From Asia TimesFor all the western narrative about Russia's "autocracy," Putin is arguably as popular at home as Xi Jinping is in China
As a counterpoint to the 24/7 Russophobia oozing out of the US and the UK, Vladimir Putin is all but guaranteed to be re-elected for a fourth presidential term this Sunday.
Beyond the foregone conclusion, what's really hanging in the balance is the 70:70 equation: whether Putin can be assured of a 70% voter turnout and win roughly 70% of the vote. That would represent a firm endorsement of his domestic and foreign policy plans up to 2024.
Although Beijing does not provide official numbers, Putin is arguably as popular in Russia as Xi Jinping is in China -- even with Xi being derided by the usual Western suspects as "the new Mao." Under the framework of the Russia-China strategic partnership, geopolitically this is, and will continue to be, the Putin-Xi era.
Putin's domestic popularity is confirmed by a Levada poll according to which 70% of those surveyed say the annexation of Crimea has been good for Russia. Overall support for Crimea re-joining Russia after a referendum stands at a whopping 86%.
On the Russian presidential race, the West has only paid attention to Alexei Navalny -- whose candidature was rejected. Navalny called for a boycott of the polls.
The Communist Party candidate, Pavel Grudinin, may end up getting around 7% of the votes. The perennial Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a hardcore nationalist from the LDPR party, may get just over 5%. And Ksenia Sobchak, the Liberal candidate -- and a self-described standard-bearer of the protest vote against everybody -- will muster barely 1.5%.
Sobchak, a political novice, did strike a few moves -- for instance wearing a sweatshirt with a big anti-war script to emphasize her take on Putin as the representative of the War Party.
Echoing Bernie Sanders, Sobchak insisted defense spending should be redirected to building domestic infrastructure. But then she blasted the "illegitimate" Russian "occupation" of Crimea. That did not go down well: 80% of the electorate said they would never vote for her. Sobchak at least managed to start positioning herself for the 2024 elections.
Back to the Great Game
Russia's presidential campaign has been lively -- belying the Western infowar barrage blasting the country's "autocracy." Observers such as Gilbert Doctorow have managed to offer balanced overviews.
Western-style debates were broadcast on the two leading news channels -- Rossiya-1 and Pervy Kanal -- and also on the less watched, state-run ORT and TVT. No holds were barred when denouncing the gap between Moscow and other regions enjoying budget surpluses, the best salaries and good public services, compared to the so-called "deficit regions."
Same for the "gasification" of the Russian countryside -- as in Gazprom earning US$740 billion in the past decade, mostly from exports, but investing only $12 billion in bringing gas to Russian households.
Putin benefitted from the release onto Russian social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, at the last stage of the campaign, of two slick new documentaries, one crammed with good political soundbites and the other centering on his family history. Both were hits, with millions of views.
And by the way, his full, unedited interview with NBC's Megyn Kelly was a completely different animal compared with the heavily-cut 20-minute version shown to American viewers. No question the interview burnished his presidential credentials with Russian voters.
But then came the Salisbury poisoning-of-a-double-agent fiasco -- a John le Carre' plot gone bonkers. Turning the collapsing Russiagate script upside down, many in Russia are interpreting it as direct UK interference in the Russian presidential campaign.
The UK government's version of Russian culpability has been challenged by independent sources.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had previously been clear about the "completed destruction of Russia's entire chemical weapons program, including of course its nerve agent production capabilities."
The OPCW -- which includes both the UK and the US -- even doubted "Novichoks" as chemical weapons actually exist.
Former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, trying to dissect the riddle, emphasized how he "witnessed personally in Uzbekistan the willingness of the UK and US security services to accept and validate intelligence they knew to be false in order to pursue their policy objectives."
Sound questions have been asked about what's really been happening to MI6 assets on British soil as London plays an ultra-high stakes geopolitical game with a foreign traitor despised by Russia and passed on by the US as part of a spy swap.
The new chessboard
For all the hysteria, the Salisbury saga has done little to offset Putin's game-changing speech on March 1 outlining, in detail, not only his domestic agenda but also how Russia is ready to rearrange the geopolitical chessboard.
He stressed how "Russia must firmly assert itself among the five largest global economies, and its per-capita GDP must increase by 50% by the middle of the next decade."
He extolled Eurasian integration -- as in the development of "large Eurasian transport corridors," especially the "Europe-Asia-Pacific corridor" being built by China, Russia and Kazakhstan, as well as "the capability of the Baikal-Amur Mainline and the Trans-Siberian Railway."
He also stressed how the Northern Sea Route, from Murmansk to the Bering Strait, "will be the key to developing the Russian Arctic and Far East," as well as being one-third faster in moving cargo from Asia to Europe.
Russia will invest tens of billions of dollars by 2030 to develop ships, shipbuilders and ports along the Northern Sea Route -- with cargo expected to grow tenfold by 2025.
And that happens to be the strategic Arctic priority for China as well -- as the Polar Silk Road has now been totally integrated into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Then there's the Yamal Peninsula mega-project, centered on low-cost gas enabling Russia to at least double its share of the global market in liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2020.
For all the pull of Gazprom, Putin managed a counterbalance: "The dependence of the economy on hydrocarbon prices has been substantially reduced. We have increased our gold and currency reserves. Inflation has dropped to a record low level -- just over 2%."
MAD is back
Then came the stormer.
Putin detailed how MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) is now back with a vengeance -- implying that the whole US missile defense apparatus may be, by now, useless.
And this had absolutely nothing to do with "Russian aggression," as the usual suspects spin it. This was Moscow's response to over two decades of NATO encroaching on Russia's borders.
In Putin's own words: "I will speak about the newest systems of Russian strategic weapons that we are creating in response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States of America from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of their missile defense systems both in the US and beyond their national borders." Putin first announced his intention to respond no fewer than 11 years ago.
Naval analyst Andrei Martyanov has thoroughly dissected what all of this implies. The major take away, however, was another chilling announcement by Putin: "Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences. There should be no doubt about this whatsoever."
So MAD 2.0 is the new normal. Prof. Stephen Cohen's assessment is fundamentally correct.
By now the "Putin As The Ultimate Bogeyman" narrative has spiraled totally out of control. Even Sweden is nurturing a scheme to "mobilize" its society against Russia. The cartoonish narrative is mutating towards Russia as a rogue state threatening the whole world with chemical weapons.
Where Xi Jinping will concentrate on a complex internal tweaking of the Chinese model while continuing his multi-layered connectivity drive via BRI, Putin must concentrate on getting the Russian economy back on track while solidifying Russia's position in the concert of powers.
Plenty among the Atlanticist elites disregard Xi and Putin as "dictators." As far as Eurasian integration -- the real deal in the 21st century New Great Game -- is concerned, that is absolutely irrelevant.