The blunt political reality is that Vladimir Putin needed to cheat, even just to get the "sharply reduced majority" that is the official result of the Russian Parliamentary election. When we blow away the fog of the 99.9% results in some parts of the country, it is quite clear that United Russia lost the election.
The problem now is, what comes next?
There have been the largest street protests for many years in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and - as usual, these have been broken up by the thuggish internal security service. The future of Russia is not likely, in the short term, to be determined on the snowy streets of Moscow. However, there is no doubt that the weakness of United Russia opens up some serious future problems for Vladimir Putin' s bid for the Presidency.
In classic authoritarian style, Putin is likely to try to prevent any credible opposition leader from standing against him, yet the weakness of United Russia may entice a few of the opposition leaders to stand regardless. In which case, Putin will seek to divide the opposition by encouraging many more candidates. Yet Putin may be losing his sure political touch. His tin ear on the job swap between President and Prime Minister is a significant part of what has got him into serious trouble in the first place. His instincts remain firmly authoritarian, at a point in his regime where he needs to be more flexible in order to avoid real political challenges.
Putin can now expect little from the West. His failure to engage with the US after they publicly sought to "reset" relations with Moscow now means that he is internationally isolated. He has lost such Western leaders as Berlusconi, Chirac or Schroder from the previous generation who were prepared to intercede in his interest. Although Russia has often voted with China on such subjects as support for the Libyan or Syrian uprisings (against both), all he ended up doing was making an ineffectual protest and being ignored.
The global economic and financial crisis has hurt Russia too, and although it has become customary to talk of BRIC states as the rising future, Russia has been losing political influence and economic cohesion over the past few years. Adding political instability into the mix makes the Putin regime a pretty unappealing partner- and the Chinese already barely bother to hide their lack of respect for Moscow.
In the short run it seems that Putin can hold power, at least until he is formally returned to the Presidency. Then, however, his problems may seriously begin. Another obviously fraudulent election will severely weaken his political legitimacy, and although history shows authoritarianism can survive on force alone for some time, the examples of the Arab rebellions are being widely discussed in Russian chat rooms. Putin and Mubarak, and their countries, have much in common, and continuing to impose his rule without consent could easily lead to the violent collapse that Russians most fear.
The bigger problem for Putin is that he rides a tiger already, in the shape of the various contending "bizness" groups which comprise his regime. Without the legitimacy of a popular mandate, he will find it far more difficult to control disputes as they arise. The implication is that the foundations of the regime, resting on the criminal theft of billions of state assets could be undermined from within as well as by popular pressure.
From the point of view of the West, there is ever less point in engaging with Moscow, and while tens or even hundreds of thousands of the Russian middle class now prepare to leave, we can not avoid the increasingly high probability that Putin's shelf life could be down to far less than the period of his next Presidential term. A backlash is already brewing. The crushing corruption, brutality and criminality that have become the hallmarks of the Putin era may now, finally be sowing the seeds of popular rebellion.
The problem is that the future may be even less stable, and could be far more difficult to cope with than the cantankerous Putinistas.