Rebels Hit Russia on Election Day

A message of violent resistance to Vladimir Putin

5 mins read
File photo of Ukrainian Armed forces, The Freedom of Russian Legion and the Belarussian volunteer division are together in east Ukraine as part of military duties against Putin's regime

The Kremlin is rolling out its carefully managed simulacrum of a democratic process, with sham elections in which there is only one conceivable outcome: Vladimir Putin as the unopposed victor, sealed into power for at least another six years, and likely for life. If he completes what will be his sixth term in office, he’ll have been in power longer than Joseph Stalin and Catherine the Great. At the age of 71, Putin is a tsar and a warlord, at the height of his power, and on a bloody mission to resurrect the Russian empire from the dustbin of history. 

But some Russians are refusing to play along, and are instead expressing their political displeasure in a variety of creative and ingenious ways. Some brave Russians are going to the polls and making liberal use of black ink to spoil and destroy ballots, or are deploying a tried-and-true Russian tactic, tossing flaming molotov cocktails to firebomb polling centers. 

Others are heeding the advice of late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who recently died under mysterious circumstances in an Arctic penal colony, to show up at noon on Sunday, with massive lines suddenly forming at polling sites today. At least 75 people were detained in connection with the midday protest, but people are clearly willing to risk jail or worse to disrupt what is quite plainly a totalitarian coronation, rather than anything even resembling a genuine election. 

Indeed, there have been dozens of incidents at polling sites across Russia, which ends three days of voting on Sunday. Likewise, people living in occupied Ukraine are also being forced into this parody of democracy, and are literally being made to vote at gunpoint, in what is at least a more honest process. Armed to the teeth, and wearing balaclavas over their faces, Russian soldiers and security personnel are apparently going door to door to compel people to cast a ballot for the dictator who invaded their country.

Democracy this is not. This mock “election” is fooling no one.

However, other Russians are going much further than mere vandalism, executing what the New York Times called “the most sweeping ground attacks into Russia since its military invaded Ukraine two years ago,” or at least since mercenary tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin nearly marched on Moscow, before suddenly halting and turning back. 

For his part, the Wagner chief was liquidated two months to the day after his brazen insurrection fell apart, when his private jet suddenly fell flaming from the sky, perhaps providing something of a lesson to these latest insurgents: once you start, don’t turn back. You can expect no mercy from Vladimir Putin if you fail; politics in Russia is an all-or-nothing affair, with no room for hesitation.

Popular Tyrant

Taken together, it’s a reminder that for all the Kremlin’s efforts at conveying a sense of solidarity and wartime unity to the world, Russia’s political landscape remains deeply fractured, and perhaps far more fragile than it might seem at first glance. 

Still, there’s absolutely no denying Vladimir Putin’s enduring strength, or his apparent political popularity, particularly among older nationalistic Russians fed a heavy diet of Kremlin propaganda, and who are eager to see him recreate the Russian empire over the bones of dead Ukrainians. With the economy damaged by sanctions but still functioning, and major cities well supplied with Western consumer goods, many Russians are keen to ignore a war that seems distant. There have been no new troop mobilizations since 2022, and most Russian soldiers are now being recruited from ethnic minorities in impoverished rural areas, attracted by the high wages offered by the army.

The Levada Center, a rare independent pollster the Kremlin has labeled a “foreign agent,” says Putin’s approval rating is at 86 percent, a staggeringly high number that cannot be dismissed. When asked whether Russia was going in the right direction, 75 percent of the respondents replied yes. That’s the highest number since pollsters began asking that question in Russia, and a signal that Putin’s support remains solid, particularly as the war in Ukraine turns in Moscow’s favor.

While this kind of political polling must be taken with a few large grains of salt, in a country where people lack the freedom to safely dissent, it’s quite clear that many Russians do continue to support Vladimir Putin, and applaud his new Cold War with the West, and his brutal invasion of Ukraine. Like other totalitarian regimes throughout history, Putin’s Russia clearly has a solid base of support, even as vicious repression shores up the rest of society with surveillance, denunciations, violence, and mass arrests.

Free Russia

In a country where freedom of speech is nonexistent, and where even the mildest political protest is illegal, political violence has replaced political discourse for those seeking to resist tyranny in Russia. Three insurgent formations, Free Russia Legion, Siberian Battalion, and Russian Volunteer Corps, assaulted Russian border regions near Belgorod, Kursk, and elsewhere along a 100-mile front with tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopter gunships, and infantry.

These rebel forces are homegrown units, though they’re allied with and largely supplied by Kyiv. The Russian Volunteer Corps, under the leadership of Denis Kapustin, callsign White Rex, has been associated with troubling far-right Neo-Nazi ideology, though that hasn’t prevented them from being accepted into the loose anti-Kremlin coalition opposing Putin.

In any case, these rebels made some of the deepest incursions into Russia since the beginning of the war this weekend, even as Ukrainian forces have resisted publicly entering Russia proper, per the advice of Washington, which remains wary about provoking nuclear escalation from the Kremlin. As these rebel factions assaulted Russia, Ukraine was attacking Russian oil installations and other critical infrastructure with drones and long-range missiles, in a coordinated effort designed to deny Putin the image of stability and security he would like to project on election day.

Still, preliminary results showed Putin receiving 88% of the vote, and handily winning what was always an utterly predetermined result, even as the Belgorod town of Gorkovsky was captured by Russian rebels today. With a catastrophic war increasingly spilling into Russia, and hostile tanks rolling across Russian borders for the first time since World War II, it’s unclear where exactly we go from here. For Putin, the answer was clear. He said Sunday night on television, “We need to carry out the tasks in the context of the special military operation.”

Certainly, the war in Ukraine seems nowhere near a conclusion, and the notion of peace talks seems extremely unlikely at present. Russian troops are slowly advancing within Ukraine itself, even as American support is being strangled by Kremlin-friendly MAGA Republicans in Congress, and as Putin’s ally Donald Trump begins his third bid for the presidency.

Meanwhile, Putin’s bellicose rhetoric and nuclear brinksmanship has, if anything, gotten sharper and more threatening as the war has progressed. 

In response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent refusal to rule out sending Western troops to Ukraine, Putin said in a recent interview, “We are ready to use weapons, including any weapons — including the [nuclear] weapons you mentioned — if it is a question of the existence of the Russian state or damage to our sovereignty and independence.” The White House Press Secretary castigated his rhetoric around nuclear weapons as “reckless and irresponsible throughout this conflict,” though from a purely strategic standpoint, his terrifying threats seem to have succeeded in preventing more robust Western military support for Ukraine.

Recent reporting revealed there was an extraordinarily high level of concern in the White House that Putin was preparing to detonate a nuclear weapon, back in October of 2022, when Russia’s frontlines seemed to be near collapse. Since the war began, Russia has shifted tactical nukes into Belarus, and U.S. intelligence agencies recently detected plans for a new nuclear anti-satellite weapon in space, like something out of the 007 movie “Goldeneye.” Clearly, the war in Ukraine represents the most dangerous standoff between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War, a reprise of some of history’s darkest moments, when the entire world sat on the brink of nuclear annihilation. 

Putin’s obsession with Ukraine, and his total indifference to anything living, has brought the world back to that precipice. The violence Russia’s new tsar has set in motion will continue to play out on the charred battlefields and in the ruined cities of Ukraine and now Russia itself, at an enormous cost for both Russians and Ukrainians, and perhaps the entire world. Ultimately, Putin’s legacy is death, though just how much death remains uncertain.

Views are personal

Alexander Ziperovich

Alexander Ziperovich is a Political analyst and Opinion columnist. He writes about politics, justice, foreign affairs, and culture, dissecting the larger historical and social context behind important events.

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