In the Duma election campaign, Putin is in survival mode

The aggressive rhetoric and choice of candidates from the ruling party reflect Putin’s anxiety about the vote.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during the annual congress of the United Russia party in Moscow on June 19, 2021. [Pool via Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin]

The Kremlin is putting Ukraine on the agenda of the parliamentary election campaign in Russia and this is not a good sign.

References to Ukraine which Russian President Vladimir Putin made during his question-and-answer session broadcasted live on June 30 produced some of the most newsworthy lines from an otherwise tiresome show.

One was related to the recent incursion by a British warship into the 12-nautical-mile territorial zone around Crimea, a peninsula which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Like most countries in the world, the United Kingdom did not recognise that takeover, so it sent a vessel into Crimean waters to reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty over the peninsula. Russia responded with warning shots fired from a small coastal guard boat at a safe distance.

Putin said he was not worried by what he called a “provocation”, because even if the Russians had sunk the British warship, HMS Defender, it would not have caused a world war anyway. This is to say that he is sceptical about the West being prepared to go as far as Russia could in the game of brinkmanship over Ukraine.

His other statement was a teaser for an upcoming article on Russia’s relations with Ukraine he is authoring. He mentioned just one line from that article – that Russians and Ukrainians are a single people. He knew all too well he was going to make the Ukrainians angry (and indeed there was a prompt rebuke from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky), but this narrative was aimed squarely at his core domestic audience, which – like it or not – believes it not so much because of Putin, but because strong personal and family links between the two countries are part of the complicated social reality in that part of the world.

These statements by the Russian president come less than three months before the State Duma elections are to be held on September 19. And it is clear they are setting the tone for the campaign leading up to the vote.

Elections in Russia are neither free nor fair, but they serve as a plebiscite meant to confirm the remaining majoritarian support for the president and through that, his legitimacy. Maintaining the perception that a relative majority of Russians still supports Putin’s policies is no easy feat, especially when it comes to his party, United Russia, rather than Putin himself.

Recent polls have shown that support for the ruling party is falling – in some surveys dropping as low as 27 percent – suggesting that it risks losing its constitutional majority in the Duma.

Earlier this year, Putin unleashed an unprecedented wave of repression against the opposition led by the jailed politician Aleksey Navalny, which his team and many commentators linked directly to the election campaign. Barred from participating in elections, Navalny’s movement is focusing its efforts on derailing United Russia by supporting any random candidate who has the best chances of winning.

This strategy has proven effective in past local elections, which is why this time around the Kremlin chose to act pre-emptively and outlaw Navalny’s movement and arrest many of its activists across the country. The clampdown may help Putin to avoid embarrassment at the elections, but it contributes to further erosion of his regime’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian public.

In parallel, he also launched a markedly new strategy for the United Russia election campaign. Previously, it was down to Putin’s loyal lieutenant Dmitry Medvedev to lead the party in elections. That helped to imbue it with a flair of liberalism, which allowed the Kremlin to expand the voting base well beyond its right-wing nationalist core.

But this time the Kremlin spin doctors are entirely focused on keeping that core support intact. This is why United Russia’s list of candidates is topped by two political heavyweights who personify Russia’s newly acquired assertiveness and its escalating confrontation with the West – Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

The choice of these two figures is an indication of Putin’s own survival strategy.

Having been in power for 21 years, the Russian president is facing a society that has largely outgrown its penchant for his majoritarian regime. But the standoff with the West provides a potential escape route. The examples of Iran, Cuba and North Korea prove that nothing is more resilient than a political regime designated by the American establishment as a threat.

US containment of an “enemy regime” may last for over half a century, to the satisfaction of dictators who can blame any hardships endured by their people on “American aggression” and justify repression with the need to mobilise against the perceived US threat. Needless to say, such an arrangement serves interest groups and military industrialists in the US, who thrive on conflict. Political scientists call it external legitimisation – when a perceived threat becomes the main source of an authoritarian ruler’s legitimacy.

Of course, Russia, with a well-connected and informed society, is not North Korea. But in the absence of other options, this confrontational strategy feels worth a try and will likely allow the regime to buy a few more years before it faces a level of public anger it will not be able to cope with.

The Kremlin started rolling out its election campaign narratives with a programmatic article by Sergey Lavrov published in the Russian outlet Kommersant, which accused the “declining” West of imperialism and attempting to impose ideological “totalitarianism” on the rest of the world. Putin’s Ukraine-themed piece is supposedly next in the pipeline.

The danger lies in the rules of political drama which mandate that words must be followed by deeds – specific foreign policies, or worse, military action – closer to the election date. This is not something that is bound to happen, because the appetite for further confrontation with the West and immediate neighbours is currently low. But should the West or Ukraine provide the Kremlin with a peg which its propaganda could convert into a plausible narrative of Russia facing a threat, it would certainly go for it.

Enter British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with his Global Britain plan aimed at reaffirming his country’s great power status after it turned itself into a marginalised peripheral European state when it exited the EU. HMS Defender’s weirdly communicated freedom of navigation exercise (its intentional nature was confirmed thanks to a pile of documents left at a bus stop in Kent) perhaps did serve this purpose, especially given British memories of the Crimean War in the 19th century.

But do such actions help to resolve the ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine? A fundamental problem with re-asserting Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea is the lack of enthusiasm about this prospect among the population in the peninsula. A rare opinion poll conducted by the German think tank ZOiS in 2017 showed that a vast majority of Crimeans preferred to stay within Russian borders. It is highly unlikely that the sighting of a British warship near Sevastopol would prompt them to change their mind.

Putin’s propaganda machine played the HMS Defender incident quite brilliantly for domestic consumption – first, by projecting reserve and confidence in dealing with the incursion and later – by having the president himself warn that he would have no qualms about sinking a hostile vessel if it happens again.

Should Ukraine or its Western allies try to test Putin’s resolve prior to the elections, he is likely to jump at the opportunity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.