With elections knocking at the door, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — whose victory on Sunday is in no doubt — may be wondering just how many people will turn out to rubber-stamp his autocracy.
In a non-contest like the Russian election, the only metric that maters to the Kremlin is turnout.
Voter apathy would signal a frustration with Putin’s carefully spun narrative. The outside world would interpret a low turnout as the electorate seeing through the flimsy democratic shroud concealing Putin’s uncontested domestic power.
In this context, Putin could be looking for a spike in interest over his handling of the poisoning in Salisbury and the accusations that Russia is responsible. He has played himself and his nation as victims in an anti-Russian world.
His officials are lining up behind him, claiming total innocence, saying they would like to help but are denied the opportunity by an enfeebled British government.
But if Putin’s plan is to pare Britain away from its allies and drive a wedge between the democracies that oppose him, he is failing.
For now, his principal enemies are solidifying, holding him responsible for the nerve-agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
A joint statement by the leaders of the United States, Britain, France and Germany said: “We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia´s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility.”
In the space of two days, Britain announced it would expel 23 of Putin’s diplomats from the United Kingdom, official relations between the nations have been downgraded and a raft of US sanctions have been slapped on people and companies close to the Russian President.
Since Theresa May first blamed Russia on Monday for the attack, the UK and its allies have quickly coalesced their thinking.
The White House on Wednesday said: “Russia disregards the international rules-based order.”
On Thursday, Britain’s Defense Secretary said: “The Kremlin is ripping up the international rule book.”
Both nations have reminded their voters of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, violations of international law in Ukraine and human rights abuses in Syria.
If the speed of all of this is catching Putin by surprise, he may want to reflect on the fact that in democracies, politicians bend to will of their citizens — not the other way around.
In the case of Britain, the government has long understood the dangerous implications of Putin’s nefarious overseas acts, but it was never a decisive election issue at home.
With the Salisbury attack, that changed. Everyone in the UK can see what “disregard for the world order” looks like on their own streets, and they are not happy.
The anger awakened in England’s sleepy hamlets by the poisoning of 21 people gives even a weak Prime Minister like Theresa May a whole lot of latitude to pick a fight with Putin.
If there is economic pain to come from this diplomatic downturn, May not only has the Brits at her back but the French, the Germans and the Americans in her corner. And why? Because democratic nations don’t tolerate chemical weapons on their streets.
It’s in these moments when voters catch up with their governments and understand what a Russia that annexes Crimea really means for them.
This is precisely the point UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pushes in his Washington Post op-ed.
“The common thread that joins the poisonings in Salisbury with the annexation of Crimea, the cyberattacks in Ukraine, the hacking of Germany’s Parliament and Russian interference in foreign elections is the Kremlin’s reckless defiance of essential international rules,” he writes.
But Putin’s autocratic Russia is not the only “international rules” conundrum facing the democratized world right now.
President Xi Jinping in China has just been given almost unbridled, unlimited power, the likes of which sends shivers down the spines of long-term China watchers.
Australian analyst John Garnaut has detailed the Chinese Communist Party’s covert manipulating of Australian politics, and he worries it may be a harbinger of what the rest of us may face from a Chinese superpower.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambition is another conundrum for democracies unclear about how to stop someone who doesn’t care about the rules-based order of the world.
Syrian President Bashir al Assad’s is another one. His proclivity for bloodshed appears unbridled. His nation staggered this week through the seventh anniversary of a horrific civil war.
On Syria, Putin’s hands are as blood-soaked as Assad’s. Russia agreed to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 that was supposed to have Assad transition from power almost two years ago. The Russian leader has not upheld his part of the deal.
The question of how democracies persuade autocracies to play by their rules is not new, but the attack in Salisbury is bringing it to a head again.
Which brings us back to Theresa May. Whether the atrocity is in your own backyard or someone else’s, how do you deal with the autocrat responsible?
The tricky part of gathering your big guns behind the ramparts of “international rules-based order” is that no single set of rules was ever agreed upon.
At the end of the Second World War, the Nazis and their allies were defeated. The victors — Russia, China and the western alliance led by the UK and US — parted ways, each to write their own history of events and determine the rules they’d live by.
China and Russia live by an entirely different code then Western democracies. The place where all three codes intersect is the UN Security Council. May faced questions in Parliament this week about reforming the UN itself: “Russia cannot be allowed to simply sit pretty, thumbing its nose at the rest of the world community and feeling that it is immune from the rule of law internationally. Will she initiate that sort of reform discussion with the Secretary-General?”
May’s response reveals Putin’s advantage: “The Catch-22 is that any decision that might be taken in the Security Council to reform it could be subject to a veto by Russia, who are sitting there.”
So, if the UN that was forged in the embers of the Second World War to stop such a waste of life ever happening again is not the answer to curbing autocrats like Putin, the answer presumably lies elsewhere.
None of this, of course, matters for Putin ahead of his assured re-election this weekend, as the United Kingdom and the United States wait for him to respond to expulsions and sanctions. He is back in the driving seat, controlling the narrative, with no one apparently able to stop him.
It is precisely where he wants to be.