20 years under Putin: a timeline

A recent public opinion poll said that President Vladimir Putin had attained a record-high approval rating of 89 percent, despite Russia’s massive economic slump and tense relations with the West. But according to Donald Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, this rating masks a more complex reality when it comes to Russians’ political attitudes and Putin may be more vulnerable than it seems.


Despite the constant emphasis on Putin’s high rating, the evidence suggests that Putin’s support may be smaller, less intense, and more volatile than it appears. Photo: Reuters


President Vladimir Putin enjoys the approval of a staggering 89 percent of the Russian public, according to a poll published by the widely respected Levada Center on June 24. This rating is a record for Putin, whose popularity has soared this year despite the war in Ukraine at Russia’s border, economic troubles due to the decline in oil prices and Western sanctions, and little progress on economic reform. By contrast, according to the poll, only 66 percent of the public supports Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Sixty-four percent of respondents said Putin was the politician they trusted most, and the second most-trusted man in the country, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, trailed far behind Putin at 28 percent. The results also found that 64 percent of respondents approved of the direction the country is moving under Putin, up 4 percent from May.

Such impressive popular support for Putin is a key source of legitimacy for a system with weak institutions, a passive civil society, and poor fidelity to the rule of law. A high rating not only justifies the regime’s authoritarianism but also gives Putin a personal mandate to rule, which is a decisive edge in the cutthroat arena of elite politics, where it protects him from a palace coup. In order to maintain power, therefore, it is vitally important for Putin and his entourage to keep the president’s approval rating high. The Kremlin does this by taking actions that address society’s concerns (so long as they do not threaten Putin’s grip on power), mobilizing the populace on behalf of the leader’s agenda, and using its control of the media to shape public views of Putin. “Faith in the rating supersedes all. Political institutions, ideologies, in fact, the state itself,” political scientist Aleksandr Kynev said in a recent article. Putin and his image makers no doubt remember the systemic crisis of the late 1990s that accompanied the rapid drop in Boris Yeltsin’s standing.

Putin may also be helped by the fact that some Russians, according to one recent study, think about political power differently than people in the West: Russians see the tsar as distant, almost sacral, hopefully benevolent, and above the law, not bound by it. They appeal to him to make things right in a system over which they have no control. Thus, when it is said that Putin’s ratings are “high,” it does not necessarily mean that the masses adore or even like the president, but that he is playing his role effectively.

Since he came to power, Putin’s popular support has largely been driven by public perceptions of the state of the economy. During his first two terms, Russians gave him credit for their steadily increasing standard of living, with Putin’s approval rating reaching a peak of 88 percent in 2008 (until now, when it reached a new peak of 89 percent). By 2011, however, Russians were more critical of the system. Their prosperity allowed them to be increasingly concerned about their long-term economic and social welfare—in the form of things like better healthcare and education—and the development of a more pluralistic, democratic set of political institutions. Some saw the Medvedev presidency as auguring systemic reform. Their hopes for change were dashed when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 and began to roll back civil liberties. By the end of 2013, according to one Levada poll, many Russians said they believed their country had entered a period of stagnation. Only 40 percent said they thought Russia was headed in the right direction.

This mood changed in early 2014, when national pride associated with the Sochi Olympics and the annexation of Crimea propelled Putin’s approval rating to historically high levels. The euphoria did not last long, however, as Russia was hit by an economic crisis resulting from the slump in oil prices, Western sanctions, and the economy’s longstanding inefficiencies. But rather than declining again, as many experts expected, the president’s popularity has remained high. Most Russians, spurred by the regime’s campaign of patriotic mobilization against the West and in support of separatists in Ukraine, now back Putin because they believe he is protecting them from external threats and has made Russia into a great power again.

Putin’s political future—and, indeed, the political stability of the system as a whole—thus will be determined to a significant degree by whether his popular standing begins to drift significantly downward in the coming months, either as the patriotic fervor resulting from the invasion of Ukraine fades or economic problems mount.

Despite the constant emphasis on Putin’s high rating, the evidence suggests that Putin’s support may be smaller, less intense, and more volatile than it appears, however.

First, the intensity of Putin’s support varies by constituency. Since Russia has many competing “publics” with many different opinions, “opinion” in Russia tends to be uninformed and unstable on all but a few general questions, just as it is in other countries. It also tends to be sensitive to the way survey questions are worded. Many poll respondents undoubtedly say they support Putin due to fear of the consequences of publicly criticizing him, or because of the perceived futility of going against a popular majority that the regime constantly proclaims is overwhelming. With the political space scrubbed clean of serious challengers, it is easier simply to express support for the president.

Second, Putin’s backing is apparently narrower than it seems. Political scientist Aleksandr Kynev points out that while Putin’s ratings are often presented as 80+ percent of “all Russians,” his support can be interpreted as being significantly smaller depending on the poll question. In a March poll that asked Russians who they would vote for in a new presidential vote, only 54 percent named Putin (a sizeable portion of those surveyed said they were undecided). Moreover, despite general support across the board for the annexation of Crimea, Putin has not fully won over all subsections of society.

There is one such group in particular that is important out of proportion to its numbers and that is more likely than others to push for democratic change: educated Russians working in the private sector who are 40-50 years of age and espouse European values (even while agreeing with the annexation of Crimea). The number of potentially active supporters in this group is comparable to what it was in 2011, according to political analyst Aleksandr Shmelyov. These people are concentrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other large cities, where they could have a disproportionate influence on the future of the regime.

Finally, the Kremlin’s ability to shape Putin’s image through the control of information is less effective than in the past. Although the broadcast media praises the president incessantly and pays little attention to any figure who might be a potential political threat, the costs of maintaining Putin’s popularity in the face of Russia’s economic problems and invasion of Ukraine have increased.

Putin’s political future—and, indeed, the political stability of the system as a whole—thus will be determined to a significant degree by whether his popular standing begins to drift significantly downward in the coming months, either as the patriotic fervor resulting from the invasion of Ukraine fades or economic problems mount. “It is not possible to live in euphoria or under threat all the time,” said Sergei Ivanov, head of Putin’s presidential administration, in a Financial Times interview earlier this month. On the one hand, the current popular mobilization over Ukraine has lasted far longer than previous spikes in public opinion when the government harnessed patriotic sentiment to consolidate support—in 1999 over the NATO operation in Serbia, in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, or in 2008 when Russia fought a war with Georgia. If Putin conducts an even more aggressive foreign policy, he could sustain his popularity for an indefinite period. But if a settlement to the Ukraine war is reached or the conflict becomes frozen, Putin’s rating will likely decrease as the importance of state-run propaganda diminishes and popular attention shifts back to domestic problems of the sort that caused street protests three years ago.

Any marked decline in Putin’s approval rating creates a threat to his power. As analyst Kirill Rogov has pointed out, when the president’s political prospects decline, the opposition becomes more visible and its level of loyalty starts decreasing, which the public perceives as a drop in the efficiency of the leader and the regime that he built. A decline in the leader’s popular support thus radically pushes up the cost of ensuring the loyalties of the elite.

Whatever the reality of his support at the moment, Putin appears so strong that both friends and enemies have said they cannot envision the country without him. Such myopia, however, does not seem to afflict the Kremlin itself. Talk in recent days of moving up the presidential vote (along with the State Duma elections) suggests that Putin may want to take advantage of his current high rating to gain reelection before the economy gets worse and his popularity slips. Armed with a renewed mandate, Putin would be constitutionally required to select a new government, which could undertake strategies that would prolong his rule. He thus might be able to reshuffle the faces of those in power—except, of course, for his own.