20 years under Putin: a timeline

President Vladimir Putin has seen his approval rating reach a record-high of 89 percent in recent months, riding a wave of so-called “patriotic mobilization” triggered by Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. But are Russians truly enthusiastic about Putin’s policies, or are they merely passive supporters? Donald Jensen, resident fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, analyzes the situation and finds that public support for the Kremlin may be broad but not strong.


Vladimir Putin is supposedly riding a wave of “patriotic mobilization” over the war in eastern Ukraine, but public displays of support for the regime have been limited. Above, an activist hands out patriotic banners during a May Day rally on May 1, 2010. Photo: © Dimaberkut | Dreamstime.com


The surge of popular support for Vladimir Putin since Russia’s annexation of Crimea has often been attributed to the vaguely defined phenomenon of “patriotic mobilization,” a rallying of the people to his leadership in the face of a threat to the nation, imagined or not. In contrast to Putin’s previous "mobilization peaks“—during the second war against Chechnya in the early 2000s, the “war” against the oligarchs in 2004, and the invasion of Georgia in 2008—Putin’s stratospheric approval rating this time is all the more impressive, according to expert Kirill Rogov, because it comes at a time of negative economic trends and expectations. Some Kremlin strategists believe, according to Rogov, that the boost Putin has received as a result of his successful ability to play the role of savior and protector of the nation will guarantee him another decade of “stability” as the country’s leader.

Although there has indeed been a sharp intensification of the patriotic mood in Russia since Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, the evidence suggests that a genuine “mobilization” of Russian society has not occurred. A mobilized population is one that takes action, participates in rallies, volunteers, and self-organizes over a variety of issues, as we see in many Western countries and in Ukraine. This does not usually happen in Russia, where society is largely atomized and lacks horizontal ties. In a recent article, Levada Center expert Stepan Goncharov noted that Russians are more an “audience” than an actor in Russian politics. The population plays the role of “passive observer” and participates largely via its “ceremonial approval” of the authorities in elections.

The situation surrounding the Ukraine crisis demonstrates a lack of true political mobilization over the issue. While public opinion polls have found that Russians strongly supported the annexation of Crimea and that they view the West with suspicion, their support for the government is passive. Advocates of Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine expected more volunteer soldiers from Russia than actually appeared—former separatist leader Igor Strelkov complained that not enough people showed up to fight and noted that a lot of people stayed at home, sat on the couch, and drank beer. The Kremlin appears to agree with Strelkov’s evaluation, since it has turned instead to reluctant active-duty servicemen “on leave” to bolster separatist forces.

The authorities seek to encourage popular passivity, moreover, since a genuine patriotic mobilization could pose a threat. Putin has repeatedly warned about the dangers of nationalism, including in his Valdai appearance last October and at a Security Council meeting in November. The members of the “couch army” whom Strelkov disparaged are the ideal voters for the Kremlin: they do not engage in political activity until a bus appears outside their homes to “mobilize” them by taking them to the polls and then bringing them back. One of the few segments of the population that has shown it can actually mobilize has been the so-called “non-systemic” opposition, which the regime has sought to suppress.

Evidence suggests that the regime has grounded its legitimacy less on patriotic mobilization than on the shakier ground of mere mass sentiment.

The authorities are wary of spontaneous or uncontrolled mass action anywhere in society, not just among the opposition. The Kremlin moved up the date of the next State Duma elections from winter 2016 to early fall 2016—meaning the campaign will take place mostly in the summer, while many people are on vacation—in part to keep the turnout low. It has tried to hide Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine out of concern for the possibility of popular protests. The authorities have repeatedly indicated that they would view combatants in Ukraine as potential troublemakers if they returned home to Russia—indeed, there have been reports of disturbances and crimes associated with returning fighters. The Kremlin has forced field commanders in eastern Ukraine who cannot be managed, like Strelkov, to leave. Others have suffered a worse fate—Alexei Mozgovoi of the “Ghost” brigade was killed, and may have been assassinated.

At the same time, the Kremlin is seeking to channel popular emotions and feelings in a way that is safe for the regime. The ill-defined “conservative idea,” which the regime offers as a substitute for an actual ideology, is used by the elite to keep individuals subordinate to the state. In June, Putin opened a $368 million theme park near Moscow, a “military Disneyland,” which is to become an important part of what the authorities call “military-patriotic work with young people.” The government is also considering establishing a media holding company that would promote the music of patriotic Russian artists. The authorities occasionally organize mass political events, but these are infrequent and usually involve payment or some other incentive to participate. Even in such apparently safe instances, however, the authorities appear nervous that officially sponsored actions could get out of hand. This is probably one reason the Kremlin has done little to organize mass rallies in support of the separatist cause in Ukraine.

Just as noteworthy as the lack of real mobilization are signs that the patriotic fervor may be cooling. For instance, a Levada Center poll earlier this year posed a series of questions about Russia and Ukraine: Are Russians and Ukrainians one or two peoples? Does Moscow have the responsibility to protect ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics? Should Russia stay within its current boundaries? In each case, support for the “imperial” response has declined over the last year. The percentage of respondents who say Russia should use force to control the former Soviet republics has stayed the same in recent months (23%) but decreased by a third since 2009. The “imperial” response rose only with regard to one question, regarding people’s willingness to endure economic sacrifice in order to pay for the integration of Crimea. In March 2014, according to Levada Center analyst Denis Volkov, 48 percent of Russians favored annexing the Donbass and 75 percent favored invading it. Today, those numbers are 15 and 45 percent respectively. In a separate poll asking what Russians are most concerned about, 59 percent of respondents said domestic issues (implying material well-being, education, health care and pensions), although they also told pollsters that they support Putin’s foreign policy.

Leon Aron has written that “the present Russian regime, which cannot modernize and for which a modicum of institutional reform might prove fatal to its hold on power, has staked its legitimacy on patriotic mobilization.” Among “the many dangers,” he writes, “is the necessity of feeding the beast with an ever increasing supply of fresh meat, the bloodier the better.” The evidence suggests, however, that the regime has grounded its legitimacy less on patriotic mobilization than on the shakier ground of mere mass sentiment. Putin may indeed initiate other provocations to renew the wave of patriotism. Such efforts, however, would appear to be less likely than in the past to divert popular attention away from other pressing issues, such as declining standards of living, even as people remain reluctant to express their concerns over the pressing issues by taking to the streets.