The research group highlighted comments made by the Russian Central Election Commission chair, who stated that efforts to discredit the election have already begun. This suggests that Putin may not feel completely secure in his position as he seeks re-election.
In response to a surge in protests organized by the wives and mothers of forcibly mobilized men involved in Putin's invasion of Ukraine, Putin has reportedly ordered regional officials and secret services to suppress anti-war dissent "at any cost." Thousands of people have signed petitions and taken to the streets to demand the return of mobilized men. In an attempt to quell the protests, officials are being advised to address the concerns of the relatives of mobilized personnel and ensure they receive their salaries. They have also been instructed to provide financial incentives to discourage further dissent.
Despite heavy restrictions on protests in Russia, demonstrations have taken place in Moscow, Novosibirsk, and Khabarovsk, among other cities. However, many of these protests have been banned. In St. Petersburg, authorities used anti-Covid restrictions to prohibit a rally, and mass events have been barred for the rest of the year in Putin's hometown.
The Council of Wives and Mothers, founded by Olga Tsukanova, has been labeled a "foreign agent," and Tsukanova herself is facing criminal prosecution. One protester, Olga Kats, has vowed to challenge Putin after he rejected her petition signed by 100,000 women calling for the return of mobilized men. Kats's brother has been on the frontline for over a year, and she believes it is time to bring him and other civilian men back home.
According to a report by Verstka, leaders of the Kremlin's internal political bloc instructed local officials to hold elections for Putin's re-election "as modestly and quietly as possible" to avoid any doubts about the legitimacy of his victory.
The Institute for the Study of War also highlighted Putin's comments on suppressing foreign or domestic election interference. Despite Putin's popularity on paper, with 82% approval according to the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, researchers note the difficulty of obtaining reliable polling data due to fear of repercussions for opposing Putin.
Russia has increased its monitoring of digital platforms since the 2011/12 mass protests, allowing authorities to block websites, store call records, and share information with security services. Online censorship and prosecutions for social media posts and comments have reached record levels since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Over 610,000 web pages were blocked or removed in 2022 alone, and 779 people faced criminal charges for online comments and posts.
Putin has also tightened control over various industries, including media reporting on the war. Pro-Kremlin media reportedly received guidelines on how to report on speculation about Russia recruiting more reservists for the invasion. Laws adopted in March 2022 allow for punishment of Russians who make statements against the armed forces or call for sanctions, with fines and imprisonment of up to five years.
In September, State Duma Deputy Anton Gorelkin suggested blocking WhatsApp in Russia if the app launched Russian language channels. State censor Roskomnadzor added that Russia could block WhatsApp if it disseminated prohibited information.
Putin's concerns about the upcoming election and the increasing suppression of dissent indicate a potential vulnerability in his position as he seeks re-election. The protests by the relatives of mobilized men and the government's efforts to quell dissent highlight the growing discontent within Russia.