Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party must feel embarrassed.

Despite the widespread electoral fraud and corruption marking the months leading up to the parliamentary election on December 4, United Russia lost its two thirds super-majority in the Duma (the Russian parliament), gaining only a slim majority instead—about 50 percent, or 238 seats out of 450, according to the Russian Electoral Commission.

The Communist party came second, with almost 20 percent of the vote, or 92 seats.

The results are not altogether surprising given the trends in Russia in the recent months. The implications of this election could be a cause for concern for the United States and the West, who should pay close attention to Russia in the coming months.

Putin will still most likely win the upcoming March presidential election (his polling numbers, while slipping, show he remains the most popular politician in Russia), but it will be harder for him to rule. The question is, how will Putin respond? Will he choose the path of reform in the face of economic trouble and a stronger civil society, or will he lean towards even stronger authoritarianism domestically and more hostility to the United States and the West? The more likely outcome, unfortunately, is the latter.

Putin is used to top-down rule, and he prefers to respond to opposition with force. He is not an ideologist. He simply wants to stay in power, and he now feels threatened that this power will be taken away from him.

While more and more Russians now demand reform, this demand often carries aggressive nationalistic attitudes, hostile to the West, so there would be little incentive for United Russia to take a different path both domestically and internationally.

Putin and United Russia will therefore likely continue to distance themselves from the United States and the West, and push the nationalist buttons to gain more public support—a public that has traditionally been all too eager for anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric. 

This would mean that Putin will also likely push more for his Eurasian Union idea, in an effort to recreate a (barely) post-Soviet space and reassert Russia’s influence with its neighbors and create a counterbalance to NATO and the West in the region.

For the United States and the West, cooperation is likely be more difficult on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, Syria, and possibly the Northern Distribution Network to Coalition forces in Afghanistan that is now much more important in light of deteriorating relations between the United States and Pakistan.

On the domestic side, Putin will likely respond by decreasing transparency even further and increasing repression of the opposition.

In light of this, it is now more important than ever for the United States and the West to encourage reforms in Russia: to push for democracy, human rights, and for allowing meaningful opposition to develop to create an alternative to the prevailing anti-Western rhetoric. This would allow the public’s frustration with the ruling party to instead be channeled towards reforms that will help Russia develop and benefit from Western values. This would also show those in Russia who support the West that they are not alone, that the West supports them.

Putin and United Russia have been steadily losing public support according to polls in the recent months. This indicates that the ground could be fertile for a push for such reforms from the West. The Russians are cynical and disillusioned by pervasive corruption and a slipping economy. They are pessimistic about their future and those who can afford it increasingly send their children abroad, and think about moving there themselves. The election results are a reflection of these attitudes.

Although opposition parties were largely blocked from participating in this election, and those who were allowed to participate were strictly limited and monitored in their communication with the voters, United Russia still lost many votes. This is significant. Had this been a true election, it is possible to conclude that United Russia could have lost its majority in the Duma altogether.

Following the results of the elections, at least 5,000 Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Monday, shouting, “Down with Putin.” This was one of the biggest protests in Russia in recent years and significant in a country where the population is historically apathetic and protests are rare.

The opposition in Russia is currently weak and disorganized. That the Communist party won such a large number of the votes is likely a reflection of dissatisfaction with United Russia, and a desire for an alternative, rather than support for the Communist party itself.

The corruption and cronyism that have marked Putin and United Russia’s rule for now more than a decade have taken their toll. The results of the Duma elections are a clear indicator of growing unrest. The United States and the West should pay attention, stay engaged, and push for meaningful democratic reform in Russia.

Anna Borshchevskaya is the assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Patriciu Eurasia Center.