Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Joseph Stalin, surprised no one with his landslide re-election on Sunday. While his victory, in which he claimed 73.9 percent of the vote according to state-run exit polls, was a foregone conclusion, the Kremlin was reportedly anxious about turnout, and conducted an elaborate, well-financed get-out-the-vote campaign. For an authoritarian regime in which election results and turnout are pre-ordained, such concerns may seem odd. But even in Russia’s “managed democracy,” appearances still matter, and the Kremlin needed to present believably high levels of support to ensure Putin’s mandate. Shortly after polling centers closed on Sunday night, Putin appeared to be on target to achieve the desired 65 percent turnout. But even more important for Putin is that this election marked the culmination of his nearly two-decades-long project to control information in Russia and manipulate Russian society. Now, Putin has proven beyond any doubt that the Russia he has built is his and his alone.
Putin began his long-running disinformation campaign when he came to power in 2000, taking over Russia’s independent television channels and bringing the oligarchs who owned them to heel or ousting them from the country. Since then, he has chipped away at free expression, political dissent, and independent voices one newspaper, one website, and one blogger at a time. Each new amendment to the law declaring NGOs as foreign agents and undesirables, each assassination of a journalist or political leader who went too far, and each expansion of what constitutes “extremist” content online (and thus, subject to censorship) brought Putin one step closer to this day.
Before the Kremlin unleashed its notorious Internet Research Agency (IRA) troll factory on the 2016 U.S. elections, it was busy testing its arsenal of disinformation tools on Russians. Moscow’s specific focus on online operations began after the 2011 protests against election fraud, which brought 100,000 Russians to the streets of Moscow. The protests coincided with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 following a brief stint as prime minister. Reports suggest that it was at this point that the Kremlin launched what eventually became the IRA. As a recent indictment released by Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed, the IRA’s elite “American unit” employed more than 80 people. But this foreign unit was a small part of a much bigger Russian-language influence operation aimed, first and foremost, at the domestic Russian population.
Full Article: How Russia Meddled in its Own Elections – The Atlantic.