In the end, the outcome of the Russian presidential election was as predictable as it was depressing. Vladimir Putin won, with an official tally of nearly 64 percent of the vote—more than enough to spare him the dreaded runoff—amid charges of widespread fraud at the ballot box. The question remains whether this is a lasting defeat for freedom in Russia or a last and ephemeral victory for Putinism.

Given the lack of a credible opposition candidate who could unify even a sizable minority of the electorate, Putin’s victory was always assured. (It might have been a different story if the discontent that followed last December’s parliamentary vote had come a year or even six months before the presidential election—enough time, perhaps, for such a candidate to arise and mount a strong effort to get on the ballot.) Nonetheless, the Kremlin was clearly nervous about the prospect of Putin’s falling short of the 50-percent mark—something that would have been perceived, regardless of the final outcome, as a stunning vote of no confidence. Indeed, the tenor of Putin’s campaign for reelection was sometimes positively apocalyptic.

In a televised debate on February 13, pro-Putin filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov earnestly warned that “anyone voting against Putin today is voting against Russia’s statehood, against her future.” Putin himself struck a similarly dramatic note when he addressed a throng of supporters at Moscow’s Luzhniki sports arena later that month. Quoting from the classic 19th-century poem “Borodino” by Mikhail Lermontov, a tale of the decisive battle between Napoleon’s army and Russian forces, he declared that “the battle for Russia continues” and hailed the attendees as “defenders of the Motherland.”

For all the strident rhetoric, genuine popular enthusiasm was largely lacking. The pro-Putin rallies were heavily packed with public employees as well as hired extras (some of whom apparently got stiffed: YouTube videos showed “demonstrators” upset because their contact had not shown up with the promised cash). Meanwhile, in a minor scandal, hacked emails from a leader of Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, showed that the group had been paying people to attend rallies and post on political forums and blogs.

In a particularly tacky Putin campaign commercial that became an Internet hit, a pretty girl told a fortune-teller that she wanted to “do it for love” because “this is my first time,” and then gasped with joy when the cards revealed Putin as her man. “It will be for love, and without deception,” the fortuneteller assured Miss First Time. The reality was quite different. Putin love seemed in short supply (in October, even before the winter of Russia’s discontent, only 3 percent of Russians polled by the Levada Center said they “admired” Putin, while 24 percent “liked” him) —and deception, by all accounts, was rampant.

A record number of voters in this election received slips permitting them to vote in a district other than their residence. In practice, this often allows multiple votes if the poll worker does not collect the slip—or if the voter is given more than one. This form of vote-rigging is colloquially known as “the carousel,” and many observers say that it was spinning at full force, with busloads of nonresident voters making the rounds of precincts. There were also cases— reported in the media, confirmed by election monitors, and in some instances caught on video—of ballot boxes being stuffed with sheaves of ballots premarked for Putin.

But did Putin steal the election, or just pad his victory margin? Probably the latter, most Putin critics reluctantly agree. An independent analysis by the League of Voters, a civic group formed in January which includes leading opposition figures and anti-election-fraud activists, concluded that Putin’s actual share of the vote nationwide was around 53 percent—well short of the official landslide, but a comfortable win.

The opposition for the moment is licking its wounds. On March 5, an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 protesters gathered on Pushkin Square to repeat the call for fair elections. While such a turnout would have been a huge success six months ago, it was far short of the 150,000 attending rallies in the past three months, a dramatic drop that was, to many, dispiriting.

Opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny tried to sound upbeat as he addressed the crowd: “We are the power! We’ll teach them to respect the law! We will come out into the streets and the squares and we will not leave!” But his promises struck a hollow note. At the end of the permitted rally, people began to disperse and the riot police arrived. Demonstrators who would not leave were forcibly ejected from the square; many, including journalists, were shoved and clubbed, and one female activist suffered a fractured arm. About 250 people, including Navalny, were briefly detained (in St. Petersburg, arrests numbered 300 to 450). Elsewhere in Moscow, an attempt to form a human ring of protest around the Kremlin, as activists had done on two occasions during the winter, fizzled early.

“One or two more pointless and hysterical events like the Pushkin Square rally, and the opposition will squander all of its gains,” liberal commentator Nikolai Svanidze wrote in the Internet magazine The editors of the Internet daily, strongly critical of the Kremlin, concluded that the movement for fair elections had lost momentum as a result of the widespread acknowledgment that the ballot box fraud, however extensive, had not altered the election result. “The carnival of protest is over,” they wrote, urging the opposition to channel its energy instead into the prosaic day-to-day tasks of reforming laws that hobble political activity in Russia.

And yet the 2012 election cannot be regarded as a total loss for the opposition. Putin suffered at least one defeat—one without practical consequences, but major symbolic or psychological weight: Even by the official count, he received only 47 percent of the vote in Moscow. Perhaps this accounts for the startling humility in the pro-government press, whose commentary often sounded no more optimistic than the opposition’s.

Thus, Izvestia columnist Maksim Sokolov noted that most Putin voters were choosing “the devil they know” and giving the regime one last chance; if it did not justify this grudging trust, Sokolov warned, it would fall. In the same paper, Andrei Ilnitsky, a top functionary of the ruling United Russia party, wrote that the pre-2012 system of governance could not continue and that without more open and competitive politics, Russia might join Belarus in its authoritarian mire and international isolation. Ilnitsky welcomed the growth of pro-democracy, pro-market parties and urged United Russia to modernize.

Of course, this could amount to mere talk. It remains to be seen whether Dmitry Medvedev’s lame-duck initiative to remove barriers (created during the first Putin presidency) to the registration of independent parties will translate into genuine reform or more Potemkin politics. Today, at least, the opposition has leaders with real influence. Navalny is one; another intriguing figure is tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, the election’s only liberal candidate, who came in third (after Putin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov) with over 8 percent of the vote—up from early polls that gave him 1 percent. The unofficial analysis by the League of Voters has Prokhorov placing second, with 16 percent. While many Russian liberals were disappointed by Prokhorov’s willingness to concede the election and meet with Putin the next day, he also appeared at the opposition rally, where he promised to “fight for a free country where our citizens will vote based on dignity rather than fear.”

As for the once and future president himself, many are wondering how his third term will differ from the first two and whether his weakened support will make him more flexible or more aggressive, both toward the opposition and toward the West. Putin’s language, so far, suggests the latter: He and his cronies have repeatedly fallen back on portraying dissenters as tools of the West, with particularly strident attacks on U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, a serious scholar of Russia and the Soviet Union. Nor did Putin tone down his rhetoric after the vote. At his victory rally, he denounced “political provocations that had only one goal: to cause the collapse of the Russian state and usurp power.”

At the moment, Putin is biding his time. Whether the opposition manages to stay unified and focused will no doubt influence his course. So will the Western response. A strong message that a new wave of repression would cost Russia its ego-stroking and profitable foreign friendships will go a long way toward ensuring that Russia’s newly awakened civil society is not crushed as it takes its first steps.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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