Behind Putin’s Potemkin Vote, Real Support. But No Other Choices.

The Kremlin stage-managed Russia’s presidential vote over the weekend to send a singular message at home and abroad: that President Vladimir V. Putin’s support is overwhelming and unshakable, despite or even because of his war against Ukraine.

From the moment the preliminary results first flashed across state television late Sunday, the authorities left no room for misinterpretation. Mr. Putin, they said, won more than 87 percent of the vote, his closest competitor just 4 percent. It had all the hallmarks of an authoritarian Potemkin plebiscite.

The Kremlin may have felt more comfortable orchestrating such a large margin of victory because Mr. Putin’s approval rating has climbed during the war in independent polls, owing to a rally-around-the flag effect and optimism about the Russian economy. The Levada Center, an independent pollster, reported last month that 86 percent of Russians approved of Mr. Putin, his highest rating in more than seven years.

But while the figures may suggest unabiding support for Mr. Putin and his agenda across Russia, the situation is more complex than the numbers convey. The leader of one opposition research group in Moscow has argued that backing for Mr. Putin is actually far more brittle than simple approval numbers suggest.

“The numbers we get on polls from Russia don’t mean what people think they mean,” said Aleksei Minyailo, a Moscow-based opposition activist and co-founder of a research project called Chronicles, which has been polling Russians in recent months. “Because Russia is not an electoral democracy but a wartime dictatorship.”

A television in Moscow showing news of the election results for Mr. Putin on Sunday, the final day of the election.Credit…Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
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