Drawing the Line: Declaring Putin Illegitimate as a Step Towards Future-Russia

Dr Stephen G. F. Hall

Between 15 and 17 March, Russia votes. The three-day voting period will only loosely offer democratic competition. It will return Vladimir Putin as president and consolidate a full autocracy. The zeroing of presidential term limits was one of 206 – mainly conservative and patriotic – constitutional changes in 2020. Thus, the 2024 presidential elections will give Putin another six years until 2030 and likely on to 2036 unless time defeats him.

Putin’s expected re-election in 2024 provides Western nations with a crucial opportunity to denounce his legitimacy. Assuming the presidency for another six years eliminates the last remaining checks on his power, pushing Russia toward dictatorship. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has signalled its refusal to recognise Putin as a legitimate leader post-2024, paving the way for Western states to adopt a similar stance.

Therefore, the West should declare Putin illegitimate, limiting interactions to essential humanitarian matters and seeking a peaceful resolution to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, although prospects are dim given Putin’s disposition. This declaration would enable the West to support Russian opposition groups and formulate plans for a democratic future-Russia.

Examining past instances of declaring illegitimacy, such as in Belarus and Venezuela, sets the stage for understanding why a similar stance is necessary in the case of Putin’s 2024 re-election. This report further delves into the specifics of the upcoming elections and the imperative to declare Putin illegitimate.

While anticipating potential reactions from the Kremlin, it is evident that any response from the Russian authorities would likely be limited. Deeming Putin illegitimate weakens his standing, allowing the West to support opposition groups and Ukraine. Although it may not immediately topple the Putin regime, such a declaration increases pressure and accelerates internal divisions among elites.

This report emphasises mechanisms to remove the illegitimacy label if Putin’s successor initiates reforms and steers Russia toward democracy. A transition of power in the Kremlin should not be equated with immediate change. Vigilance is required in assessing legitimacy. Turning attention to a negotiated resolution to the ongoing war, it is argued that sincere talks with Russia are unlikely while Putin remains in power. Initiating negotiations post-Putin would allow new Russian authorities to rebuild legitimacy. Declaring Putin illegitimate, coupled with support for Ukraine, enhances pressure on the Kremlin and facilitates Western planning
for a democratic future in Russia. Methodologically, the report employs content analysis from diverse sources and incorporates interviews with experts, researchers, journalists and academics on Russia. Interviewees’ identities are anonymised through a coding system of letters and numbers.

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