Last Sunday’s Russian presidential election was not preceded by much of a guessing game. The identity of the winner was never in any doubt. There were nonetheless plenty of questions surrounding it.
Arguably, the least interesting of these revolved around the level of turnout and the extent of Vladimir Putin’s triumph.
The official figures can be rounded down to 67 per cent and 76 per cent respectively, the latter a substantial improvement on the 64 per cent Putin managed in 2012. Emerging evidence of ballot-stuffing suggests the numbers ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Far more intriguing is the question of what the president wishes to accomplish during his fourth term, and whether it will conclude in 2024 with a succession plan in place or a plot to extend the Putin era, which has already exceeded Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure as Soviet supremo.
Then there is the question of whether Putin authorised the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former double agent once employed by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence directorate, in the English cathedral city of Salisbury.
A couple of weeks before the election, Putin devoted almost half of a state-of-the-union address to boasting about Russia’s nuclear capabilities, notably an invincible new missile that can evade American shields, as well as underwater drones equipped with lethal power.
No one knows whether these devices are a figment of his fertile imagination, but in combination with the Trump administration’s renewed nuclear focus they point to a potentially far greater danger than that posed by Kim Jong-un’s arsenal or intentions.
Perhaps taking a cue from China’s Xi Jinping, Putin also spoke of eliminating poverty, and of rejuvenating the economy. But in the absence of any visible plan, the aim of a 50 per cent boost in the national GDP by 2025 comes across as just another pipe dream.
Improving education standards is an admirable goal, although one can only wonder why they were permitted to drop so precipitously after the Soviet collapse — and why the previous 18 years of Putin’s rule have not sufficed to remedy this and other obvious indicators of socioeconomic regression.
Putin’s election posters mainly focused on his capacity to guarantee Russia’s strength, so it is somewhat curious that once his victory was sealed he hinted at reducing the nation’s defence budget.
That would be welcome, but Russia’s role in Syria, manoeuvres to counter Nato in the Baltic region, and intervention in Ukraine militate against cuts in military spending.
Back at the turn of the century, Putin’s determination to restore order was widely welcomed after the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin era. His notion that the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a travesty also resonated with a majority of the Russian population.
But his nostalgia, as a former KGB agent, was rooted in some of the worst aspects of Soviet political culture, not least a tendency until the advent of the Gorbachev era to target perceived enemies.
It could hardly be a coincidence that so many of Putin’s adversaries, including journalists, politicians and spies, have come to a sticky end.
Hence it is not surprising that, after Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found unconscious on a bench outside a Salisbury shopping centre, many people jumped to the conclusion that it had to be a Kremlin-authorised hit.
Their suspicions appeared to be confirmed when British experts declared the victims had been exposed to a Soviet-era nerve agent, novichok. Theresa May’s government demanded an explanation from Moscow, which denied all knowledge of both the chemical and the attempted murder.
Matching diplomatic expulsions have followed since then, with the Russians also shutting down the British Council, and debate in Britain about pulling the plug on the Russian TV channel RT.
Putin’s campaign manager has sarcastically thanked Britain for its contribution to Sunday’s turnout and the winner’s margin of support, perhaps inadvertently feeding into the theory that the president sanctioned the hit because he expected renewed Western hostility to enhance his domestic appeal.
But given that he was already cruising to a comfortable win, why would Putin seek to kick up a tedious row at this particular juncture? And why pick on these seemingly innocuous victims?
Britain leaped into action on the basis of an assumption rather than verifiable evidence. When Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in 2006, forensic investigators found a trail that led all the way to Moscow.
Nothing of the kind has thus far been discovered in this case, and there are alternative explanations that provides grounds for reasonable doubt.
The Cold War-tinged arguments between Russophobes and Russophiles are likely to carry on, but more pertinent in the longer run are Putin’s plans, and whether he will continue to come up to the expectations of his far-right fan club at home and abroad.