SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Russia goes to the polls tomorrow in an election that will, almost beyond doubt, bring about a fourth term for Vladimir Putin as president. This vote comes as Russia deals with the largest expulsion of its diplomats from the U.K. in decades. It has responded with its own expulsion of British envoys.
And this week, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Russian organizations for what it called malicious cyberattacks. Andrew Roth is Moscow bureau chief at The Guardian, and he joins us now. Mr. Roth, thanks for being with us.
ANDREW ROTH: Thank you.
SIMON: What's the political atmosphere like in Moscow on the eve of this election?
ROTH: I think that, you know, pretty much everybody knows that Vladimir Putin has the election. So now the only real interest toward the election is how many people are actually going to come out to vote. You know, this is more or less a referendum on Putin's leadership and on how people feel about the direction of the country at the moment.
And I think the Kremlin is really focused. At the moment, it's making sure that, you know, if they can't get 70 percent turnout, which was their original desire, they can at least get, you know, more than 62 or 63 percent, which is what Putin got in 2012. So it's a numbers game, and I think that, more or less, the people are, you know, falling, but they're not going to be surprised, really, by what happens tomorrow.
SIMON: What kind of attention have some opposition figures been able to rouse during the election?
ROTH: Yeah, there's been some sort of attention from opposition figures - from anyone who's not actually involved in the elections, not been allowed to run. There's Alexei Navalny. He's called for a boycott of the election polls. He recently very clearly has said that they're focusing right now on turnout. That's sort of where the big conflict is going to be happening.
And the other big question is about, you know, these sort of opposition figures who are involved in the elections. Ksenia Sobchak is the main figure, and it's not clear how much her candidacy is false - Kremlin-approved and Kremlin-initiated. You know, we know that she's been allowed to run in these elections, but there's always a sort of - a little bit of a court game being played with just how much the Kremlin wanted her to be involved so that there would be more interest in these elections overall.
You know, it's been the same cast of characters for the last 20 - 24 years, so people are starting to get a little bit tired of the same faces, and the idea is that some opposition-ish (ph) figures get brought in to kind of - to make it a little bit more exciting.
SIMON: And the story that's drawn so much attention in the West, of course, the apparent poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil, the expulsion of Russian diplomats and now today's expulsion of British diplomats from Moscow. Is this a big story in Russia?
ROTH: Yeah. It's a huge story in Russia, and I think what's so surprising about it is how excited everybody is to talk about it, especially Russian politicians who want to be seen as patriotic. You know, if you watch television, I think that the line could - I think could be described as, we didn't poison him, and he deserved it because if you see what Russians are kind of saying about the case, you know, they do talk a lot about, you know, the fact that he was a traitor, the fact that he betrayed 150 GRU assets.
But they, at the same time, really have to, you know, push hard against the words any time that there's any kind of threat to Russia. In terms of these accusations, the Russian knee-jerk reaction is to respond back. You know, we've been living in this kind of rhetorical conflict or, you know, sanctions conflict and almost hot conflict with the West for the last three or four years, with Ukraine, with the U.S. elections and this just feels sort of like the sequel to both.
SIMON: Putin poisoned him, and he deserved it. That's what you're hearing?
ROTH: I mean, if you turn on television quite often, that's what people are saying. You know, basically, you can't watch any of the main television shows, especially the evening television shows. They'll start off by refuting the evidence, saying that the poison could've come from any other country rather than Russia because it could've leaked out. But at the same time, you know, (unintelligible) in London is kind of also a little bit of a coy statement about the fact that there's a lot of Russians there, and they should watch their backs.
SIMON: Andrew Roth of The Guardian, thanks so much.
ROTH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.