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Why Should You Pay Attention To Putin's Q&A? Here Are Six Reasons.

There's just three months to go before Russians go to the polls to vote for president. The question is not whether Vladimir Putin will win. It's how he will win. (file photo)
There's just three months to go before Russians go to the polls to vote for president. The question is not whether Vladimir Putin will win. It's how he will win. (file photo)

Vladimir Putin is running for a fifth term as Russia's president. This we now know for sure, though it's been widely assumed for months or even years.

We also know, with near certainty, that he'll win the March election.

What we don't know is exactly how Putin will run and what he will emphasize in his campaign. Above all, we don't know how he will address the war he has unleashed against Ukraine, with more than 300,000 Russian men estimated to have been killed or wounded since the full-scale invasion was launched nearly two years ago.

Inadvertent or meticulously planned, Putin's confirmation last week that he will run for the presidency again means that his remarks scheduled for December 14 won't be a vehicle for that announcement.

The event will be the sort of spectacle that Putin and the Kremlin's image advisers have refined over many years: an almost annual press conference and a call-in show in which ostensibly everyday citizens are able to phone, e-mail, or text their questions or air their grievances to Putin. Neither was held in 2022; this year, they've been mashed together into a single event.

For Kremlin "political technologists" and domestic policy advisers, the campaign is fraught despite the absence of any real challenger and opinion polls showing he is still popular. The government faces crosswinds: an uncertain economy with soaring inflation; mounting repression against opposition and civil society groups; growing impatience about casualties and exhausted troops in Ukraine; and increasing isolation from much of the global community.

Long story short: As Putin heads for a new term amid a devastating war, what's worth watching is the propaganda, the symbolism, and the rhetoric he uses to win.

The December 14 event will be one of the biggest glimpses of this. Here's what to look out for.

Staying (In) Power

Nobody was surprised by Putin's intention to run, which he confirmed on the sidelines of an awards ceremony last week.

Since 2020, when he pushed through a constitutional amendment that allowed him to potentially remain in office until 2036, Putin has been laying the groundwork to run next March and again in 2030 if he wishes.

What was surprising about the December 8 announcement was that it was so low-key, done in an offhand manner --- or made to appear that way. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted it was spontaneous, though many observers doubted that.

Putin claimed that he has had "different thoughts at different times" about whether to secure a new term but "I understand that there is no other way."

That's an argument he's used in the past to justify remaining in power.

At the call-in show, expect Putin to be asked about the decision and to elaborate -- truthfully or not -- on why he asserts that there was no alternative.

War, What Is It Good For? (In The Kremlin's Eyes)

Europe's largest war since World War II will get mentioned, but probably not in the way you might expect.

The Kremlin has portrayed the invasion of Ukraine as a noble fight against what it asserts are various threats, from neo-Nazis to NATO enlargement, and for goals such as the restoration of territory Putin claims is rightfully Russian and protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The Kremlin has also repeatedly shifted its justifications, many which are baseless or strain credulity.

To that end, you should expect Putin to double down on what he casts as the righteousness of the cause. The setting for last week's announcement reflects that: the awards ceremony that immediately preceded his comments was for "heroes of the war in the Donbas" -- the Ukrainian region where Moscow first fomented war in 2014 and that it now claims is part of Russia.

And the man who prodded Putin was a well-known pro-Russian soldier, who's been directly or indirectly involved in the war in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

You should not expect to hear anything specific about the toll, casualties that have exponentially exceeded what the Soviet Union suffered during its 10-year war in Afghanistan. U.S. and British officials say the Russian toll since February 2022 is at least 315,000.

Since October, when Russia launched a localized offensive primarily along the front line in the Donbas, more than 13,000 have been killed or wounded.

And you should not expect to hear about how commanders are struggling to keep troop numbers up. Putin's September 2022 order mobilizing an estimated 300,000 men dismayed the Russian public and led to the flight of millions of people, including working-age men.

With casualties running high and the ability to rotate out units and keep them fresh and well-rested constrained -- more on that later -- another mobilization may be inevitable, many experts say.

There's no way at all that will happen before the election.

It's The Economy, Stupid

Over the past decade or so, Russia's hydrocarbon-fueled economy has slowed. Some economists even say it's stagnated.

Sanctions imposed by the West, first after the seizure of Crimea and then more severely after the February 2022 invasion, have pounded the ruble and raised costs for imported goods.

The result is that Russia's middle class, accustomed to cheap credit for things like home mortgages or loans for cars or washing machines or vacations in Turkey or Egypt, has seen its relative prosperity slowly slip away.

Making matters worse, inflation is soaring. It hit 7.5 percent in November. The central bank will meet the day after Putin's performance, and experts forecast another rate increase.

For the moment, however, the economy is defying expectations in a major way, something Putin himself touted at an event earlier this month, highlighting forecasts pointing to more than 3 percent growth this year alone.

The growth is fueled by state spending on the military-industrial complex: Last month, Putin signed a three-year spending plan that hikes overall expenditures by around 25 percent, with a record amount allocated for defense spending: nearly 6 percent of overall gross domestic product.

You should expect to hear more about Russia's industrial might and how it is now producing a considerable amount of weaponry and related military equipment. You may hear that wages are up considerably as well: 13.2 percent between January and November. You may also hear proclamations that Russia's economy is being transformed in spite of the West, an assertion reinforced by the opening last month of a major exhibition in northern Moscow.

You probably will also hear something less rosy: expressions of concern about Russian household expenditures, and the problem of rising inflation.

Take eggs, for example. Rosstat, the federal statistics service, reports that on average, the cost of eggs has increased by 25 percent this year. In some Russian regions, egg prices have spiked even higher, and there are reports of hoarding. Prosecutors say they're investigating.

Bananas, too.

The reasons for the increase in egg prices vary, economists say, but a scarcity of agriculture workers is a major driver: migrant laborers leaving or locals being mobilized or choosing higher wages being paid military-industrial jobs.

No, soaring egg costs aren't going to torpedo Putin's presidential campaign. But they're a potential proxy for discontent.

Women And Children First?

A little more than 23 years ago, Putin faced his first major crisis as president: the accidental sinking of the nuclear-powered submarine Kursk. His handling of the August 2000 crisis came under withering fire, particularly from widows and other relatives of the sailors who perished.

The lesson? Don't underestimate the political punch of aggrieved widows or mothers. Or for that matter, wives of military personnel.

Fast-forward to 2023: Wives and relatives of soldiers deployed to Ukraine are vocally complaining about how their husbands and sons are exhausted and need to be rotated for rest and relaxation, or simply let out of the contracts they've signed. Putin has signaled that even voluntarily signed contracts would be stop-loss: requiring so-called "kontraktiki" soldiers to serve until the war ends.

To be sure, the women are not anti-war; many appear to support the Kremlin's stated war aims. But many are anti-mobilization, an Achilles' heel for the war effort.

The main vehicle for this dissent has so far been a Telegram channel called The Way Home. In recent days, organizers of the channel -- who remain largely unknown -- have called for people to flood the phone lines and text message inboxes of the organizers of the call-in show, with complaints and grievances. Watch this space.

One of the reasons why support for the war has persisted is the above-average wages that soldiers are being paid for deployment: nearly three times the average monthly salary. Plus the enormous cash payments that are being made to survivors of killed soldiers: more than the equivalent of $140,000, by one estimate, a sum that dwarfs the lifetime earnings for the average Russian man.

Still, Russian public opinion is beginning to show some weariness, with more Russians now wanting to start peace negotiations than ever before.

It's unlikely you'll hear a direct response to The Way Home organizers and their sympathizers. But you should expect to hear a hat tip or acknowledgment from Putin about the widows of the war dead.

More Culture Wars. No More Rainbows.

Putin has long positioned himself as a protector of "traditional values." That's been reflected in some of the sweeping social-policy measures adopted over his last two terms as president.

In 2013, he signed into law a measure banning the spread of gay "propaganda" -- a vaguely defined term that restricted public expression or discussion of "nonheterosexual relations." Several LGBT advocacy groups have been designated as "foreign agents" -- a punitive designation imposing onerous reporting requirements.

The law was broadened last year, effectively outlawing any public expression of LGBT culture or rights activism in Russia.

Then, earlier this month, the Supreme Court, acting on a petition from the Justice Ministry, dropped another hammer: declaring that the "international LGBT social movement" was "extremist" under Russian law, effectively banning it.

Putin has paid lip service to Russia's gay and lesbian community, calling them "part of Russian society." But he has also used derogatory language and embraced proponents of harder-line homophobia, above all the Russian Orthodox Church. His denunciations of what he casts as a corrupt and immoral West have grown louder and more strenuous.

"It is all about the destruction of the family, of cultural and national identity, perversion and abuse of children, including pedophilia, all of which are declared normal in their life," Putin asserted without evidence during his state-of-the-nation speech in February.

Putin has also extolled the benefits of families, a nod toward an existential problem for Russia: demographics.

After climbing out of the trough of low birthrates in the post-Soviet 1990s, the population climbed, but then slipped in recent years, due to factors including economic uncertainty, the war, and the lingering aftereffects of the 1990s. Demographers forecast that the birthrate will again decline over the next three years.

Putin has pushed policies providing bigger cash payments and subsidies for parents of large families; more recently, conservative lawmakers, with backing from the Russian church, have moved to sharply restrict access to abortions.

Expect to hear more shout-outs for moms and dads, and maybe more talk of "maternal capital," as the subsidies are known.

One For The History Books

Over Putin's 24 years as the country's preeminent leader, he and many of his allies have sought to rewrite Russian history. Problematic aspects of the past such as the Gulag network of labor camps and Stalin's "Great Terror" of the 1930s have been airbrushed, and the Soviet role in the defeat of Nazi Germany has been trumpeted.

This treatment of history dovetails with baseless claims about the present: One of the Kremlin's stated goals for attacking Ukraine is its insistence that the country is run by Nazis -- a falsehood belied in multiple ways, including by the fact that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy himself is Jewish and whose great-grandparents were killed by the Nazis.

Another Kremlin justification for going to war: a response to what it claims was the betrayal of Russia by NATO as it took in former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic states in the late 1990s and early 2000s; going to war was necessary to block the alliance's further expansion, Putin and other officials say.

In fact, the Ukraine invasion has achieved the opposite effect: NATO has expanded further, with both Finland and Sweden seeking alliance membership as a direct response to the Russian invasion.

Expect to see mention of Nazis in Putin's remarks, but also a broader contrast with the West -- NATO, the European Union, the United States – and assertions that Russia is not only capable of standing up to it, but also will prevail in the long run.

"Russia seems to believe that a military deadlock through the winter will drain Western support for Ukraine and ultimately give Russia the advantage despite Russian losses and persistent shortages of trained personnel, munitions, and equipment," Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said on December 12.

What Comes Next?

In the earlier years of Putin's presence on the political stage, the Kremlin cultivated potential successors and seemed to allow for possible alternatives. Before Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after a stint as prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev was seen as someone who might stay in power – not just a placeholder.

No more.

The Kremlin has cleared the playing field. Challengers allowed on the ballot in the 2012 and 2018 elections were token, and the state has seemed at pains to ensure that no viable challenger emerges.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the brash mercenary leader, openly challenged Putin and the Russian command in a June mutiny -- and then ended up dying in a mysterious plane crash two months later.

Even someone like the current prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, would likely only serve in a placeholder capacity. Seen as a competent technocratic manager, Mishustin has no wider base of support, or public presence, that he could campaign on.

Long a useful foil for the Kremlin, Russia's "systemic opposition" -- the parties that aren't dominant in parliament and legislatures but routinely vote in lockstep with the ruling party -- is increasingly seen as threadbare and, for younger Russians, not credible.

The "nonsystemic" or actual opposition, meanwhile, has been crushed. Above all that would be Aleksei Navalny, a gadfly corruption crusader who was in the process of building a national movement when he was near-fatally poisoned, reportedly by Russian intelligence agents, then arrested and thrown in prison upon returning to Russia after recovering.

Liberal politicians and opposition activists have fled Russia in droves, setting up shops in the Baltics, the Caucasus, or places in Europe. They've also squabbled bitterly.

Putin himself rose to power after being plucked from relative obscurity by President Boris Yeltsin, who then handed over the keys to the Kremlin on New Year's Eve in 1999. He'll be 78 when his next term ends in 2030 and 83 if he serves until the end of the now-current constitutional limits.

Do not expect Putin to pluck a successor from obscurity, or even hint at one during the December 14 appearance.

Do, however, look closely for signals of his future intentions. And what, or who, comes next.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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