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2024 Russian Presidential Elections – How Digital Technologies Are Used to Wield Authoritarian Power

Published on
13 Mar 2024
Written by
Dr Daria Dergacheva, Alexandra Pavliuc, Michael Collyer, Vasilisa Kuznetsova, Licinia Güttel, Joss Wright and Keegan McBride
Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Bremen share their insights on how digital technologies can be used to wield authoritarian power in the context of the Russian election.
polling station

2024 Russian Presidential Elections – How Digital Technologies Are Used to Wield Authoritarian Power

Authors: Dr Daria Dergacheva, University of Bremen; Alexandra Pavliuc, Oxford Internet Institute; Michael Collyer, Oxford Internet Institute; Vasilisa Kuznetsova, University of Bremen; Licinia Güttel, Oxford Internet Institute; Dr Joss Wright, Oxford Internet Institute.

Related/ editor: Dr Keegan McBride, Oxford Internet Institute

Presidential elections will be held in Russia from March 15 to 17, 2024. De jure, the president is elected by citizens based on universal, equal, and direct suffrage by secret ballot for a period of six years. According to the country’s Central Election Commission, the number of eligible voters makes up 112.3 million people in Russia and 1.9 million people abroad (Interfax, 2024). Elections will also be held in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine that Russia annexed in March 2014 and September 2022, despite the martial law in force in some regions.

Yet another term for Putin?

The results will be announced no later than March 28, and given the decades of informational control and political repressions amidst the war with Ukraine, there is little doubt Vladimir Putin — the current president of the country — will win again (Rosenberg, 2024). This election campaign is the fifth for Putin, who first came to power as president in 2000 and has jumped between the title of president and prime minister in all of Russia’s subsequent elections. Until 2020, the constitution did not allow the president to be re-elected for more than two consecutive terms. However, in summer 2020, the constitution was rewritten through a “referendum-like process” to “reset” Putin’s presidential terms, now allowing him to run for the post twice more, potentially until 2036 (Roth, 2021).

The other three candidates running for president are all from the so-called systematic opposition (Kremlin-friendly parties): Leonid Slutsky, leader of the nationalist LDPR party; Nikolai Kharitonov from the Communist party; Vladislav Davankov representing the liberal New People party. It is widely expected that Putin will secure re-election for a fifth term, suggesting that his competitors are more of a ‘technicality’ to maintain the illusion of democracy (Nechepurenko, 2024; DW, 2024). The recent survey of Russian Public Opinion Research Center showed that 75% of respondents were willing to support Putin. However, the validity of such polls should be questioned in authoritarian regimes (Rosenfeld, 2023), especially when people face criminal charges for opposition or anti-war stances. While it will be impossible to know the true percentage of Putin supporters, the figures reported will be the result of a repressive, coercive, and propaganda-fuelled environment that has operated for decades (Yusopov, 2023). The Russian election is thus an important case study that can offer insights into the deployment and control of digital technologies in an authoritarian and war-shattered context.

Opposition and the wartime authoritarian elections

Over the past decade, the tolerance of the ruling party towards the non-systematic opposition has been worn thin as the regime became increasingly authoritarian. The visibility of the non-systematic opposition increased after 2011-2012 protests against Putin’s candidacy for the post of president in 2012 (European Parliament, 2020). However, this also led to the increase of legal constraints against the opposition, such as the 2012 foreign agent law, and the suppression of political figures, including the assassination of Boris Nemtsov in 2015 as well as the 2013 and 2014 criminal charges against Alexei Navalny.

After the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the country entered a new phase of repression. The current regime has been aggressively cracking down on the opposition, imprisoning political figures and suppressing any form of protest, therefore eradicating most public criticism of the country’s foreign and domestic policies (Human Rights Watch, 2024). The recent death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had been imprisoned since 2021, was attributed to Kremlin forces (Sauer, 2024). Two potential anti-war candidates Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova were not allowed to stand for election. Since February 2022, 273 criminal cases on military “fakes” and 81 criminal cases on “discrediting” the Russian army have been opened (Rofe, 2024). The full-scale invasion of Ukraine –– although meant to be short and easy for the Kremlin –– has become the dominant component of the country’s everyday life. As Russians’ support for the war has been shrinking (Milov, 2023), showing an overwhelming approval of Putin through the sham election ‘procedure’ becomes even more important for his legitimacy within the country.

The 2024 elections in Russia are taking place in a hybrid regime, in which democratic institutions are imitative, representing only a formal structure of the state, and follow informal – authoritarian – methods (Smyth, 2020). The Russian political system can also be described as informational autocracy as the control of information and manipulation of public opinion are the most important elements of retaining power (Guriev & Treisman, 2020).This is evidenced by several digital aspects of the upcoming elections, including the opaque online voting system, disinformation, internet shutdowns, and website blocking.

A not-so-new online voting system that enables electoral fraud

For the three days of presidential elections, the websites and will provide a possibility of online voting. After submitting the application to cast a vote online, a code is sent to the phone number listed in the profile of a citizen on another digital portal, “Gosuslugi” — the Russian government platform launched in 2011 which provides online access to state service information and electronic forms. This kind of voting is possible in 27 regions of the Russian Federation as well as in temporarily occupied Crimea. The system is far from transparent. The voting software works on a private blockchain platform, Exonum. However, private servers which are only accessible for government officials were used during previous elections in 2019 and 2020. This undermined the benefits of blockchain technology, which relies on recording and storing all transactions across multiple servers to prevent falsification (Khudoley D. & Khudoley K., 2021).

Multiple instances of coercion to vote online have also been reported by independent media (TV Rain, 2024; Pakharev, 2023). Deutsche Welle (Zhukov, 2021) has published an opinion of a Russian software developer who claimed that government election officials could insert fake results during online voting. Independent media Novaya Gazeta’s investigation suggested that over 14 million votes were forged through online voting (Bogachev, 2021). Now, over 3 million voters have registered for online voting in Russia, according to the Central Elections Commission (Mislivskaya, 2024). Since the procedure remains the same as it was in 2019 and 2020, it is highly possible that the online voting system results may be forged in the 2024 elections.

A sham-ful election bolstered by disinformation

Disinformation is an essential tactic towards the maintenance of Russia’s authoritarian regime’s stability, alongside the symbolic politics of managed democracy – allowing multiple candidates to stand for office and the repression of dissenting voices through internet shutdowns and arbitrary arrests (Smyth, 2020). The Russian disinformation engine has long been run to influence both Russian and global audiences towards voting for the Kremlin’s desired political candidates (Splidsboel Hansen, 2017; Kriel & Pavliuc, 2019). The Kremlin’s favoured candidate within Russia is of course Putin, whose previous re-election in 2018 was deemed his “ultimate consolidation of power” (Polyakova, 2018). This was in good part thanks to years of Russian state and state-adjacent media outlets and state-directed troll farms, such as the Internet Research Agency. They published content denying allegations of election manipulation, accusing the West of orchestrating dissent, while both intimidating and enticing Russians into voting to bolster turnout. Disinformation ahead of the 2024 election has amplified the narrative that Putin is the only leader capable of marching Russia to victory against its decadent yet decaying Western adversaries (Fraser, 2024; Sauer, 2024). These narratives have conveniently glossed over the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the promotion of which negatively affected votes for municipal and regional candidates last year (Tóth-Czifra, 2023).

After the polls close, the Kremlin will most probably report the percentage by which Putin won the election, and how many Russians turned out to vote. Appearances can be deceiving, and we should be careful not to contribute towards this deception by propagating the key Russian disinformation narrative that their elections are democratic. The election results will be used to promote the fiction that Putin was democratically elected by his populace and bolster his authority and legitimacy domestically and internationally. Media outlets should report the results of March 17 with standard journalistic caveats that note the repressive environment in which the elections took place, to avoid perpetuating Russia’s narrative that the elections and referendums they hold within Russia and in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine are in any way democratic (Hartvig Jepsen & Erben, 2023).

Increasing internet censorship in times of war and domestic protest

The use of internet shutdowns and surveillance measures by the Russian state to inhibit free speech and opposition during election periods is pervasive and well-documented. While it is difficult to predict specific blocking behaviour with any accuracy for the upcoming 2024 election, the historical blocking of most large foreign-owned social media platforms, and the ongoing censorship of hundreds of thousands of specific URLs, make it all but certain that pervasive and widespread internet censorship will remain significant (Meduza, 2023; OONI, 2023; Sauer, 2022).

The landscape of internet censorship in Russia is dynamic and has evolved significantly since the previous 2018 election. Since then, the Russian government has installed Deep Packet Inspection packages on most of Russia’s 3,500 Internet providers, enabling government surveillance of digital communication metadata such as the sender, recipient, and type of data—and, to a more limited extent, content (Fusch, 2013; Klimarev, 2024). Data from the Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI)— the world’s largest open dataset on internet censorship — shows potential or confirmed cases of website blocking for 327 entire websites during the 2018 election period (Figure 1). These include sites drawn from both globally significant sites, and those that are Russia-specific. Figure 1 demonstrates a noticeable increase in blocked, or potentially blocked, traffic on the days surrounding the 2018 election.


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Figure 1: Test Counts for 327 unique websites (OONI Data)

The possibility of organised protest voting on the election day may cause Putin to resort to internet shutdowns to stifle citizen coordination. Despite a lack of realistic electoral opponents, any form of protest represents a threat to the regime (Keremoğlu & Weidmann, 2020). The call to vote against Putin was issued by most Russian opposition figures, including Alexei Navalny before his death (Voloshinov, 2024). The Russian government censorship agency Roskomnadzor has already blocked at least three websites devoted to this call, but it continues to spread on social media (Mediazona, 2024). This may lead them to shut down more internet infrastructure and messaging services, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, around election day in some parts of the country. The Russian government has used this tactic of digital repression during protests in Moscow in 2019 (Frantz et al, 2021) and, most recently, during the funeral of Alexei Navalny in March 2024 (Hopkins, 2024).

Russia’s authoritarian election tactics — a playbook worth repeating?

In the context of the global election year, the Russian presidential election provides important and alarming insights into how digital technologies are used in the wartime authoritarian elections. But will they be repeated in other authoritarian or hybrid regimes? While phenomena such as the fraudulent online voting system are not new, they might nevertheless enable regimes to orchestrate their authoritarian elections more efficiently. Despite Putin’s consolidation of power, internet shutdowns and censorship are a strategic tool to undermine domestic protests at key moments, thus taking away potentially emancipatory tools for contestation. As disinformation spread by Russian actors also influences the political debates in other countries, it is possible that these narratives impact political debates in democratic contexts. Other authoritarian leaders might learn from Russia’s disinformation tactics and might apply them to their own elections in 2024 and beyond.

References and further reading:

Bogachev, A. (2021, November 9). Zazor i pozor. Publikuem eshhe odno svidetel’stvo vbrosov golosov na jelektronnom golosovanii na vyborah v Gosdumu [Backlash and shameю We publish yet another piece of evidence of vote fraud in electronic voting in the State Duma elections]. Novaya Gazeta.

  1. (2024, January 29). Russia: Putin registered as presidential candidate. Deutsche Welle.

European Parliament. (2020, November). The political opposition in Russia. European Parliament.

Fraser. (2024, March 1). Putin’s Grand Plan for Russia’s 2024 Elections. Royal United Services Institute.

Guriev, S., & Treisman, D. (2020). A theory of informational autocracy. Journal of Public Economics, 186, 104158.

Hartvig Jepsen, H., & Erben, P. (2023, August 16). Russia’s ‘elections’ in occupied Ukraine are a charade. POLITICO.

Human Rights Watch. (2024, January 11). Russia: New Heights on Repression. No Space For Dissent, Opposition Pushed Into Exile or Behind Bars. Human Rights Watch.

Interfax. (2024, February 2). CIK opredelil kolichestvo izbiratelej v Rossii v 112,3 mln chelovek [Central Election Commission sets the number of voters in Russia at 112.3 mln people]. Interfax.

Khudoley, D. M., & Khudoley, K. M. (2022). Electronic Voting in Russia and Abroad. Perm U. Herald Jurid. Sci., 57, 476.

Kriel, C., & Pavliuc, A. (2019). Reverse engineering Russian Internet Research Agency tactics through network analysis. Defence Strategic Communication, 6, 199-227.

Krivonosova, I. (2020). Electoral events in Russia during the COVID-19 pandemic: remote electronic voting, outdoor voting and other innovations. International IDEA Case Study, 6.

Lenta. (2023, June 27). V Obshhestvennoj palate nazvali preimushhestva DJeG [The Public Chamber has named the advantages of the remote electronic voting]. Lenta.

Milov, V. (2023, December 11). Current trends in Russian public opinion toward the war. Free Russia Foundation.

Mislivskaya, G. (2024, February 8). Dlja uchastija v onlajn-golosovanii podano bolee 3 millionov zajavlenij [More than 3 million applications have been submitted for online voting]. Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Nechepurenko, I. (2024, February 8). Russia Bars Antiwar Candidate in Election Putin Is All But Sure of Winning. The New York Times.

Pakharev, N. (2023, November 7). Bjudzhetnikov Peterburga prinuzhdajut k testirovaniju jelektronnogo golosovanija. Kak oni sabotirujut trebovanie i chto nuzhno znat’ o DJeG pered vyborami 2024 goda [Public sector workers of St. Petersburg are forced to test electronic voting. How they sabotage the requirement and what you need to know about the remote electronic voting before the 2024 elections]. Bumaga.

Polyakova, A. (2018, March 18). How Russia Meddled in its Own Elections. The Atlantic.

Rofe, J. (2024, January 15). V RF s nachala vojny vozbuzhdeno 273 ugolovnyh dela o “fejkah” [In Russia, 273 criminal cases on “fakes” have been initiated since the beginning of the war]. Deutsche Welle.

Rosenberg., S. (2024, January 31). Vladimir Putin: Many Russians see no alternative candidate as election looms. BBC.

Rosenfeld, B. (2023). Curious What Russians Think about the War? Ask Yourself This before You Read the Polls. Russian Analytical Digest, (292), 4-6.

Roth, A. (2021, April 5). Vladimir Putin passes law that may keep him in office until 2036. The Guardian.

Sauer, P. (2024, February 26). Putin had Navalny killed to thwart prisoner swap, allies claim. The Guardian.

Sauer, P. (2024, January 3). Vladimir Putin will use election to show war-weary Russia he’s still calling the shots. The Guardian.

Smyth, R. (2020). Elections, protest, and authoritarian regime stability: Russia 2008–2020. Cambridge University Press.

Smyth, R. (2020). Elections, protest, and authoritarian regime stability: Russia 2008–2020. Cambridge University Press.

Splidsboel Hansen, F. (2017). Russian hybrid warfare: A study of disinformation (No. 2017: 06). Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS), Copenhagen.

Tóth-Czifra, A. (2023). Controlling the Narrative: A Roadmap to Russia’s 2024 Presidential Election – Foreign Policy Research Institute.

TV Rain. (2024, February 7). Bjudzhetnikov iz regionov prinuzhdajut registrirovat’sja v sisteme jelektronnogo golosovanija dlja uchastija v vyborah prezidenta [Public sector workers from the provinces are forced to register in the e-voting system to participate in the presidential election]. TV Rain.

Yusopov, A. (2023, September 13). Russia’s show elections.

Zhukov, E. (2021, October 18). Programmist opisal vozmozhnyj mehanizm vbrosov na DJeG [Programmer described a possible mechanism for the remote electronic voting throw-ins]. Deutsche Welle.



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