President Vladimir Putin has always made expert use of puppets. These are regime-friendly politicians who, at the Kremlin’s behest or with its blessing, pose as opposition candidates but never stray into genuinely challenging territory. This system has existed for a long time — at least since Mr. Putin’s first re-election in 2004 — and has always worked perfectly: It maintains the facade of Russia’s imitation democracy. But in the run-up to the presidential election in March, the…


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