By George Friedman

With the final votes counted, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's presidential victory was confirmed. It was not much of a surprise that Putin won a third presidential term. Still, the reaction in Russia -- and in the world -- has been important to watch because it is directly related to how strong of a leader Putin is expected to be.

Coming out of the December parliamentary elections and leading up to the presidential elections Sunday, the mood in Russia seemed split, with the country experiencing its first mass political protests in decades. Hundreds of thousands protested Putin's running for president as well as what they believed were unfair parliamentary elections, though the anti-Kremlin protest groups never coalesced into an actual movement that could threaten the current Kremlin regime or Putin's re-election. After yesterday's elections there were plans to protest Putin's victory, but the demonstrations seemed to fizzle out, with only a fraction of those previously seen coming out onto the streets today.

It seemed that Putin also wanted to start to move beyond the story of mass dissent in Russia, meeting Monday with opposition groups and his former presidential rivals. Even though the protest groups were never a legitimate threat to Putin's power, the persistent demonstrations led the world to question whether Putin was still the unshakable, strong leader of an increasingly powerful country. His Monday meetings will not allay the anti-Kremlin protest movement entirely, but they reveal that Putin is trying to smooth over the political disruptions from the protests and show the world that he still has control of Russia. In turn, Putin wants this to translate into the perception that Russia is still an impactful force in the world.

This message is one that will be welcomed by some, accepted by many and dreaded by others.

As expected, the majority of the former Soviet states were quick to convey their congratulations to Putin on his election victory, reasserting that they are strategic partners with Russia. Russia's resurgence into many of its former Soviet states has been steadily moving forward, and the former Soviet states see Putin's return as a sign that the strategy will continue, if not intensify. Putin confirmed Monday that in his next term as president, Russia's primary foreign policy focus would be on the former Soviet states.

The first country to offer its support to the re-elected president was Russia's large eastern neighbor, China. For Beijing, the extension of support was not about Putin but was intended to legitimize the current Russian regime and reinforce a strong Russia. This is part of China's belief in encouraging alternative great powers in the world besides the United States. Since it is undergoing a leadership transition of its own, Beijing hopes that Moscow will extend the same sort of support to the Chinese regime.

The majority of the European heavyweights have been notably silent about or aloof from the Russian elections. The European Council and the European Commission were both quiet today. Neither the European Union nor France offered any congratulations to Putin but instead focused on the election irregularities.

Poland and Germany -- two key European states -- were vocal about the Russian elections. These countries' relations with Russia have sharply contrasted each other, with Poland doing whatever it can to resist the return of Russian influence throughout Eurasia, and Germany opting to work with Russia in trying to manage the region. With that in mind, their reactions came as no surprise. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski mocked the Russian elections, calling them undemocratic. Alternatively, German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally phoned Putin to wish him success and offered Germany's "strategic partnership" to Russia.

The last important reaction came from the United States. Washington and Moscow have been in a tense standoff over a string of issues. Russia has been pushing for a change in the United States' plans to deploy missile defense systems in Central Europe and has called for an end to U.S. support for some key former Soviet states such as Georgia. In turn, the United States wants Russia to cease its support for the anti-U.S. regimes in Iran and Syria, both of which were quick to offer their compliments to Putin on his victory. The United States has been publicly supportive of the anti-Putin protest movements in Russia, hoping they would keep the assertive Russian leader's focus inward and not on foreign issues.

Washington's reaction to the elections was tepid, congratulating the Russian people on their elections without commenting on Putin. Washington sees Putin's return to the presidency as a sign that the countries' many disagreements could intensify in the future. The United States knows that Putin has been heavily focused on these elections over the past few months. Now that they are wrapped up, Putin will be able to shift some of his attention to trying to create the perception that he is returning to his former position just as strong as he was the last time.


With Elections Over, Putin Focuses on Perceptions is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

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