the election website, there is only information about the various stages of signature collection, candidate registration with the CEC, approval of the list of trusted persons, etc. It also contains a biography and a list of Putin's trusted individuals from all possible backgrounds. The dictator's website also presents Russia's alleged achievements during his term in office, from "world leadership" in nuclear fuel production and construction of new spaceports to being among the top three world leaders in turkey production and victories of the rhythmic gymnastics team. Five videos represent the election campaign. The posters campaigning for Putin do not even have his image on them.

"A man of the people." Political technologists of the Russian Presidential Administration are trying to hide from the people of Russia the isolation of Putin and the corruption system he and his inner circle have created. Therefore, they are "humanizing" the dictator. His campaign has no campaigning or political events such as rallies, meetings with voters as a presidential candidate, etc. There is no information on the Internet about the preparation of campaign concerts for various memorable dates and events for the 2024 presidential election. Instead, the Russian leader uses his working trips as president to promote his campaign. This is considered a violation of election law even in Russia, let alone in democratic countries.

These trips usually consist of visiting existing and opening new production facilities, social facilities, infrastructure, etc. For example, on March 5, 2024, Putin visited the Solnechny Dar greenhouse complex in Stavropol, where he had lunch and an informal meeting with its employees in the company's canteen. The dictator presented himself as a "man of the people" and ate a simple lunch from the canteen. Putin even made attempts at humor because even unsuccessful and repetitive jokes help to "humanize" and reduce the distance from the target audience. It is also telling that when Putin entered, all those present (including high-ranking military officers) stood up and sat down only when the president sat down.

A propaganda article written as a result of Putin's address to the Federal Assembly on February 29, 2024, also describes the Russian president's "simplicity" and "closeness to the people", "It was far from an official speech and more like a direct, open conversation with those who are close in spirit and outlook, with associates and colleagues with whom you are doing one common great thing. It is no coincidence that the President said at the beginning that the 'action program presented in the Address was developed during a direct conversation' with people and that 'the proposals, aspirations, and hopes of citizens became the basis, the core of the projects and initiatives' he would discuss. It is also characteristic that he repeatedly used the term 'friends', and in relation to our defenders (i.e., the invaders — DM), he used the warm, friendly, family-like term 'guys'. This is how they address their own people, speak to their people."

"Commander-in-Chief and father to the soldiers." Although he has never served in the army, Putin has repeatedly posed in front of and allegedly operated various military equipment. For example, in 2000, a video appeared showing the then-acting Russian president flying a Su-27 fighter jet. Putin also inspected military exercises. After the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the dictator's political technologists organized a flight on a Tu-160M strategic bomber, which propaganda calls an advanced aircraft, although it is only a modernized version of an aircraft that went into mass production in 1981.

Before the election, Putin addressed the problems of veterans and active military personnel involved in Russia's aggression against Ukraine, projecting an image of a "father to soldiers." He personally awarded the invaders who distinguished themselves in the murders of Ukrainians and initiated the "Time of Heroes" program, which aims to teach public administration to participants and veterans of the so-called "SMO". The Russian president also promised that they would have a priority right to enroll in universities. Putin is trying to imitate the change and renewal of elites in the Russian government, emphasizing that veterans and participants in the war with Ukraine should become the new Russian elite. The propaganda criticizes the old "liberal elite" and supports Putin's message of more active participation of former and current military personnel in governing the country:

"Today, other people are becoming the elite  — those who have proved their ability to sacrifice by their deeds, by hard military work and have shown that the words 'homeland' and 'interests of the people' are not an empty sound for them. (...) This new elite is being born before our eyes, not in bureaucratic offices, bank offices, and not on television screens, but in the crucible of military trials, in the trenches, on the front line. It was brought to life by the very course of Russian history, and now it is being battle-tested," the same article says.

An example is the political rise of Artem Zhoga, a terrorist commander in the occupied territories of the Donetsk region. He is a co-chairman (according to other sources, deputy chairman) of Vladimir Putin's campaign headquarters. Zhoga also asked the president to run for a new term "on behalf of the people."

"Gatherer of Russian lands." Even before the illegal annexation of Ukraine's Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin positioned himself as a "gatherer of Russian lands." He and his regime consider all the territories of the former Soviet Union to be "native Russian lands." After the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Putin compared himself to another persecutor of Ukrainians, Peter the Great, and justified the war of aggression with historical arguments, "The fact that we have to defend ourselves, to fight for what is natural. Today, we were at an exhibition dedicated to Peter the Great. Almost nothing has changed. It's strange! Peter fought the Northern War for 21 years. You would think that he was fighting Sweden, taking something away. He did not tear anything away, he returned and strengthened it. Well, all things considered, it also fell to our lot to return and strengthen."

Putin's "court experts" and propagandists were not far behind. For example, in 2023, Russian historian Vladimir Shapovalov noted Putin's role as a "gatherer of lands." "During the period when Vladimir Putin was in power as president, prime minister, and then again as president, the country was completely changed, Russia regained its greatness and pride, the country became a significant actor in international relations, a great power again. The period of the country's decay is over, and the period of gathering of lands has begun. The process of the loss of certain territories from our country, which we observed in the nineties, has been replaced by the return and reunification of the lands of the great historical Russia. Crimea and Sevastopol have returned to Russia, Donbas and Novorossiya have returned to Russia  — and these are the clear results of the process."

"A strong businessman." This image of Putin has accompanied him throughout his political career. It is apparent in the campaign videos on his election website where Putin is shown as a "builder of a new Russia." Also, most of the message to the Federal Assembly in 2024 was devoted to socioeconomic and infrastructure issues.

The cycles of planning socioeconomic development throughout Russia are also tied to Putin's presidential terms. The country has introduced a system of "six-year plans" similar to the Soviet "five-year plans." In his addresses, the dictator often referred to both the alleged fulfillment of the plan approved in 2018 and the fulfillment of the current plan in 2030. This technique reinforces the feeling that Vladimir Putin has no alternative but to stay in power.

"Defender of traditional values." The role of "defender of traditional values" is a continuation of the image of a "real man" that has been cultivated for Putin for decades. The Russian dictator has repeatedly made sexist remarks, and the LGBTQIA+ community has been subjected to pressure and persecution throughout his rule. And the further along, the stronger it gets. This year, as in previous elections, his campaign contains homophobic videos.

Instead, he "defends traditional families." In Putin's address to the Federal Assembly this year, the issue of supporting large families and increasing the birth rate was given almost the greatest amount of time. Moreover, the so-called "Russian traditional spiritual and moral values" have been enshrined in Russia as official state policy since 2022. Putin himself and Russian propaganda have been contrasting them with Western liberal values. Vladimir Putin had previously avoided any clear ideological positioning in order to attract as much support as possible from voters with different political views. It was only in 2013 that he labeled his position as "conservative," but the Russian president began to position himself as a conservative around 2021 clearly and has been doing so ever since.

"Our old man is old, but yours is older and has dementia." When Putin first became president, the dictator was 47 years old. Now he is 71. The Russian president's health condition is kept secret. Since at least 2021, the Russian-language Internet critical of the Kremlin has been using consistent expressions and memes, "Putin is an old man" and "Putin is a bunkered old man."

Instead, the Russian propaganda machine criticizes and ridicules US President Joe Biden for his venerable age (81) and claims that he allegedly suffers from dementia. Thus, in a post on his Telegram channel, the Zaporizhzhia-based collaborationist Volodymyr Rohov sarcastically mentioned Biden, his physical and mental abilities, "And what about the self-propelled old man Biden? He responded by holding a meeting with Mitterrand and Kohl" (the deceased French president and German chancellor; a hint that Biden had recently confused Kohl with Angela Merkel in a conversation — DM).

Geriatrician and neurologist Valery Novoselov said that Biden allegedly suffers from a mixed type of dementia and will not live to see 2027. Also, after Putin's interview with American propagandist Tucker Carlson, the propaganda machine released a collection of comparisons between Putin and Biden on American social media, which did not favor the latter. No evidence of the authenticity of these opinions was provided. Some of them included the following, "I don't speak Russian, but I understand Putin better than Biden"; "Putin understands all the details while Biden can't figure out where the stairs are"; "You'll notice right away that Putin is very smart and savvy, able to withstand a two-hour interview on extremely complex topics. Compare that to the old vegetable in the White House who canceled the interview before the Super Bowl because he couldn't talk on camera for more than a minute without falling apart."; "While Putin talked about Russian history and shared clever remarks, President Biden babbled incoherently that the president of Egypt was actually the head of Mexico."

"The candidate without alternative". Russian state propaganda refrains from personal criticism of the other so-called "presidential candidates" and generally pays little attention to them. Emphasis is placed on the opinions of court "experts" on the candidates' programs. By the way, Putin does not officially have one, as he is running as an independent, which is allowed by Russian election law. In fact, the previously mentioned message plays the role of his program. Alexander Asafov, a pro-government political analyst, said, "Vladimir Putin's program consists of appeals from citizens, requests that people voiced at meetings with the president. These are 'grassroots' requests that have been analyzed and included in the program already complete with solutions. The program is centered around people. The program is based on the ‘was  — is  — will be’ logic that people understand."

Another technological trick of Putin's campaign staff is to directly link the social well-being of ordinary people to their participation in the "elections" and voting for the president. One of his campaign videos is based on this idea, where the protagonist is threatened that his wife will not receive "maternity capital" if he does not vote.

Peculiarities of Putin's Campaigning in the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine

Overall, the campaign was without surprises. For the largely agricultural parts of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, it mainly focused on tax breaks and other incentives for agricultural producers, while for the heavily damaged Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which were severely affected by Russian aggression, it was mainly about restoring industry and rebuilding housing that the Russians themselves had destroyed.

In the occupied regions of Ukraine, Russian propaganda uses the "contrasting" tactic. It compares the authorities' actions and the socioeconomic situation in Ukraine and Russia. Of course, according to the propagandists, Russia has the upper hand in this comparison. Telegram channels in the temporarily occupied part of the Kherson region are spreading videos in which various marginalized people and collaborationists describe how bad life was under the Ukrainian government and how wonderful it became when Russia came:

"I used to live well, and what do I have in independent Ukraine? They have ruined Ukraine! This is about eradicating this brown plague that has been spreading for 30 years. This should not be happening. We have already suffered through one fascism," a resident of Verkhniy Rohachyk emotionally addressed the Kyiv authorities. "And this opinion is shared by all residents of the Kherson region who are voting today for a better future in which there is no place for terror and fascism.

Another trick of Putin's political technologists is to create the impression that people were extraordinarily interested in the president's address to the Federal Assembly and spent more than two hours of their time watching it, "Residents of the Ivanovo district are watching the Presidential Address. Citizens of the Kherson region are so interested in Vladimir Putin's address that they are watching the live broadcast in their cars, at home, and on the street."

International Reaction to the "Elections"

Internationally, the innovations of Russia's 2024 presidential "elections" are being discussed, including early voting, the option to vote online, systemic issues with the "opposition" in Russia, and the prevention of "opposition" candidates from participating in the "elections." In February and March of this year, there was significant discussion about the dire situation of the opposition in Russia, especially following the death of Alexei Navalny in prison and the discussion around the candidacy of Boris Nadyozhin, a candidate denied entry to the elections by the Russian Central Election Commission.

In the article Why We Must Pay Attention to Russia’s Elections by Eurasian Program, Ben Noble and Nikolay Petrov of the Chattam House write that the elections are meant to confirm public support for Putin and the war in Ukraine. The Kremlin aims to demonstrate Putin's support and military actions among Russians while simultaneously trying to use the debates about funding Ukraine in NATO countries to Russia's advantage.

In a Foreign Affairs article, Russia Is Burning Up Its Future, Carnegie Center researcher Andrei Kolesnikov writes that Putin started the war in Ukraine to counter the Western modernization project, as Russia itself resists and defends a dying model of both economy and political structure. According to the analyst, this undermines Russia's development chances in the near future.

In countries that do not join sanctions or openly support Russia, Putin's high chances of becoming president for the fifth time are presented as a virtue. Chinese leader Xi Jinping expressed confidence in the public support for Putin in the elections as early as March 2023. And in 2024, Chinese media spread quotes from local and Russian officials and experts about Vladimir Putin's likely victory. For instance, on February 28, Deputy Foreign Minister of China Sun Weidong was quoted saying that China and Russia should play a "better role as anchors of stability in the changing conditions of the century."

Indian media noted the ban on covering the elections for media not registered in Russia. At the same time, they are spreading messages about Putin's contacts with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where the two politicians wish each other success in the elections. Notably, the prime minister of the "world's largest democracy," Narendra Modi, is also beginning to be called an "autocrat" in Western media due to his desire to add several more years to his decade-long tenure and due to the nationalist policy of the Bharatiya Janata Party which Modi is a part of.

The EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell, on behalf of the European Union, condemned Russia's plans to hold presidential "elections" in the occupied territories of Ukraine. Similarly, the foreign ministers of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia stated that the Russian "elections" on the occupied territories grossly violate Ukraine's sovereignty and international law, "We do not recognize and will not recognize the conduct of such elections and their results on the temporarily occupied and illegally annexed by Russia territories of Ukraine." Additionally, the head of the operational department of the Estonian Defense Forces, Colonel Tarmo Kundla, noted that the "elections" will affect the war in Ukraine, "The presidential elections in Russia will influence the efforts of both sides. Russia, as before, tries to achieve a tactical victory, even if minor, but noticeable."


The 2024 presidential "elections" demonstrate that there is no question of any transfer of power. Russia has completely purged any real competitors, the election campaign has been reduced to a search for the disloyal, and the election discourse has been reduced to silencing real issues rather than illuminating and finding solutions. The potential protest from relatives of those mobilized and killed in the war against Ukraine, which some analysts had assessed as a possible destabilizing factor before the "elections," did not materialize. Given these factors, and considering that the voting is happening amid war, they should be seen as an additional factor strengthening Putin's autocracy.

Political theory scholars characterize Russia as an "electoral autocracy" — a regime that attempts to mimic democracy through the institution of elections, to test local elites for strength and identify disloyal elements, and portrays voting not as a right but as a duty. Hence, the propaganda heavily promoted the "elections" theme and framed abstaining from voting as disloyalty to the current system. Moscow's plan is for high voter turnout to indicate that Putin and his political course enjoy widespread support among the populace. Such a demonstration is crucial in the occupied regions of Ukraine — suggesting that these regions have rightfully become part of Russia, where locals have an extremely active civic stance and are highly supportive of Putin.

Holding elections in frontline areas, where residents struggle to meet their basic humanitarian and security needs, has drawn criticism. All international framework documents emphasize that elections must be conducted in a free environment and ensure the safety of voters and commission members. According to international humanitarian law, governments cannot endanger the lives and health of their citizens when calling them to vote. Elections under such conditions can only exacerbate political conflicts, and conducting an election campaign in occupied territories is unprecedented globally.

As Israel's experience shows, elections are possible under martial law but must consider many security aspects, particularly that voting in frontline areas is unfeasible. Russia, however, decided to disregard safety and common sense (and, in reality, basic voting rules) for a boastful media image — claiming voting in military headquarters, trenches, frontline villages, and even in settlements Russia occupied mere weeks prior to the elections. Enemy propaganda spreads misinformation claiming that Ukraine supposedly attempted to disrupt early voting — attacking polling stations in frontline areas. But, supposedly, this stopped no one and did not hinder the voting process.

Russians use the conduct of elections in the temporarily occupied territories as one of the processes of absorption through institutional expansion — this can be exemplified by the occupation of Avdiivka, which the invaders seized just weeks before the elections but immediately included in electoral districts.

Finally, propagandists use the topic of elections in Russia to contrast it with the impossibility of holding presidential elections in Ukraine in spring 2024. This rhetoric is part of Russia's information operation Maidan-3, aimed at questioning the legitimacy of the President of Ukraine after May 20, 2024, when his term ends. Supposedly, Zelenskyy's legitimacy will be in question or completely vanish after this date, and, therefore, the question will be one of usurpation of power. As the Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine warns, the campaign is expected to peak in March-May 2024.

The article was developed by Lesia Bidochko, Kostiantyn Zadyraka, Oleksiy Pivtorak, Andriy Pylypenko, Pavlo Rud, and Oleksandr Siedin. Visualizations by Nataliya Lobach.

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