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Atlantic Council's Brian Whitmore on Russia's Putin running for fifth term in office

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Vladimir Putin recently announced he will seek another six-year term as president of Russia, which, to people who keep an eye on that country, was not a surprise. After all, he's been running the country for nearly a quarter of a century and pushed through legal changes that make it possible for him to run it even longer. Still, one independent poll puts Putin's public support at 80%. But critics, including imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, warned the results will be rigged. For more on this, I'm joined by Brian Whitmore. He's a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center. Good morning.

BRIAN WHITMORE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, as I just mentioned, Putin signed a law that could keep him in office until 2036. So how should we think about this, running for reelection? I assume it's just a formality.

WHITMORE: Well, thanks for having me, Michel. Yeah. This came as a surprise to exactly nobody. Everybody expected Putin to announce he was going to run for reelection. And I put reelection in big scare quotes because elections in Russia are not elections. They're just legitimization rituals where the - which gives the elite an opportunity to test its ability to mobilize the public. So I - nobody's surprised by this at all.

MARTIN: Interesting. Well, so how do we think about this poll from an independent group - what we're told is an independent group - the Levada Center? It shows Putin's public support at about 80%. So how do we think about that?

WHITMORE: Well, the Levada Center is an excellent organization. It does very good polls. The thing about polling in Russia is when you're measuring Vladimir Putin's job approval, you're measuring it not against any opposition figure or any alternative. You're measuring it against chaos. You're measuring it against the unknown. And in those circumstances, it's not surprising that his numbers are around 80% right now. That's consistently what it's been for most of his presidency, with a couple of blips. So you expect his approval to be very, very high. The thing about Russia is as soon as an alternative emerges, the road from 80% to 0% is very, very, very fast. So I'd be very careful...

MARTIN: Is there any opposition?

WHITMORE: There isn't any opposition that is not imprisoned or that is not exiled. So there isn't any viable opposition. I don't expect any viable opposition to emerge in this election. But when looking at those polls, looking at an approval rating of 80% for Putin is not the same as looking at that kind of a number for a U.S. president, just isn't comparable.

MARTIN: Well, thanks for explaining that. But what about the war in Ukraine? Is there any sense in which the war has affected him politically? - being mindful, of course, that he controls the media, that independent media has essentially been sort of sent into exile or disappeared. But having said that, is there any sense in which the war has affected him politically?

WHITMORE: Well, this election is worth watching because it is the first election that's being conducted in the conditions of this war. And - but early on in the war, it did look like Putin was in trouble in - at risk of losing a lot of his support. But as the war has progressed and if you watch Russian television, Russia's winning. If you watch Russian television, Russia is not just fighting the Ukrainians; they're fighting the Americans, and they're winning. And the economy has proven to be a lot more resilient than a lot of people have expected it to in the face of sanctions. So the war at this point in time is not really affecting this. This is going to be very interesting to watch because we're really in uncharted territory. An election like this, a mobilization ritual like this has not taking place in times of war in Russia yet.

MARTIN: OK. Very briefly, Putin will be in his mid-80s in 2036. Now, you've told us that there's no opposition. But is there an obvious successor?

WHITMORE: There is not an obvious successor right now. I mean, the way to look at the Putin regime is not like a political regime, but more like a crime syndicate. And until somebody decides to come after the boss, well, then he's going to remain in power. So, no, I don't see an obvious successor at this point. Putin is not grooming an obvious successor.

MARTIN: That is Brian Whitmore. He's a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. And he hosts the podcast "The Power Vertical," which is on Russian affairs. Mr. Whitmore, thanks so much.

WHITMORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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