It’s Time to Declare Putin an Illegitimate Leader

February 22, 2024

Russia’s sham elections next month—with voting on occupied Ukrainian territory—should not be recognized.

By Aliona Hlivco and Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Next month, Russian President Vladimir Putin will stage a carefully managed, entirely undemocratic presidential election. The recent death of Russia’s best-known opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, in a penal colony is not the first time that a public figure opposed to Putin has died. Indeed, every prominent opposition figure—including Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and so many others—has been imprisoned, poisoned, murdered, or forced into exile abroad, and the election’s outcome is already assured.

Russian autocracy has crossed a point of no return. What began as a flawed but aspiring democracy in the early 1990s has morphed into a vicious regime that attacks its neighbors, stifles expression at home, silences opposition voices, and imprisons or assassinates those who dare to speak up.

It is high time for governments, parliaments, and nongovernmental organizations around the world to unequivocally declare Russia’s upcoming election unlawful and its preordained victor an illegitimate president.

In 2020, the Russian Duma decided to amend the country’s constitution without a single no vote, extending term limits to allow Putin to stay in power until 2036. The European Parliament, while falling short of declaring Putin illegitimate, resolved in 2021 that “the EU should condemn any attempt by President Putin to remain in office beyond the end of his current and final presidential mandate on 7 May 2024.” The 2020 constitutional change had been “illegally enacted,” the EU parliamentarians found.

But the paramount reason for not recognizing the results of the March elections is the fact that the vote will be held in the occupied Ukrainian territories that have been unlawfully annexed by Russia. Recognizing the legitimacy of elections held in occupied Ukraine—where Putin’s troops appear to have committed the most horrid war crimes in 21st-century Europe—would contribute to the creeping international recognition of Russia’s annexation of these territories.

Unfortunately, there is ample precedent for the world doing the wrong thing. There was little international response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent Russian presidential elections held in occupied Ukraine in 2018, with the exception of a few symbolic Western sanctions in 2014 that were little more than a slap on Putin’s wrist. The lack of a robust reaction in the past helped pave the way for the full-scale invasion in 2022 by showing Putin that he had little to fear from the West. Further acquiescence now will set a dangerous precedent, emboldening autocrats everywhere.

Beyond being an authoritarian dictator with a mandate based on illegitimate elections, Putin stands accused of war crimes. In 2023, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant based on the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. An alleged war criminal should not be considered legitimate by Western democracies.

For all these reasons, Putin should take his rightful place alongside authoritarian strongmen such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.

After the latter was declared illegitimate by many Western countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, his country was placed under new diplomatic and economic sanctions. Washington imposed an embargo on Venezuelan oil exports, froze state-owned assets, and pressured non-U.S. firms to suspend transactions with Venezuela. In part due to these sanctions—and in part due to its own economic mismanagement—the country experienced the largest economic contraction in modern Latin American history and the sixth-largest contraction ever recorded globally.

After being declared an illegitimate dictator by the United States and other countries in 2008, Mugabe also faced increased condemnation for human rights abuses and election fraud. The European Union and the United States imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on Mugabe and his close associates. This significantly affected Zimbabwe’s economy and international relations, contributing to the its prolonged economic crisis.

Syria’s Assad has been considered illegitimate by many Western countries, particularly after the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian civil war. The regime has been subject to numerous sanctions by the United States and the European Union, significantly impacting its economic and diplomatic ties. And in Egypt, the regime of then-President Hosni Mubarak was ultimately deemed illegitimate by much of the international community, including many Western countries, following his suppression of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. This led to his resignation and a period of significant political upheaval in Egypt.

Russia has, of course, been placed under significant Western sanctions since 2022, but these are far from perfect. On the contrary, the Kremlin has been highly successful in circumventing Western sanctions on its petroleum exports; it has also been successful at evading Western export controls and continues to use Western components to build the missiles and drones that rain death on Ukrainian cities. Officially recognizing Putin as an illegitimate leader based on an illegal election could be the catalyst for the world to get serious about tightening these sanctions.

The Council of Europe has shown the way by taking the first step. In October 2023, the council’s Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution that calls on member states to “recognise Vladimir Putin as illegitimate after the end of his current presidential term and to cease all contact with him, exception for humanitarian contact and in the pursuit of peace.”

In the event of his reelection, the resolution says, Putin should be denied recognition as president, and contact with his apparatus should be refused—except for negotiations aimed at achieving peace. Western democratic governments and international institutions should follow the assembly’s step.

History shows that declaring a despotic leader illegitimate is more than a symbolic act; it can trigger real change. It is time for Western democracies to call the Russian regime out for what it is.

Aliona Hlivco is the managing director of the Henry Jackson Society and a former member of the Ukrainian parliament. Twitter: @aliona_hlivco

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the former CEO of Yukos Oil Company, a former Russian political prisoner, and the author of How to Slay a Dragon: Building a New Russia After Putin. Twitter: @khodorkovsky_en

This article was first published in the Foreign Policy