Vladimir Putin Is on the Ballot in November

Why your vote will count in the United States and in Russia.

Vladimir Putin is on the ballot this November.

You won’t see his name or watch his ads. But make no mistake, Putin has a lot riding on this election and he’s counting on your vote.

What will a vote for Putin mean?

First, Putin is looking to reshape the world order in a way that benefits Moscow, builds his personal power and establishes him as the world’s toughest leader capable of outrageous cunning, manipulation and disruption.

A successful outcome—meaning President Trump is re-elected—means his Russia will be able to wantonly throw its weight around globally. He will assertively create unseen but ever-present fear and dependence in neighboring nations including Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states and Georgia. Russia’s renewed and enhanced influence also will be felt in countries farther away and immediately affected by America’s acquiescence to Putin’s newfound power. Countries such as Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba.

Putin’s victory would usher in a world that would be unimaginable to those Americans who endured the Cold War and continue to suffer the 21st century Middle East conflicts fought for oil and influence.

This already was a watershed year for Russia’s President-for-Life Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin—“Vova” for short. He consolidated his domestic power with a sneaky recent referendum that gave him both symbolic and vital constitutional changes.

On the symbolic front, he played up family values and nationalist sentiment with laws against same-sex marriage and a codified “belief in God.” On the substantive side, new constitutional reforms give primacy to Russian law over international norms. One more thing: Term limits changed to allow Putin the presidency through 2036.

Constitutional reforms mean he no longer needs to practice new jiu-jitsu political moves. In the past, Putin had to horse-trade his presidential role for the prime ministership. No more. He can now reside in gilded presidential palaces forever and a day.

Tragically, Putin has mobilized a military and militia around a neo-nationalism that satisfies a popular thirst for pride. While his regime fails to deal with improving his people’s lot, it overcompensates for its economic and material failings by freely pouring the emotion-stirring libations of Russian exceptionalism and nostalgia for a deceptively reclaimable empire.

By drowning—or poisoning and defenestrating—opposition voices like Alexei Navalny, Putin deprives his citizens freedom of speech and choice. Russians are left with little to show for their industrious and inventive nature, feeling impoverished despite their abundantly rich culture and overflowing natural resources. What they are left with is Putin.

Secure in his position at home, Putin now shifts his roving eye around the world to spy where he can assert his parasitic power—which is where November’s election could play into Putin’s hands.

American voters can decide how much of a free ride to give Moscow. Putin already got away with interfering in the 2016 U.S. election, collaborating with the winning campaign as the Senate revealed this week. Putin continues his interference, no longer relying on Wikileaks or Facebook to peddle and amplify divisively toxic narratives. He’s hard at work.

If Putin wins again this cycle, prepare for renewed global adventurism. The carte blanche he received these last few years allowed him to stick around Crimea and stick it to Ukraine. He bleeds American soldiers in Afghanistan. While Congress tried to exact a toll for the illegal Crimean invasion and occupation, the war in Ukraine’s Donbass and for paying bounties to kill our troops, crickets is the only thing we hear from the executive, the perfect soundtrack for an ambitious dictator.

The 2020 election campaign will focus foreign-policy debates on which side will be tougher on China. One candidate will try to pin the other as being soft on China and suggest that Xi Jinping is on the ballot.

China policy differences are a legitimate political target, and the policies of both sides should be viewed with discerningly cold, critical eyes. Beijing seeks regional hegemony in and around the South China Sea and everywhere else in its neighborhood. It has cracked down at home in Hong Kong and it threatens Taiwan. Xi and China do have global ambitions.

Xi, however, is not on this year’s ballot in the United States. There is a strong bipartisan American consensus on the China threat. Both parties are on the same page. They may not agree on how to deal with the threat—are tariffs effective?—but are clear-eyed about China’s intentions and capabilities.

Not so with Russia or Putin. The two parties diverge dramatically. Somehow, a party that was once the most vocal, moral and aggressively determined to counter Moscow has now embraced Putin and his posse. What happened?

Putin is on this year’s ballot, so think twice before marking mail-in ballots or donning masks to go pull a lever. The vote you cast counts in both Moscow and the world.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.