MOSCOW — Russians head to the polls Friday through Sunday for presidential elections certain to deliver President Vladimir Putin a fifth term in office, cementing his already quarter-century hold on the Kremlin through at least 2030.

The Russian leader faces no serious competition on the ballot — his three competitors are Duma lawmakers who almost uniformly support his agenda.

A once-aspiring candidate and Putin's toughest critic, Alexei Navalny, died a month ago in prison under mysterious circumstances. Most other prominent critics are either in jail or abroad.

Putin's control of Russian political life — and of the world's largest nuclear arsenal — has arguably never been stronger.

And yet.

The decision to invade Ukraine in 2022 upended Putin's yearslong reputation among many Russians for providing "stability" following the Soviet Union's collapse.

Instead, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are now dead or wounded, the country is under a rash of sanctions, and tensions with the West are at Cold War levels.

Beneath the veneer of Putin's preordained victory lies the fate of some 146 million Russians as well as their relations with their Ukrainian neighbors and the world.

Here are seven questions that will shape an election as much about theater as about voting — one where the intrigue lies in the details.

Can a big victory be too big?

Depends on whom you ask.

While Putin's victory isn't in doubt, how it is achieved is of intense interest to the Kremlin, its critics and outside observers.

Putin insists the nation has united behind the war effort and will cast ballots in what he called "a manifestation of patriotism" on the eve of the vote.

"I am confident you realize what a difficult period our country is going through, what complex challenges we are facing in almost all areas," Putin said in a video address to the nation released Thursday.

"In order to continue to respond to them with dignity and successfully overcome difficulties, we need to continue to be united and self-confident."

Multiple media reports suggest the Kremlin wants nothing short of a historic result for Putin, with voter turnout and Putin's returns matching the president's wartime rhetoric. According to leaked documents and insider accounts, governors have allegedly been tasked with securing 75% turnout and 80% of the vote for Putin.

"The issue of legitimacy is of paramount importance," says Abbas Gallyamov, a former Kremlin speechwriter-turned-critic in exile, in describing why the government goes to such lengths.

Gallyamov says that while the Kremlin has "all the tools" to ensure Putin gets the formal results he wants, the danger is that the numbers skew too far from the real public mood — and from reality.

"It's not enough just to produce the result — it's necessary to be convincing so the result is believed," Gallyamov notes.

Will the vote be fair?

Not if the past is prologue.

In the Putin era, election watchdogs have repeatedly called out ballot stuffing, carousel voting and forced voting by state-affiliated employees.

New rules extend in-person voting from one to three days. The Kremlin is also expanding a controversial electronic voting system to dozens of regions across Russia, offering prizes and raffles to entice voters.

In Moscow, e-voting posters promise smart speakers, tickets to local attractions and pharmacy discounts for the elderly, among other awards. In the Altai region of southern Siberia, a few lucky voters can look forward to winning an iPhone, despite Western sanctions.

Russia's military is also overseeing voting in the "new territories" — regions that Moscow claims to have annexed from Ukraine in 2022 but still does not fully control.

Election experts say that, collectively, the moves simply provide regional authorities an expanded arsenal for vote rigging in order to deliver the Kremlin the numbers it craves.

Roman Udot, a veteran Russian election analyst, describes the whole drama as an "act of despair" by underlings tasked with cheating.

"They have numbers, but not actual support. And they have to present these numbers to their superiors," Udot says.

"It's like in communist times. It's just make-believe."

And yet tracking voting irregularities provides its own set of challenges.

The Kremlin has banned the work of Golos, the country's most prominent citizen election-monitoring group. The organization's co-chairman, Grigory Melkonyants, currently sits in a Moscow jail.

Russia's presidential election commission also declined to invite election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Russia's Foreign Ministry argued as justification for the decision that the organization has a "politicized approach to assessing electoral situations."

"We will no longer tolerate criticism of our democracy and claims that it is not the kind that it should be," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a recent appearance.

"Our democracy is the best, and we will continue to build it."

But Putin's popular, right?

By any metrics of a Western politician, yes. But Russia isn't a Western-style democracy.

Putin's approval ratings remain sky high — 86%, according to February's poll by the independent Levada Center — even as critics question how meaningful those figures are in an increasingly autocratic state.

Yet the president clearly has his supporters, particularly among older Russians who see appeal in Putin's mix of Soviet nostalgia, imperialist nationalism and conservative values.

And this election season, Putin has tried to expand that base, including by promising new investments in education, infrastructure and health care in his annual state of the nation address last month.

Helping pad out the numbers, analysts say, the president relies on state-affiliated corporations to deliver him votes, with managers demanding that employees show evidence of their ballots.

And though critical discussion of the war in Ukraine is stifled, Russia's war economy has created jobs and boosted some people's standard of living by injecting government spending into once-moribund factories.

A fifth term for Putin ... is that even legal?

Tricky one.

Putin has effectively been in power — as either president or caretaker prime minister — since 1999.

Constitutional changes passed in 2020 laid the legal groundwork for him to remain in office since then. The reforms limited the Russian presidency to two six-year terms, with one important caveat: Past presidential terms no longer counted.

The change meant Putin, 71, could in theory remain in office through 2036, when he will be 83.

Leading Kremlin critics — including political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza — argue that such constitutional maneuvering should make Putin illegitimate in the eyes of the democratic world. Ukraine's government has joined in those calls.

Gallyamov, the analyst, says Western governments are watching closely.

"The fight is whether, after the election, Putin [will be] considered the person who is representing the nation — or the person who stole the election from the nation," says Gallyamov.

"Is he [seen] as a popular leader or a usurper and a tyrant?"

But there is competition, right?

Well, yeah. Sort of.

The Kremlin's system of "managed democracy" doesn't exclude competition so much as groom it carefully.

Putin's opponents are members of official parties in Russia's Duma. All have routinely rubber-stamped policies of the Kremlin leader they claim to want to unseat.

The Communist Party's candidate has vowed not to criticize Putin outright. A competitor from the nationalist Liberal Democratic bloc promised not to try to take away votes from the president.

Another candidate, from the marginally progressive New People party, makes vague calls for peace but faces rumors he's a Kremlin ploy to legitimize the vote.

Meanwhile, Russia's Central Election Commission barred explicitly anti-war candidates — such as Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova — from the ballot on registration technicalities.

And Putin's fiercest critic, the opposition leader Navalny, died just four weeks before the vote in a remote Arctic prison camp under still-unexplained circumstances.

How will the opposition respond?

Protests in Russia are outlawed, and authorities have displayed ruthless crackdowns on dissent amid the war in Ukraine.

Yet tens of thousands of people defied threats of arrest to turn out for Navalny's funeral — suggesting Russia's opposition is far from moribund.

Navalny's widow, Yulia Navalnaya, has now called on Russians angry over her husband's death and the Ukraine war to come out in a show of symbolic strength — gathering at polling stations at noon on Sunday.

To adherents, the "Noon Against Putin" potential flash mobs promise to undermine the visual legitimacy of the vote and put authorities in a bind.

Fifteen days before he died, Navalny asked on social media:

"Will they close the polling stations at 12 noon? Will they organize an action in support of Putin at 10 a.m.? Will they register everyone who came at noon and put them on the list of unreliable people?"

Yet the plan could fizzle and has little direct impact on the vote.

What does this mean for the war in Ukraine?

The more than two-year war will grind on for now.

The Kremlin is expected to paint the election landslide as the public's endorsement of a war that Putin falsely portrays as a defense of the homeland.

Yet public fatigue with the conflict is increasingly visible.

Families of civilians mobilized for the war effort in 2022 are demanding that the president bring their loved ones home from the front.

Whispers of incompetency among Putin's top brass still linger as the numbers of dead and injured grow.

A new independent poll suggests that a large majority of Russians — 75% — would endorse Putin signing a peace agreement "tomorrow."

Whatever the final tally of Putin's election victory, the war's cost in lives and treasure may come to define the Russian leader's place in history — no matter how long he remains in power.

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