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With Russian President Vladimir Putin set for another election win this weekend, it’s unclear if he feels it’s time to calm or escalate Russia’s confrontation with the West. The fate of former Soviet republics may hang in the balance

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Ossetians walk past the monument to the Snow Leopard at the bridge over Terek river in Vladikavkaz, Russia, on March 16, 2018.Sergey Ponomarev

Lyudvig Chibirov will cast his ballot in Russia’s presidential election Sunday for Vladimir Putin, the man he calls the “liberator” of his people.

One more vote for Mr. Putin is unremarkable – the Russian leader is expected to easily win another six-year term over a field of mediocre candidates – but Mr. Chibirov was himself once the “president” of South Ossetia, a region most of the world views as part of the country of Georgia.

In a move critics see as a step toward a “soft annexation” of more former Soviet lands, almost the entire population of South Ossetia – roughly 50,000 people – is expected to vote in Russia’s election Sunday, as though the territory was just another part of the Russian Federation.

In many ways, it is. While the West has focused its concern on Ukraine – where Mr. Putin has already annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backed separatist militias that have taken over chunks of the country’s southeast – Russia has made a series of quieter moves that open the door to absorbing South Ossetia, as well as Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia.

Russia recognized the two territories as independent states after a brief but bloody war with Georgia in 2008. But that hardly seems to be the Kremlin’s end game: In the decade since the war, Russia has issued passports to about 90 per cent of the populations of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia (which has 240,000 residents), qualifying them to vote in Russian elections.

Russian military bases have been built on both territories, and Russia’s parliament passed a motion in January integrating South Ossetia’s tiny army into its own.

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While the West has focused its concern on Ukraine, Russia has made a series of quieter moves that open the door to absorbing South Ossetia, as well as Abkhazia, another breakaway region of Georgia.Trish McAlaster/The Globe and Mail

“Putin will probably not stop,” said Shota Utiashvili, a former adviser to the Georgian government, adding that Mr. Putin has become more authoritarian – and more unpredictable – the longer he has been in office. “Annexation [of South Ossetia and Abkhazia] is a serious threat.”

Like Crimea, which Mr. Putin annexed in 2014, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were once part of the Soviet Union, an empire whose demise Mr. Putin frequently bemoans.

How South Ossetians feel about the possibility of reunification with Russia – and how the territory is faring 10 years after the war there – proved impossible to verify first-hand. In an e-mail from the breakaway republic’s “ministry of foreign affairs,” The Globe and Mail was told that a reporting trip ahead of Russia’s presidential election would be “inexpedient.” No further explanation was offered.

But Mr. Chibirov was confident that a “massive majority” of South Ossetians would be voting for Mr. Putin on Sunday in the hope that he pushes the integration process even further.

“Being within Russia’s borders is the eternal dream of the South Ossetian people,” Mr. Chibirov said, sitting in his office at a cultural institute in the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Russian province of North Ossetia.

He said he hoped that Mr. Putin – in his fourth and theoretically final term as president – would decide the time was ripe to reunite the two Ossetias, which share a language, a culture and a flag. But the 86-year-old added a caveat: “It all depends on the geopolitical situation.”

That geopolitical situation is getting more complicated by the hour. Mr. Putin’s certain victory on Sunday will be overshadowed – at least in the West – by allegations that the Kremlin was behind a shocking nerve agent attack in the English city of Salisbury that left Sergei Skripal, a one-time Russian agent who sold information to Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, and his daughter in critical condition. A police officer who attended the scene remains in serious but stable condition.

On Wednesday, Britain announced it would expel 23 Russian diplomats from the country over the incident, and Prime Minister Theresa May has suggested that other measures could follow. The Kremlin, which denies any involvement in the attack, has vowed tit-for-tat retaliation.

The Skripal affair is the latest chapter in what feels increasingly like a second Cold War, a conflict that escalated four years ago with a pro-Western revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s subsequent move to seize Crimea. Russia and the West have been locked in a sanctions war ever since.

Russian troops are also on the ground in Syria, where their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad has pitted them against Western support for anti-government rebels and has raised the possibility of direct conflict there.

What’s unclear is whether Mr. Putin – as he perhaps considers his legacy, if this is indeed his final term in the Kremlin – feels it’s time to calm or escalate Russia’s confrontation with the West.

The fate of places such as South Ossetia – as well as Abkhazia and pro-Russian regions of Ukraine and Moldova, another former Soviet republic – may well hang in the balance.

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People sell greens at the market in Vladikavkaz, Russia.Sergey Ponomarev

South Ossetians drew hope – and many of Russia’s other neighbours felt a chill – on March 2 when Mr. Putin was asked during a televised question-and-answer session which historical event he’d most like to change.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union,” he replied immediately, drawing applause from a crowd of voters in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave wedged between the former Soviet republic of Lithuania and Poland, another country that Russia forced to adopt communism after the Second World War.

Mr. Putin’s quick reply suggested he’d been expecting the question. With polls suggesting he’ll win about 70 per cent of the vote on Sunday, the 65-year-old Mr. Putin has barely bothered to campaign, and his few rallies have been tightly scripted affairs.

Talk of restoring the USSR is popular. A December poll conducted by the independent Levada Centre found 58 per cent of Russians lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, up nine points from when the same question was asked around the 2012 presidential election.

Mr. Putin has helped encourage that sentiment throughout his 18 years in power, a time that has seen him restore the red star as the symbol of the Russian military and bring back the tune –with different words – of the Soviet national anthem. As the conflict with the West has deepened, he has also overseen an aggressive propaganda campaign highlighting the sacrifices and glory of Russia’s triumph over Nazi Germany.

To fit the theme, Russia’s enemies are again branded as fascists and Nazis, particularly the pro-Western government in Ukraine. Thus the annexation of Crimea has been portrayed as another victory over Nazism.

It’s no coincidence that Sunday’s vote will take place on the fourth anniversary of the day Mr. Putin signed the papers to formally “reunite” Crimea with the Russian Federation, nor that he capped off his campaign with an appearance in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol.

His two main rivals in the presidential race are Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, whose campaign is based on his competency as the boss of a Soviet-style collective farm, and ultranationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who usually supports Mr. Putin – while occasionally criticizing him for not going far enough in battling the West. Neither is expected to win more than 10 per cent of the vote.

There has been little in the way of real campaigning – and never any question who would win – particularly after the Central Election Commission barred Mr. Putin’s most effective critic, anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, from taking part.

The campaign’s most talked-about moment has been Mr. Putin’s March 1 state-of-the-union address, during which he appeared bored while laying out his government’s social and economic plans, only to grow animated as he spoke about the technological advances that the Russian military had made – notably an “invincible” intercontinental ballistic missile that he said would render the U.S.‘s anti-missile shield “useless.”

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union plays a role in many of Mr. Putin’s defining policies. Crimeans who voted in a controversial 2014 referendum on union with Russia spoke that day as though it was the Soviet Union they were rejoining rather than today’s Russia.

Similarly, South Ossetians recall the USSR with fondness and rue its breakup, which left their ethnic kin in Vladikavkaz and the rest of North Ossetia inside Russia, while South Ossetians woke up in Georgia.

“I don’t miss the Soviet Union, but I’m in the minority,” said Alexey Pukhaev, a 30-year-old journalist who was born in South Ossetia but now lives in Vladikavkaz. “There are many Ossetians who think even today that Stalin was a great leader.”

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A local woman walks outside Fiagdon male monastery, located in the valley bordering Russian North Ossetia and Georgia in Fiagdon.Sergey Ponomarev

One of the more significant accomplishments of Mr. Putin’s rule – even as it causes anxiety in the West – is how he has changed the external perception of Russia.

When he first stood for president in 2000 – supported by an ailing Boris Yeltsin – the predominant question was not whether Russia would seek to grab territory from its neighbours; it was whether Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, might fall into pieces, creating a nightmare scenario that Western diplomats referred to as “Yugoslavia with nukes.”

The fault line then was Chechnya, a Muslim region a two hours’ drive east of Vladikavkaz that won de facto independence from Russia after a brutal war in the early 1990s. There were fears – after Chechen militants attacked and captured a village in the neighbouring region of Dagestan in August, 1999 – that the entire Caucasus region was slipping out of the Kremlin’s grasp.

Mr. Yeltsin made Mr. Putin his prime minister on the same day as the Chechen attack on Dagestan, and the former KGB agent immediately went to war. By Jan. 1, 2000, Mr. Putin had replaced Mr. Yeltsin as President, and by the spring Russian troops had taken control of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital.

The “Yugoslavia with nukes” idea had faded, replaced by Western concerns over Mr. Putin’s willingness to use military force – and to disregard international norms as he did so – in crushing Russia’s enemies.

Today, Grozny’s main drag has been renamed Putin Avenue from Victory Avenue.

But victory in the Caucasus is far from assured. More trouble almost certainly lies ahead as some of the thousands of young men from Chechnya and Dagestan who travelled to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State and fight against Russian troops there have started to trickle home.

“Russian authorities, like authorities in other countries, are worried. Those who return from Syria will be completely changed people. They will be ideologically changed, and now they have huge military experience,” said Vadim Mukhanov, an expert on the Caucasus at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations.

Mr. Mukhanov said the calm Mr. Putin appears to have brought to Chechnya and the wider Caucasus region is undermined by the fact that it’s based on a system of personal loyalty to Mr. Putin.

“As long as Putin is here, the situation is fixed. When he goes away, we don’t know what will happen. It could all collapse.”

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A groom helps a bride as they pose for a photo in front of the Fiagdon male monastery.Sergey Ponomarev

Mr. Putin’s next war was over South Ossetia, a place few Westerners had heard of before fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian forces broke out in August, 2008.

Russian troops rapidly intervened and overwhelmed the small Georgian army, sweeping toward the capital, Tbilisi, while the world’s attention was distracted by the Olympics in Beijing. Appeals for the West to intervene on the behalf of Georgia – which, like Ukraine, had angered the Kremlin by seeking membership in NATO and the European Union –went unanswered.

A ceasefire was negotiated after five days of fighting, with Russian troops finally stopping less than 40 kilometres outside Tbilisi.

Though Dmitry Medvedev was Russia’s president at the time and Mr. Putin theoretically his subordinate as prime minister, Mr. Chibirov says it was always clear that Mr. Putin was in charge. (Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev swapped jobs in 2008 to get around a rule in Russia’s constitution limiting presidents to two consecutive terms. Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012.)

“Vladimir Putin is the man who liberated us,” Mr. Chibirov said. “Ossetians are eternally in debt to Russia.”

Mr. Chibirov’s narrative sticks close to the Kremlin’s version of events. Fascist forces were on the rise in Georgia, he said, which precipitated the war and forced Russia’s intervention to defeat the “neo-Nazis.”

Russia, however, was never a neutral party in the South Ossetian conflict. Irregular Russian troops fought alongside the rebels in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as they initially broke away from Georgia in the early 1990s. The two enclaves have given Moscow the ability to meddle in Georgian politics whenever the Kremlin has deemed it necessary, and the 2008 war effectively scuppered an effort by Georgia to move closer to the European Union and NATO.

That lever, analysts say, is the main reason Russia has not moved yet to annex South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

“The guys in the Kremlin can barely deal with Ukraine-related headaches – why add this small plot of land which they already effectively control?” said Olesya Vartanyan, a Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “Why not to keep it for [the] future, in case of more problems with the West, or Georgia suddenly becomes part of NATO?”

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A monk walks toward the entrance to the temple of the Fiagdon male monastery.Sergey Ponomarev

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Cows roam along the village road outside Fiagdon male monastery.Sergey Ponomarev

While no one doubts that Mr. Putin will win Sunday’s election, the question of what comes next will hang over Russia Monday morning. Will he really step aside at the end of his six-year term? If so, who – or what – will replace him?

It’s a question that has importance far beyond Russia’s borders. Leaders in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria and the West will be watching for clues to Mr. Putin’s next steps and how they might affect the geopolitical equation.

Is Mr. Putin planning to relinquish power to a handpicked successor? If so, will he or she be from the camp of hardliners within the Kremlin, who see Russia as locked in an inescapable clash of civilizations with the West? Or will it instead be one of Moscow’s ever-shrinking clutch of moderate politicians? There is also persistent talk that Mr. Putin may follow the example of China’s Xi Jinping and amend the constitution to remain in the top post after 2024.

“Russia without Putin in the post of president is not a good thing,” said Timur Ortabayev, the head of the United Russia party in North Ossetia. “Any person who comes after him would be subject to comparisons, and it would be very difficult for them.”

The early signals are that Russia and the world should prepare for more of the same. Mr. Putin has already declared that Mr. Medvedev will remain in the Prime Minister’s post, ruling out the early anointment of a successor. (Mr. Medvedev is seen in Moscow as an extension of Mr. Putin’s authority, not someone who could replace him if he decides to leave the political stage.)

Most analysts believe Mr. Putin will seek to find some way to retain ultimate power in the country – perhaps by creating a new and unelected post for himself – even if he decides to pass the presidency on to someone else.

“He might find a successor, or he could say that the successor of Putin is Putin,” said Andrey Kolesnikov, a political scientist at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “Everyone is trying to discern the future.”

That includes Russia’s worried neighbours. Embedded among them are 450 Canadian troops leading a NATO force in Latvia.

Giorgi Kandelaki, a prominent Georgian MP, said it was dismaying that 10 years after the Russian invasion of his country – and four years after the annexation of Crimea – the West was still debating how to deal with Putin’s Russia.

In that vacuum, Mr. Kandelaki said, “I think [Mr. Putin] will continue much of the same and go farther.”

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